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Fushimi Inari: Torii Gates, Chiyo Wannabes, Street Food Galore and a Secret Garden

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We took an Uber taxi to Fushimi Inari because our tour guide stood us up. About five seconds after alighting from the taxi, I wanted to crawl back inside. There were so many people. SO MANY PEOPLE. But we were already there, so, we might as well see what we went there for.

Fushimi Inari Torii Gates

Resigned with the fact that we would have to wiggle our way through the crowd, I took stock of everything around me. Souvenir shops near the entrance. So many girls, Asians and non-Asians, walking around in kimonos. Shops offering kimono rentals.

Chiyo wannabes

Okaaayy… The girls rented kimonos so they could have their photos taken at the torii gates. You know, to replicate one of the most visually stunning scenes in Memoirs of a Geisha.

Unfortunately for those girls, it was impossible to run through the torii gates the way the young Chiyo did. The crowd was so thick it wouldn’t have been possible to pose for a photo without too many people in the background. Too bad for them. Kimono rentals cost so much.

The torii gates

The tourist attraction referred to as Fushimi Inari consists of several structures. There’s the entrance known as the Romon Gate at the foot of Mount Inari, the main hall beyond it, the trail lined by torii gates and the shrine buildings. It’s not a small place. From the first torii gate to the top of the mountain, it’s a two to three-hour walk beneath thousands of torii gates.

The torii gates are offerings. If you have a wish that you want the Shinto god Inari to grant, you make a donation, and a torii gate with your name on it will be erected.

The torii gates themselves don’t last forever. They are made of wood and, in time, they decay. But as new donations come in, new torii gates are put up.

I read that the minimum donation is 400,000 yen.

Alex wanted to hike to the top of Mount Inari. I didn’t. Speedy didn’t either. Sam wasn’t even interested in taking photos of the torii gates because, in her words, even if you lifted the camera high, “Puro ulo (too many heads).”

Perhaps, on a day when there are far less people, a leisurely hike would be enjoyable. But with the size of the throng that day, going up would have been a serious penitence. After walking though a few dozen torii gates, we turned around and walked back toward the entrance.

We took photos. Of one another. Of the sparse autumn leaves. Of a small waterfall…

Waterfall. Fushimi Inari. Kyoto.

We were standing on a bridge and, underneath, the water from the falls flowed. The water was so clear we could see small stones at the bottom of the creek.

Street food

We walked on. Then, Sam and Alex disappeared into the souvenir shops. Used to their shopping habits, I knew it would take a while before they were done browsing through everything. I started to amble around and discovered an alley lined on both sides with food stalls.

Street food at Fushimi Inari
Grilled skewered pork and leeks

I can’t remember now if Speedy found the food stalls by himself or whether I turned back to hail and show him what I had discovered. I remember asking him to message the girls to tell them to meet us in the alley after they were done shopping or window-shopping, whichever the case might be.

We must have stood in that alley for over an hour, all four of us, at different spots as we moved from one stall to another sampling everything that looked and smelled delicious.

We had grilled pork and leeks.

Oversized crab sticks. Kyoto, Japan

Sam and Alex had takoyaki and oversized crab sticks (which, of course, aren’t made with crab meat at all but, rather, starch, egg whites, pulverized fish and a whole lot of other ingredients). They would have ordered fluffy pancakes after the crab sticks if the line weren’t too darn long.

Kobe beef in Kyoto
Kobe beef in Kyoto

Then, there was Kobe beef. But that’s another story.

The zen garden

We walked on toward the end of the alley. The girls spotted vendo machines and they bought drinks. There was a restaurant, two or three doors from the end of the alley if I remember correctly, and food was grilling near the entrance. Skewered food that didn’t look like pork nor beef. The cook spoke English. Sparrows and quails, he explained. If I weren’t too full from all the pork and beef, I would have tried both.

We looked in at the nearby shops. Pastries. T-shirts. Kimonos. I wanted to sit down, smoke and rest my legs. Speedy and I asked the guy grilling sparrows and quails where the nearest smoking area was. Instead of pointing toward some direction, he motioned for us to follow him inside the restaurant.

We passed by numerous tables, some of which were occupied by customers. All locals, it seemed to me. The nice guy opened a sliding door at the far end of the dining area and, with his hand, invited us to step in.

We stepped out, actually, into one of the most tranquil gardens I have ever laid my eyes on. Small and completely walled in with a very Japanese arrangement of plants, benches, pottery and a small pond… Well, if there are no words to appropriately define the concept of zen, that garden was more than enough.

Several minutes later, the girls walked into the garden. We rested, chatted, remarked about the unusually chilly day so early in November and there was discussion about proceeding to Gion from there. We agreed that we would but not just yet.

Speedy ordered beer for the two of us (the girls didn’t want any), a perfect excuse to stay a while longer. We lingered over our drinks (Japan produces fantastic beer, did you know?) and recharged. It was a much needed respite after the thick crowds at the torii gates and food stalls.

A Japanese lady came out of the dining area and sat on the bench beside Sam to smoke a cigarette. Sam complimented her on her shoes. So did I. I don’t think she spoke a word of English but, somehow, she understood and bowed her head with a smile as a way of appreciating the compliment. After her cigarette, she stood up, smiled and bowed to acknowlege us before walking back into the dining area to rejoin her companions.

For some reason, no one took photos of the garden — an unspoken admission, perhaps, that no photograph could ever capture the essence of the place. I’ll never forget it though. It’s been days since that aternoon at Fushimi Inari but the image of the garden is as clear in my mind as the day we left it.