A torii gate like the one in the photo stands at the entrance to a Japanese Shinto shrine to symbolize the entering worshiper’s transition from the profane world to a sacred realm. In Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine, one of Japan’s most visited, more than 10,000 gates like it march up Mount Inari, which has been the scene of a shrine since the 8th century. Kyoto was an imperial city for centuries, and successful citizens donated torii gates to the complex to thank the kami, or spirit of the shrine, for success.
Across from the Nara Line’s Inari Station, Fushimi-Inari is the flagship of the Inari shrines. There are about 30,000 of them in Japan. The Shinto religion reportedly has 8,000,000 gods, but more than 1/3 of its shrines honor Inari. Once visitors get past the green-roofed Main Shrine, the crowd thins and the path through the ever-upward toriis enters forest that continues to the very top of the mountain, 764 feet above Kyoto. The twisting path is about a mile and 1/3 long and takes at least 2 hours to finish without much stopping. Serious walkers can get to Fushimi-Inari from the main Kyoto Station by foot, but that plus the mountain is quite a hike.
To the left of the main shrine are booths selling festival amulets and good luck charms. I watched students, all of whom seemed to be buying good luck symbols and attaching them to school bags to request success in test-taking. There were also row upon row of small plastic torri gates for sale, and scores of Japanese adults were buying and writing wishes for good health, wealth, etc. on them. Then they hung them on a hook with many others. The practice reminded me of Christians in cathedrals lighting candles. Ruth wrote family wishes on the one she bought and took it with her as a souvenir.
Stone foxes are on pedestals throughout the Fushimi-Inari complex. The Japanese find the fox a mysterious animal capable of possessing humans. Inari’s foxes usually have something in their mouths like a key to the rice supply or a scroll. Inari is the traditional god of the rice harvest and the fox is his, or her, messenger. Inari’s role is changing. He, or she, is now also the patron of business, family security, and traffic safety.
I eventually veered off from the regular path through the wooden toriis and found myself in a very old neighborhood with many graves and miniature shrines along an ancient stone-step street. It was culturally fascinating, as interesting as watching generations of Japanese purify themselves with water before entering the shrine’s more sacred areas or tossing coins in a box and grabbing a rope to ring a gong to summon Inari.
The 10,000 gates, a continuously thrilling sight, are described as vermillion, a color said to counteract spells, but some actually look more orange than red. Provided by worshippers and then neglected like tombstones in urban cemeteries and exposed to lots of rain, they must be maintenance nightmares. At one point I watched a workman painstaking restore one that had seriously deteriorated; and I thought as he descended his ladder, one down and 9,999 to go.