The path of torii

When sightseeing, we quite often visit sacred places, churches, monasteries, or shrines. After visiting many in a short period in our recollections, we usually confuse one with another. Unless we see something really unusual. If I had to make a recommendation of a place worth to visit, this one would be high on the shortlist. Oinari San, a sacred mountain you climb walking paths made of torii.

Oinari San or officially Fushimi Inari Taisha located in Fushimi-Ku in Kyoto (Japan) is the head shrine of Inari. Inari is a significant figure in Japanese mythology and folklore, and is also one of the most widely revered deities in Shintoism. Inari is primarily known as the god of rice, agriculture, and fertility, but is also associated with prosperity, business, and success in various endeavors. The deity is often depicted as a fox, which is believed to be Inari’s messenger or familiar. Foxes are considered sacred animals associated with Inari and are believed to possess supernatural abilities.

Fushimi Inari Taisha has a long and illustrious history. It was established in the 8th century during the Heian period and stands as one of Japan’s oldest and most significant Shinto shrines. Initially located at the base of Mount Inari, it was relocated to its present site at the mountain’s foot in the early 10th century. The shrine has undergone multiple reconstructions and expansions, with notable renovations taking place during the Kamakura period in the 13th century and the Edo period in the 17th century.

One of the shrine’s remarkable features is its extensive collection of torii gates, creating a network of trails that ascend the mountain. These gates, generously donated by individuals and companies, serve as expressions of gratitude for the blessings bestowed by the deity Inari. While the earliest torii gates date back to the 8th century, most of the gates were constructed during the Edo period and subsequent eras.

At one of the side gates (called torii) to the Oinari San.

The shrine consists of two parts: the lower one – pretty much similar to other shrines in layout and colours (mainly vermilion that is said to protect against evil forces), and the upper one – long corridors made of torii (vermilion, too) climbing a mountain, that represents a sacred space where the divine Inari is believed to reside or manifest its presence.

There are approximately ten thousand large and small torii that adorn the shrine grounds in Oinari San. They were donated through ages by worshipers as a thank to Inari for successful businesses or transactions, or other life achievements the deity could have taken care of. The act of donating a torii gate is seen as a form of spiritual devotion and an expression of faith. It is believed that by making these offerings, worshippers establish a deeper connection with Inari and seek continued blessings and protection. Each torii gate is typically inscribed with the name of the donor or a specific prayer or wish.

The giant torii form long corridors called the Senbon Torii path. The corridors of torii are broken from time to time either by smaller shrines or spots that look like cemeteries (although they are not). These shrines often have their own unique architectural style and feature smaller torii gates, statues, or sacred objects related to Inari or other deities. Visitors may pause at these shrines to offer prayers, make offerings, or simply take a moment of reflection in a more intimate setting.

A walk through all of the torii corridors takes more than two hours of climbing up and down the mountain. If you want to take photographs and walk all the side paths, you will need twice as much time.

The map looks quite simple. But the rows of 10-20 torii on it are in reality paths made of hundreds of them.

We arrived at Oinari San late around six local time and left around eight. Yet again we planned too much in our itinerary for that day. In the morning we were still in Kanazawa sightseeing one of the oldest Japanese gardens in the country. In the afternoon, already in Kyoto, we went to see the final procession of the Aoi Matsuri festival. Actually, we planned to visit Oinari San the next day. But with some time to spare after the parade ended, in a spur of the moment, we decided to speed up our itinerary. Initially, our plan was to visit Oinari San the following day, allowing for a more leisurely experience.

And I must say, it was far from a regrettable choice. We embarked to Oinari San under the late evening sky, that quickly changed into the night sky. It was too late to climb to the top. But as I now recall it, the most exciting part of this visit was going down the mountain beneath the colossal torii gates, enveloped in darkness, with only a scattering of lamps illuminating our path. It was a kind of experience one does not forget quickly. With only decent illuminations, the atmosphere was simply magical. The shrine’s serene ambience and the soothing sound of rustling leaves provided a respite. At this hour only seldom you meet other tourists or worshipers. The experience was great, in particular, that the place is very silent. It was just as many people to not feel secluded, but simultaneously not too many to contemplate this place. The atmosphere was captivating, striking a perfect balance between a sense of connection and a moment of personal contemplation.

The journey up the mountain begins on the left-hand side, while on the right, there is a basin for the purifying ritual. Adjacent to it, the main entrance to the shrine complex awaits, offering a space for visitors to pay their respects to Inari. I visited it after the descend from the mountain two hours after taking this photo making it – as I understand – the other way round as it should have been. The proper order would be to go through the cleansing ritual, cross the Romon Gate to prepare for the experience, and take the Senbon Torii path, up he mountain through the torii gates.

My path begins. It is 18:20 local time.

The first torii on the mountain path. When entering you barely suspect, how many torii you have ahead of you, stretching far into the distance.

Sometimes torii on the path get very dense. Through shadows you see only the enlighted path. As said above, the path is broken by smaller shrines, like the one on the photo below.

As I continued along the path, I found myself trailing behind a young couple who paused at each shrine paying respect to Inari. They walked with a sense of reverence and purpose, pausing at each shrine to pay their respects. At each shrine, the couple bowed deeply.

Further along the path, I encountered another shrine adorned with miniature torii gates displayed on a small altar. The pictures above and below were taken from the same spot. I just turned around.

It is 18:30.

Although the path seems to head down, I am still climbing the mountain. It is an intriguing illusion. It is like a reminder that sometimes in life, progress and growth can come in unexpected ways, even when it appears that we are moving in a different direction.

As I approached another shrine along the path, I was greeted by a mesmerizing sight. The place was adorned with a multitude of torii gates, both small and large, creating a captivating display of vibrant colors. The torii gates here were predominantly made of stone, adding a sense of solidity and timelessness to the surroundings. The atmosphere was serene, and the air carried a sense of reverence. It was a place where the tangible presence of history and spirituality intertwined, leaving an indelible impression. It was already twilight. The photos below are a bit enhaced with light to show the views.

On my way, I crossed two or three sacred places as those on pictures above. I stopped to do some closeups. All the sacred objects that were even a few meters away from me disappeared in the darkness. Once I found myself having taken a wrong turn somewhere in the middle of the mountain. I got into absolute darkness leaving the lights behind me. The quiet around me was striking.

It is 18:45.

It is getting darker and darker. It was too dark to continue. A quick look at my watch. I need to get down to meet my fellow at the lower shrine. Only a shot of the way upstairs (yet again enhanced to see the perspective).

The walk downstairs was breathtaking. At this hour you barely meet people. As there are a couple of parallel torii paths, and sometimes the way down is, in fact, the way up, I was afraid of getting lost. For more than 20 minutes, it was just me, the faint illumination of torii and the encompassing darkness around.

If I had not to meet my fellows at the agreed hour, I would probably go at a slower pace. The photos below were made while standing below a light bulb. I still needed to enhance them. In reality, it was a bit darker inside.

I reached the lower shrine. It is 19:10.

On the lower picture you can see the Romon Gate to the shrine complex. The picture above shows a shrine that is located behind the Romon Gate. It is the main hall of worship at Fushimi Inari Shrine, the so called Go-honden in Japanese. The Go-honden is the central and most important building where the main deity of the shrine is enshrined. To reach the Go-honden, visitors must pass through the Romon Gate. Walking through this gate symbolizes entering into a sacred space and signifies the transition from the mundane world to the spiritual realm of the shrine. It is a significant moment that sets the tone for the spiritual experience and connection with the deity. Before you get to the Romon gate, you need to go through the cleansing ritual. On my way down, I crossed this place in the reversed order.

As I got down, only one fellow was waiting at the agreed meeting point. It turned out, most of our traveling fellowship was too tired to continue and left earlier. We still waited, for another fellow, who like me enjoyed the walk in the dark. With no internet access, she got lost…

So a small hint: if you are there in the evening where it is already dark, stick to the illuminated torii pathway. Take your time. Walk through in a proper order. Do not be afraid of darkness. Just stick to the path.

The path of torii