“Hot, hot, hot!”
That was the first impression of Kyoto’s weather as we stepped out of JR Inari train station. We were in Japan during the middle of May – not too far from the coolness of spring yet not too close to the scorching heat of summer – so we were expecting the climate to be just nice.
However, the added heat did not help with our mood. We were hungry, sleepy and tired from the overnight plane ride and subsequent train trip but nothing could overcome our excitement of setting foot in Japan for the very first time.
We started a seven-day whirlwind of an adventure across Kansai at one of the most revered Shinto shrines in Japan – Fushimi Inari Taisha.
But First, Grilled Sparrow Anyone?
Since it was already late in the afternoon and we were famished, we sidestepped to an adjacent street in search of Oshokujidokoro Inafuku, a restaurant serving a rather peculiar local delicacy – suzume, or grilled sparrow.
The adventurous me ordered one skewer of sparrow while my wife went with the safer option of a tempura donburi. She was gleefully giggling away when our plates arrived for she got the better end of the deal – for a princely sum of ¥600, all I got was a bird the size of my thumb.
So, while she devoured the fat pieces of tempura in a heaping bowl of rice, I had to painstakingly use my teeth to nibble and tear away every single piece of meat from the sparrow.
The bird’s flesh is a bit gamey but made to taste good with the sweet teriyaki-like sauce covering every square inch of the perfectly-grilled sparrow. Thankfully I ordered a bowl of rice and miso soup to accompany the meat – just enough fuel for me to last the whole afternoon.
Eating sparrow was definitely one of my culinary highlights in Kyoto but for my wife, it’s a funny tale she will laughably bring up every time the topic of “exotic food” comes to mind.
Fushimi Inari Taisha is the head shrine of inari, the Shinto kami (spirit) of foxes, fertility, rice, tea and sake.
This temple was established in the year 711 at the foothills of Mount Inariyama and has since become the place to go for worshipers to pray for prosperity of their business, safety of their home and well-being of their family.
A huge torii greeted us as we made our way towards the romon, the main gate, guarded by fierce-looking statues of kitsune, or foxes, regarded as messengers of Inari Okami. I noticed one fox statue had a key in its mouth – said to be for a rice granary of which it guards.
Behind the main gate lies the haiden, a worship hall followed by a honden, the main shrine containing five deities that represent the five virtues embodying inari. Every building is coated a vermilion red to represent the bountiful harvests the kami gives its devotees.
A Thousand and One Torii
Behind the honden is a flight of stairs that leads to one of the most iconic images in Japan – the torii gateways of Fushimi Inari.
The seemingly endless senbon torii (thousands of torii) snakes all the way to the peak of the mountain and each gateway is engraved with the name of a donor who seeks Inari’s blessings on their business.
The path starts with a row of huge torii before branching off to two identical paths of smaller gateways. We only made our way up to here for it was getting late in the evening and decided to admire the gateways up close. I also miraculously managed to snap a couple of shots devoid of tourists that were thronging the place!
Fushimi Inari Taisha was my first time experiencing a Shinto shrine up close and I absolutely loved its aesthetics.
I was really captivated at the simplicity of each structure that seems to be devoid of any from of grandiosity. Instead, the focus seems to be on the tiny details that make them stand out like the elaborate filigrees, intricate lamps and lifelike sculptures to the matching blend of colors that looks striking but perfectly in-tune with nature.
First impressions matter and Fushimi Inari Taisha was the ideal starting point for us to delve into Japanese culture, history and religion all in one place. Grilled sparrow aside, it was the right tonic for us to begin exploring the former imperial capital of Japan.
- The nearest train stop to Fushimi Inari Taisha is Inari Station along the JR Nara Line. A one-way fare from Kyoto Station is ¥140. The shrine is open 24 hours to the public.
- If you are really interested in learning about the history and significance of Fushimi Inari Taisha, you can go to their official website here or Temple Trail’s detailed account here.
- If you’re adventurous like me, try having a go at grilled sparrow at Inafuku. The restaurant is open daily except Tuesdays from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. You can browse through their menu here.