It’s one of the most famous shrines in Japan, and for anyone who has seen the movie “Memoirs of a Geisha,” it’s a must see on their list when visiting Japan. I’m speaking of course of the Fushimi Inari Shrine and its trails to the top of the sacred Mt. Inari. Commonly referred to as the “Thousand Gate Shrine,” it literally has thousands of torii gates that visitors walk through up and down its numerous paths. Next to the Golden Pavilion, it is arguably the most popular physical attraction in Kyoto for photography.
Waking up on that Sunday morning, we had to check out of our hotel. Our first full week in Japan was officially over. We heard that there was a concierge luggage transportation service that would take our bags from our hotel (the Westin Miyako) to Kyoto’s central train station where the hotel had a special holding location for guests. The downside was that you had to collect your luggage by 6:00 p.m. that same day or they’d be kept overnight. While I would have preferred more time, I knew that getting the bags much later than 6:00 p.m. would just mean we’d show up at our next hotel in Nagoya really late, which could be a dangerous situation with a 2 year old tantrum. Once we got the bags squared away, we hopped on the shuttle to the train station to get our connecting train out to Inari.
The commute time to Inari from central Kyoto was not that long, about 10-15 minutes by train. Once you cross the tracks and start the walk through the street towards the shrine, you are immediately surrounded by cute shops and street food vendors selling Japanese souvenirs and sweet and savory treats. It’s a little bit kitschy but fun. The crowds seemed a bit light for a Sunday but still very busy. I attributed the manageability of crowds to the fact that we were visiting during the rainy month, though we only had very brief and sparse sprinkles that day. There were some wide and manageable stairs to get up to some of the religious buildings and the main shrine but were manageable with a stroller. While walking around with the kids, we drew a lot of attention since I chose to put them in their number shirts. A group of Japanese students even asked to take their picture with us!
Be cautious when photographing around this part and look for any “no photography” signs as there are certain areas closest to the temple where photography is prohibited out of respect for the sacredness of the area and ceremonies preformed. Once we walked around the main buildings we started towards the path up the mountain. My husband really wanted to go all the way to the top. But first, he just wanted the “Memoirs of a Geisha” running through the torii gates shot! We came to the two paths where naturally most people were walking up on the right and people were coming down on the left. The start to the top of the mountain essentially began here and the right side of the tunnel had the constant stream of tourist starting their assent. To get a good picture, try stepping up into the left side path that has a much slower stream of people coming down so you can get a better chance at a picture with just your party.
There were a couple times in between each stretch of the gated paths where you had to make a choice of direction, I found it slightly confusing to follow to get to the top, despite there being some maps. It doesn’t always play out the same way on the path as it does on the map. But we made our way up and up. We didn’t make it far before we decided to stash the stroller on the side of one of the rest areas since we were met with many stairs for the foreseeable future. We figured that it wouldn’t get stolen, but there wasn’t much choice. For the first hour of our time there, it was beautiful and fascinating to see so many of the torii gates and the landscape of the mountain. Half way up we got a beautiful view of all of Kyoto below. The kids and I were very tired at this point. We had been climbing stairs for about an hour. I wanted to turn around and since I had already gotten so many wonderful photos, I felt I was good. But, we promised my husband we’d make it to the top. The only thing that kept me going was that the ½ way up view was so gorgeous I kept imagining how much better the view would be once we got to the top.
The boys were being troupers but even their patience was running thin. My 2 year old was the hardest as I didn’t have the Ergo with me so we went back and forth with her walking, them me carrying her, then my husband. We had to bribe them with Oreos that I purchased at one of the stands. Finally, after two hours from our arrival at the shrine, we reached the top. I was SO relieved because about 5 minutes before we got to the top, my 5 year old announce that he had to go to the bathroom, and not the stand and pee on a tree kind!
As I looked up from catching my breath from the last set of stairs, my heart sank. We were completely surrounded by trees and in the middle of the path was this two tiered, stone landing area with a bunch of little stone shrines all around it and a gated one in the middle. I read a sign that said “Top of the mountain.” I looked around waiting for the amazing view, searching with my eyes for something exciting, some other little path that I had missed that would lead us to the site that would make 12,000 steps worth it. Nothing. Nothing but the increased pleads of my son for a bathroom. I tried to distract him while my husband took a quick look around at the thing he was so committed to seeing, then he took my son back down the trail to look for a bathroom. There were little restaurants, little souvenir stands and resting landings ever so often on the way up and we hoped that the last one we saw before the top would have a bathroom. While they started down, I took my turn to look around. It took all of 5 minutes before I saw all that I wanted to see and I started back down with my 7 year old and 2 year old.
When we reached the first landing station on the way down we looked around to see if it had the bathrooms. Seeing none, we asked a man there and he said “no, the next, just 5 minutes walk.” So, on we went until we came to the next stop. Seeing nothing again, we asked. “Not here, just 5 minutes that way” as he continued to point down the stairs. We went some more and finally by the 3rd landing we saw the bathrooms, but not my husband and son. Continuing on the trail we finally caught up with them and we all lamented at how disappointing the top of the mountain was and how many times we had to walk “just 5 minutes” to get to the bathroom. When we reached the base of the main shrine and temple, my husband looked at his Fitbit and said we had climbed 12,000 stairs!
We finished up the trip with some food from the street venders and a little souvenir shopping on the way back to the train. Since we didn’t get back to the Inari station till close to 3:00 p.m. we knew we didn’t have much time before we had to pick up the luggage from the central station. After some debate, we decided to try to go walk around the Imperial Palace grounds. We found a wonderful playground that was a nice treat for the kids before we had to call it a day and get back on the train. We were Nagoya bound, about an hour and a half on the bullet train from Kyoto, and there we would spend the next 5 nights of our journey in Japan.