By Anne Sigmon
Gold Solas Award-winner in the Travel and Healing category
My visit to Kyoto’s famous Fushimi Inari shrine veered off track even before I left the parking lot.
One of Japan’s oldest and most revered Shinto shrines, Fushimi Inari was the one site I’d most wanted to explore in depth as I traveled around the country with a group of friends.
Fushimi is a UNESCO World Heritage site founded in 711 AD. The shrine sits on a holy mountain, a shaded retreat with altars dotted on a tangle of forested trails that snake up a seven-hundred-sixty-four-foot peak. It is guarded, believers say, by magical foxes, those tricky denizens of Japanese folklore.
I’d been feeling down in recent months and scared. Health problems from a stroke and autoimmune disease had been under control for over a decade. Now they had started to roar like demons again. For the first time in years, I felt uneasy about the future. I needed a physical and psychic reboot. Surely experiencing the mystery of Shinto—with its reverence for nature and spiritual connection—would be a balm for my worries.
Fushimi Inari would be the perfect place to explore Shinto, a spiritual practice as old as the Japanese people. Shinto, which means the “way of the gods,” has no set dogma. Rather, it emphasizes sincerity and harmony with nature. A contemplative faith, Shinto inspires a sense of wonder in the beholder. I was more than ready for that!
But today’s visit wouldn’t be easy on my creaky, arthritic knees, damaged by too many autoimmune skirmishes. The five-mile walk up the mountain and back included a seven-hundred-fifty-foot elevation gain and twelve thousand steps. My guidebook suggested two to three hours for the excursion.
My friends and I had planned to take the train from Tokyo to Kyoto, have lunch and a guided tour of the National Museum, then a leisurely late afternoon sojourn at the Inari shrine. But our hosts had pushed the museum tour to the end of the day; we would need to visit Fushimi Inari first. We arrived around 1:30 pm, dashing by taxi straight from the Tokyo train.
“We’ll see the site on our own,” our trip coordinator announced as soon as we pulled into the parking area. “But I need you back here in an hour and twenty minutes.”
She tapped her watch for emphasis. “We’ll go for a late lunch, then to the National Museum for our 4:30 tour. Don’t be late.”
My friends hustled off at a trot, determined to rush to the top and back. I just stood in the parking lot, shaking my head, shoulders tight, stifling frustration. Introspection on a stopwatch? Really? Then a thought landed like a feather: Follow your own path.
A weight seemed to lift when I told the trip leader not to expect me for lunch. “I’ll meet the group at the museum.” Relieved to have more time to explore, I relaxed, breathing in the citrusy aroma of the cedar forest.
Several enormous vermillion torii (shrine gates) marked the entrance to the site, followed by an elaborate gatehouse called the rōmon gate, the tallest in all Japan. Behind the gatehouse was a confusing constellation of traditional Japanese hip-roofed buildings framed in bright red with gleaming golden decorations. The main temple (hoden), built in 1499, was flanked by two large stone foxes wearing red cloth bibs. I watched from a respectful distance as an elderly couple stood before an altar, saying prayers and bowing. But it was hardly a reverent experience. The early September day was mild but overcast and humid. All around me, hectic crowds of tourists babbled and laughed, then set off huffing up the mountain—some in kimono, others in jeans and sweat-soaked shirts weighted down with daypacks.
Fushimi Inari is world famous for its thousands of flame-colored torii gates—the senbon torii—that form an eerie tunnel that winds up the mountainside. Torii represent the passage from the worldly to the sacred. The orange-red color, originally made from cinnabar, is called shuiro in Japanese, representing the color of the sun. I imagined the torii as a path from the present to the past, from the living to the spirit world.
The Shinto faith believes in kami, the divine power found in all things. Kami may be
gods, spirits, supernatural forces, and even ancestors. Kami gravitate to the natural beauty found around mountains, waterfalls, trees, and unusually-shaped rocks. That’s why Shinto shrines rest in such numinous spaces. There are virtually an unlimited number of Shinto kami. Many individuals and families venerate their own personal spirts. But there is a pantheon of about fifteen significant gods. One of the most popular is Inari Ōkami, the god of rice and the harvest—now expanded to include business and trade. Fushimi is the head Inari shrine in all Japan; many thousands of others abound across the country.
Shinto gods have “messengers.” Inari’s is the white fox or kitsune, which is seen as a sacred and mysterious creature. Almost everywhere I turned at Fushimi, I saw statues of foxes, usually in pairs, most of them seated.
From the temple complex, I moved on to the phalanx of magnificent torii, many of them fifteen or twenty feet tall. The tunnel of gates rose through an ever-changing forest of pine, cedar, cypress and maple. Leaves rustled like the mountain’s breath.
I had imagined the trip through those stunning gates would be magical, a mystical voyage to the spirit world. But there didn’t seem to be any room for magic or mystery that day, just a horde of sweating tourists, packed elbow to elbow, wielding umbrellas and four-foot selfie sticks like samurai swords. This was the right place for Shinto reverence, but without the peace.
At several spots up the slope, the torii gates opened into small plazas with red-painted shrines. Racks displayed horoscopes and wooden prayer cards (called ema) shaped like fox heads.
Feeling sticky in the heat, I sat on a bench to rest with my camera in hand, hoping for just a tiny break in the solid wall of people. I hoped to snatch one of those iconic shots of the torii tunnel—sans tourists. Futile, I sighed after about ten minutes. Discouraged, I stepped back into the tunnel. The clock was ticking as I sweated and climbed, dodging backpacks, tripods and selfie sticks. Did I really want to spend my remaining time in this crowd?
Just then, I noticed a hint of a trail leading downhill away from the madness. At a break in the gates, I stepped out and followed the curving path through the woods. Before long, I found a single torii, weathered to bare timber, long past any shade of vermilion. Beyond it, in a shady glen, what looked like a gated cottage stood surrounded by lovingly cared-for plantings. But this was no cottage; it was a small shrine with two scarlet torii of more human size. The gates led to an altar with a kneeling bench in front of an offering chest. Behind the altar, a half-flight of weathered stone stairs led to a walkway, then on to what looked like an enchanted garden of stone. I was all alone.
In that square space of perhaps an eighth of an acre, hundreds of incised and artfully-placed stones perched atop walls, about four feet tall, built of tightly-fitted boulders. Most of the stones were shrouded with moss. Each one bore an inscription of deeply-carved and painted Japanese kanji characters, a style popular a century ago. The script was indecipherable to me, yet it spoke of a reverence that required no words. Miniature torii stood in front of some of the stones, ceramic votives before others. The place seemed lovingly but not recently tended. A stone Inari fox stood guard in a back corner. It wore a tattered cloth bib of long-faded red and in its mouth held a gem signifying its power to grant wishes. Its mate—these foxes usually come in pairs—was missing.
The rocks resembled the kind of ancient standing stones I’d once seen in Cornwall. Some were as tall as giants, others as small as children; they looked like a chorus of hooded ghosts. I imagined they might be gravestones. The place smelled of moss, damp earth and great age. Tall trees and stout bushes surrounded it. Through the breaks in the foliage, weak light shone from behind the clouds. The silence was broken only by the whine of cicadas and the breeze through the cypress trees.
But what were these stones? How old were they? I didn’t know. I didn’t speak the language; I didn’t have a guide. This corner of the mountain was uncharted in any of the articles or guidebooks I’d seen. Even though I couldn’t understand any of the characters, the spirit of this place touched me. I felt like I had passed through the torii gates to a land beyond.
I wandered, alone, from stone to stone, feeling the cool rock, brushing my hand against the moss, trying to imagine who was honored here. As I drifted, the question that kept popping up for me was time. How best to spend my time? No doctor could tell me how much time I had left in this world or whether my illness would rob me of the time I thought should be my due.
Most days, I tried my best to live a “normal” life filled with work and chores, friends and family, books and travel—trying, like everyone else, to balance it all. But there were days, more numerous now, when I feared I was missing some paramount existential point. What do I gain by trying to be “normal” when I’m not? A woman with stroke deficits, mental confusion, and autoimmune disease can’t carry a “normal” load. Is normal the objective? Or should it be something with deeper meaning?
My time for the day was up. The clouds grew dark. The mist turned to rain. I had no idea where I was on the mountain or how to find the entrance, where I’d need to hail a taxi to ferry me to the museum to meet my friends. That kind of disjointed confusion—“brain fog”—sometimes worried me, but on that day, I sailed down with ease, buoyed by the peace I’d found in the garden.
At one of the plazas down the hill, I studied a billboard map of the park. I wanted to pinpoint the place that had touched me. I saw many shrines and waystations highlighted on the map, but no magical garden of stones. Instead, in the place where I thought I’d been, the map showed a drawing of heavy white clouds in the shape of a fox—the only such spot on the mountain.
I rejoined my friends and enjoyed the rest of our time in Japan. The mystery of Shinto did not touch me in the phalanx of ten thousand red torii as I’d hoped, and I never reached the top of the holy mountain. Instead, I found magic by wandering—lost, confused, and on my own path—into a mystical garden of stone. I never learned who was honored there or how long the stones had rested in that holy place. In the end, that didn’t matter. What remained was the sense of reverence.
It occurred to me that, even in the absence of a shared history or language, those ancestors had a lesson to teach me. When we take the time to relax and listen, the spirits of holy places like Fushimi Inari call to us, inviting us to listen to our hearts, to heed the lessons that are already deep within us.
They whispered to me that day in that garden of the fox: Your time to make a difference is now.
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Anne Sigmon is a California writer, stroke survivor, and autoimmune patient who covers adventure travel for people with health limitations. Her stories about travel to remote corners from Burma to Ethiopia, Iran, and Syria appear regularly in magazines and anthologies, most recently The Best Women?s Travel Writing, Volume 12 and Wandering in Japan: The Spirit of Tokyo, Kyoto and Beyond.