Saturday, July 10, 2010

I Tort I Taw a Torii... Running the Gauntlet at Fushimi Inari Taisha

26th October, 2006 - Not having exhausted ourselves completely yet - though morning sickness was starting to affect T-chan in earnest (not surprisingly mostly in the morning). Our plan was to head over to Fushimi, in search of the perfect torii gate. First things first... we headed to Kyōto Station and took the Nara line, getting off at Inari station. You can also take the Keihan line and get off at the Fushimi Inari Station. The Keihan line is a good one to catch back to the shopping district... which we'll do later.

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On the approach to this shrine, it is possible to come across food stalls selling Inari-sushi (fried tofu wrapped around sweet sushi), a favourite of foxes... and you can also buy Kitsune Udon. There are places to buy this all along the trail up through the hills (I've heard). There were lots of school kids around at the time... and I have to say this would be a fun place for a young child.

 Before Kyōto was established, there existed a clan of people, originally from Korea, known as the Hata. The shrine was originally built by the Hata clan around the early 8th century, but relocated to the present location in the early part of the ninth century. At the time Inari was considered the God of rice (and other cereals) and also had an association with planting of crops and the harvest. This shrine is the centre of some 30-40,000 Inari shrines around Japan. Nowadays, Fushimi is known most for it's sake production.... that's sort of rice related isn't it?

Below is the Romon gate... donated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1589.

Here we see the Gai-Haiden (the outer hall of worship). Throughout the year you can find sacred dances being performed in the shrine (in the nearby Kagura-den) - however - we respectfully didn't take photos. Doesn't it feel great to have such cultural sensitivity?!?!

Inari is the god (or is that goddess) of fertility and rice... and as rice was essentially the life-currency of Japan for many centuries, Inari is also associated with commerce. Inari is able to manifest himself (herself) as a fox - or in Japanese kitsune. The wiley fox of Japanese folk-tale are often described as mischievous spirits able to shape-shift, or even possess people by going underneath their fingernails... The Inari fox statues are often seen holding a key in their mouths - the key to the granary... as is the prerogative of the God of Rice.

The torii gates have a somewhat vague origin....despite the inseparable connection with Shinto, torii appear to have first appeared during the Heian period, in the 8-10th century. A relatively new invention therefore in the timeline of Shinto belief within Japan. There are a number of theories of where the torii came from, yet they are almost universally accepted as having come from an external source, with Korea being a likely contender - the Korean hongsalmun is seen as a pre-cursor to the Japanese torii, but there are also potential links back to India, with the torana gate of Sanchi which is linked to the Shingon Buddhist sect.

Also, whilst torii are generally associated with Shinto, they are sometimes seen in Buddhist temples thanks to the cross-pollination of religions in Japan. They generally consist of a few key ingredients: (a) vermilion red in colour, (b) two uprights, and (c) two lintels. The lines of the torii can either be straight or curved depending on the specific style - though there are always some exceptions to this rule. The torii identifies, in the same way as the rope shimenawa do, the threshold between the impure and the sacred. The approach to a shrine may have multiple torii, each one representing an increased level of "holiness".

So it's no surprise that Fushimi Inari Taisha must be a VERY holy place indeed. From the main shrine you proceed up the mountain, also named Inari, until you come to the famous torii path. A vibrant portal into a different world. In fact, it's more a tunnel than a path.

No - this is not a photoshop blunder below. As you progress up the path, something very strange happens. The torii tunnel suddenly splits. Is this to accomodate high demand traffic? Is there an up and down track? Or some other significance? I don't know the answer to that... but I have to say my eyes never believed the apparent deception of perspective that the two paths produce. Or is it just me?

You may be wondering at this point... why? Well, the Shinto god Inari is associated, amongst other things, with business - success in business in particular. Therefore it was common for successful businesses to show their appreciation by sponsoring a torii. And the more success - the more torii. Of course, the implication here is that each torii represented a further demonstration of the power of Inari... and therefore a greater association with success... and who wouldn't want to be part of that?

Now here's the thing... the torii track at Fushimin Inari Taisha goes for approximately 4 km, throughout the foothills of the mountains. It's sort of romantic to think of travelling the entire length of that path to witness the majesty and the visual grandeur of so many 1000's of torii. In my view however (and I think I talk for about 99% of visitors) the alternative is to walk for some distance up to the first internal shrine. Several hundred metres up the path you arrive... I'm not sure if the priest here is on call 24 hours a day, but he was clearly busy when we arrived.

Hold on... that's not the newspaper he's reading, is it?...  Yomuiri Giants won again last night... Japanese yen gained relative to the Aussie Dollar (D'oh!).... I jest of course... don't worry...

So have you ever wondered how they make torii gates? Well, they have to grow them of course... it takes a long time - at least a good 10 years or more per torii. The shrine shows an example of one of the many torii nurseries where the little torii are fed, watered, and overall pampered until they become full-grown mature gates. You didn't think that they just miraculously appeared did you?....

The fact that there's two paths leading to and from this small shrine demonstrate to me that this is the well-trodden path. It should be said that there's nothing specifically spiritual about these torii - they are offatories... donated by thankful patrons no doubt. Indeed, the reality is that the path doesn't actually lead anywhere in particular (there are a number of shrines throughout the foothills), and in fact there is not one single path, but a multitude of divergent paths. Having said that... I never made it past the first sub-shrine so I can't honestly say it's not worth it.

My advice however is to not over romantacise it... rather, enjoy a concentrated burst of a very Japanese (or Korean, Chinese or Indian) Shinto tradition. It is, after all, in one sense, commercial advertising - the script on each torii denotes the company that donated it. Notwithstanding all of that, it's very impressive, and lots of fun. Depending on when you go however, you might have to be very patient to take photos without a stream of people walking through the frame.

A magical part of Kyōto, and well worth a visit on an extended trip. You can expect to spend at least a morning or afternoon getting to, walking around and returning from Fushimi Inari Taisha. There are few other sights that are so intensely Japanese however... I definitely recommend if you've got the time.

But the real question is - did I find that perfect torii? Well... in typical mystical style, I'll say that they were all perfect - just as they were meant to be. There are after all some 10,000+ torii to inspect - so there's bound to be the perfect one for you some where amongst them.
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  1. Gorgeous pics! I'm impressed you didn't get anyone in the frame. Did you feel enlightened walking up the path? ^_^

    Is everyone quoting Looney Tunes nowadays? Hehe

  2. One of the reasons why we stayed here so long was to take these photos. You need a lot of patience - or the ability to get there early before the stream of visitors come. Don't get me wrong... it's not a conveyor belt of drooling-photo-hungry-touristy-people.... but it's a long path, and the chances of getting a stretch without someone coming into frame takes some patience, or luck at being there at the right time.