Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Japan Travelog vol.3 - Kyoto Day 1

Fushimi Inari Taisha (Shrine) is located only two stops south from Kyoto Station on JR Nara Line, and the grand gate to the shrine is located right in front of the Station exit. As you go through the gate you will find a shrine pavilion and behind that the main shrine where you make offerings and pray. Behind the main shrine there is a path that leads you to the widely known Sembon Torii (thousand torii). This Sembon Torii was what I wanted to see with my own eyes, and thus the highlight of this trip.

Torii are the gates you find at Shinto shrines or grounds that are affiliated with Shinto sanctity. They are often located at the entrances to the shrine grounds as well as within, and many times in the nature as best represented in rocks and forests/ woods. Torii are made of wood and are in the color of the wood (brown - dark brown) if not vivid vermillion red representing brightness (light, hope, life).

Since these gates are indicators (or even reminders) that are built on the boundary of the sacred and the profane, in most cases the gates stand individually. Fushimi Inari is no exception in terms of the main entrance, but the most unique feature of this shrine is this Thousand Torii where hundreds of them are placed one right next to another creating tunnels of torii. The location appears in many posters, travel brochures, TV commercials, TV dramas and films... and I simply wanted to see this almost insane collection of red.

Probably because a Japanese like myself is brought up tacitly being taught that torii as well as vermillion red for the shrines
are something sacred or something apart from our daily lives, these kind of places give me a sense of chilly awe and take my breath away in a different way from standing on top of a mountain and looking across the universe. It was beautiful but at the same time a bit eerie. Would have been much eerier if there weren't any fellow tourists and students on trips.

As you come out to from the narrow vermillion tunnel you reach the Okunoin, and behind it Mt.Inari. Not only the shrine ground and the approach expands to the entire side of the mountain, like many other Shinto shrines the Shrine worships this whole mountain (... is what I learned afterwards. I didn't even know that the visit would be a good 2-hour-hike).

The approach that climbs up the mountain is marked with another set of hundreds of torii, this time larger and placed slightly (only slightly) apart. Moderately steep stairs lead most of the way with partially really steep places, and along the path stand several houses. Many of these houses have rest areas located next to them, offering food and drinks as well as great view. (The picture is of hiyashiame, literally cold candy, a very sweet drink made of malt sugar with ginger. Savior of my soar throat this day.)

Also along the circular route across the mountainside are smaller shrines, all related to the main Inari but each with different purposes. Some are for safe traveling, some others for health around your neck and head, others for health for back and legs, etc. etc.. Some are relatively bigger in terms of size and significance than others, but there were more than a dozen located on the route.

In addition to the shrines are the... heaps (I don't know how to describe them)... called tsuka. At a glance these places look like a mixture of Shintoism with Buddhism as the carved stones look like Buddhist gravestones, but the surroundings are of complete Shintoism. The stones are actually not gravestones but are each gods - households that worship Shintoism carve the sacred (gods') names on the rocks and enshrine the rocks on this mountain as part of the Inari (god of agriculture and harvest) because this is Inari's center of worship.

Overall the visit was a pleasant one, not to mention fascinating... and good exercise. Just one thing though: even though there were fairly many tourists, there weren't too many that actually climbed the route and so I wasn't always seeing people around. When encountering couples and groups I didn't really feel anything, but when I saw some people who were there alone, silent and slow, there were some times when I didn't know if I were seeing real people or not. I don't usually see ghosts and phantoms, but so-thought sacred grounds like this sometimes make me feel... unsure.

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