A trip to Kyoto will not be complete without a visit to Fushimi Inari Taisha located in southern Kyoto. Fushimi Inari Taisha probably gained popularity through the film “Memoirs of a Geisha” in which Chiyo (Zhang Ziyi) was shown running through the vermilion torii gates twice. I got to Fushimi Inari in the morning via the Keihan Railway (stop: Fushimi Inari) as the Keihan Railway was a walking distance away from where I was staying. JR Line also bring people to Fushimi Inari too. The famous vermilion torii gates are quite near to the train stations and it is impossible not to find your way there because there are so many people going there.
Why are there so many torii gates here? Fushimi Inari Taisha, as the name suggests, is a shrine dedicated to the God of rice (inari) and many companies and individuals who were thankful for the God’s blessings donated the torii gates. The donor’s name and the date of donation are inscribed at the back of each gate. Torii gates come in different sizes, the smallest costs 400, 000 yen while the largest has a hefty price tag of over 1 million yen! What surprises me most about Fushimi Inari is that the act of building torii gates to give thanks for the God’s blessings is still very much alive today. When I was there, I saw men who were carrying the heavy pillars of the gates up the mountainous trail. As the Japanese started erecting the torii gates from the bottom of the hill many, many years ago, these men have to climb quite a fair bit to erect the new torii gate. Because the torii gates were built from the bottom of the hill, the density of the torii gates is very high at the bottom and the density drops gradually as you make your way up the hill. As you might have expected, the densely packed torii gates near the bottom of the hill is most popular with the tourists. I love the densely packed torii gates but personally, I prefer the stretch of torii gates higher up the hill because there were very few people walking with me. When I walked beyond the Yotsutsuji intersection (where most tourists made a turn-around), I was only making the ascent with 6 other people.
There was a mountainous walking trail to the “top” as indicated by the signposts and so I plodded my way through the numerous torii gates as I slowly made my ascent on a rather hot day. Since it is a pilgrimage, there is a shrine at the top of the hill. Disappointingly, there was no spectacular view at the “top”. Nonetheless, I would recommend everyone to take the walk up to the top. Because the higher you go, the fewer people there are and the experience of walking alone through the torii gates is truly magical. I felt as though I was transported back in time and lost in a world of my own.
” Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” – Robert Frost
The entire hike took about 2-3 hours. I decided to spend my afternoon in Uji since I was already at the southern part of Kyoto. I got to Uji via the JR Line and once I got there, a helpful lady at the tourist information counter at the JR station gave me a map and plenty of information about Uji. Kyoto is quite renowned for green tea but in fact, Uji’s is considered by many to be the tea capital of Japan. There are numerous green tea fields in Uji and on the first Sunday of October every year, there is a Tea Festival. I tried the green tea in Uji but with all honesty, I preferred the green tea in Kinkakuji. The green tea in Uji seems to have a milder taste. Anyhow, it was a great experience sitting inside a teahouse, sipping green tea, staring at the Uji river while listening to nice music.
Green tea aside, Uji is quite famous for The Tale of Genji – a novel about an imperial prince who lived in Uji. Uji is also famous for two temples registered as UNESCO World Heritage sites: Byodo-in and Ujigami Jinja located on different sides of the river. Byodo-in and the surrounding gardens are said to represent the Pure Land Paradise – where Buddha is believed to live in. Byodo-in is striking in many ways, in particular the Phoenix Hall in the middle of a pond. Notice the gold-plated phoenixes at the top of the Phoenix Hall’s roof. Everyone who visits Japan would have “seen” the Phoenix Hall because it is featured at the back of the 10 yen coin. I enjoyed sitting around the pond and staring at the Phoenix Hall. Currently, the back of the Phoenix Hall is undergoing some renovation so visitors unfortunately wouldn’t be able to appreciate the phoenix shape of the hall. Because of the ongoing renovation, we got to visit Byodo-in at a discounted rate of 600 Yen. There is a guided tour into the Phoenix Hall every 20 minutes at an additional cost of 300 Yen but I didn’t go for the tour because the tour is in Japanese. Additionally, there is a treasure house inside Byodo-in (free!) and the treasure house has a really nice video of how the interior of the Phoenix Hall looks like the what the different objects inside represent. The video also shows how the Phoenix Hall originally looked like 1000 years ago. Interestingly, many objects on display now in the treasure house are mostly either brown or green. However, according to the video, these objects were colourful many years ago. I wonder how people could know the original colour of the various artefacts many years ago.
After visiting the visually stunning Byodo-in, I went to see Ujigami Jinja on the opposite side of the river. Comparatively, Ujigami Jinja looks rather humble. But this small shrine is quite important because it is believed to be the oldest standing shrine in Japan. It was unfortunately also going through some renovation work. Inside the shrine, there is a freshwater spring used in tea ceremonies and the water from this spring is considered to be among the “seven best water of Uji”. Even water is graded and classified in Japan…