Japan's Mesmerizing Fushimi-Inari Shrine

Is this the real "Stairway to Heaven"?

Fushimi Inari
The continuity of the Torii is almost mesmerizing. Robert Schrader

Japan is nothing, if not a country of contrasts: ancient with modern; natural with manmade; sophisticated with primitive. In the blink of an eye – or a one-hour Shinkansen ride, as it were – you can go from the neon heart of Tokyo, to the 8th-century temples of Nikko; from lush, sub-tropical Hiroshima, to barren, dune-y Tottori.

An even more dramatic example of this can be found less than five minutes from Kyoto's central station by train. Here sits Fushimi Inari Shrine, a collection of literally thousands of orange Torii gates built right into a forested mountainside. It's one of the most enchanting places in the world, to say nothing of its historical significance.

(Although I am going to say something about that, in just one second).

History of Fushimi Inari Shrine

Historians generally agree that the first Torii gate appeared at Fushimi Inari somewhere around the 8th century, and that the shrine's initial purpose was to honor Inari, the God of rice. Throughout Japanese history, however, the shrine has come to honor business in general.

These days, most of the thousands of gates that line the path from ground level to the top of the mountain were donated by Japanese businesses—which, if you read Japanese, you can see by reading the characters that adorn many of them.

Highlights of Fushimi Inari Shrine

The first thing you'll notice as you enter Fushimi Inari – well, besides the thousands of bright orange gates, which are both well-integrated and starkly contrasted with the surrounding forest – is many fox statues. Japanese mythology holds foxes as messengers, which is appropriate since one of the shrine's original non-spiritual purposes was as a safe storage place for written accounts of ancient Japanese history. It's unclear as to whether any of the accounts that made their way into the history books have been left within the torii, although it seems likely that many undiscovered ones are still hiding there.

Dozens of sub-temples and shrines exist as you walk up the more than two miles to the top of Mount Inari, which gives you dramatic panoramic views of Kyoto below. If you reach the top, a journey that takes at least two hours, you'll also notice seemingly countless prayer mounds, which draw literally millions of local tourists here each Japanese New Year. (Pro tip: You probably don't want to plan your own trip to Fushimi-Inari shrine around this time, unless the idea of having your photos polluted with tens of thousands of other people is appealing to you.)

How to Get to Fushimi Inari Shrine

Fushimi Inari shrine is located just southwest of Kyoto's city center. The easiest way to reach it is to take a local Nara line train from Kyoto's central station, which is also the most affordable option, particularly if you are using a JR Pass. Make sure you don't accidentally hop on an express or semi-express train, as these don't stop at small stations such as Inari station, and you will need to get off at one of the larger stations and wait for the next local train in the opposite direction: Plan well and avoid the hassle in the first place.

Another option, albeit a more expensive one, is to take a taxi to the shrine while, if the weather is nice, you could always walk from your hotel or ryokan in Kyoto. Kyoto is a city which, in addition to its dozens of officially-designated tourist attractions, has history around every corner, so you could easily stumble upon incredible treasures as you walk between the city and the Fushimi Inari Shrine, at least on your outbound journey – it might not be as exciting on the way back.

Or it might, given all the exciting things there are to see and do in Kyoto.