Kyoto City is known for being one of the most important cultural cities and hotspots in all of Japan, given it was once the Imperial Capital of Japan for over a thousand years. The city was also spared some of the Second World War atrocities as the city wasn’t a target for bombs, which means many of its pre-War buildings still stand today.
Kyoto boasts thousands of Buddhist temples and hundreds of Shinto shrines, one of the most photographed being the Fushimi-Inari shrine (伏見稲荷大社), often marvelled for the thousands of Torii gates lining the myriad of pathways.
This network of thousands of gated trails at the shrine lead into the forests of Mount Inari; Inari being the Shinto god of rice.
At the shrine, you won’t be missing out on the number of statued foxes adorning the grounds as they were thought to be his messengers.
This was one of the biggest attractions in Kyoto, and I wasn’t leaving the city without seeing it.
The first day we tried, was the first day we got to Kyoto city itself in the evening. Mind, we were just getting out of winter so it got dark pretty early, so we stayed at the foot of the shrine and were unable to scale the mountain paths.
The next day, we headed back after a day of activities in the city, this time in the late afternoon, where there were plenty of other visitors around.
We walked through the grounds and found ourselves at the gates.
It was a pretty incredible sight.
The thing about travel and bloggers and instagrammers and photographers is that you can see almost everything on the internet nowadays without having to step out the comfort of your bedroom, never mind getting on a plane ticket halfway across the world.
So these gates aren’t unfamiliar.
Literally anyone who goes there has a picture of these gates, so we’ve all seen them shared on various platforms.
But the thing about seeing it in the flesh is that you now come with expectations of the world you’ve built in your head over a picture or two, but there’s nothing like seeing it in front of your very eyes, and being there.
As we walked up the steps (it’s a mountain after all), which had gates lining the path, we felt like we were walking through a sacred tunnel in the woods.
Eventually, we got to the base of the mountain, where we were greeted with a stunning view of the city.
There was going to be a whole other loop to head up into the woods at the various places of worship, which I was told would eventually circle back down to where we were.
The hike and stairs was going to be too much for the family, so they decided to stay behind while I went ahead on my own.
It had started to get a little darker as we were approaching the hours of sunset, and I started to make my ascent.
There were fewer visitors up here, I immediately observed on the hike up. There were fewer Torii gates to be found, but idyllic sites of worship and a few houses along the way.
I don’t know who or what they housed, and I saw less than 5 people on my hike.
I read that there was supposed to be a peak, and from there there would be a path with more breathtaking views, and I wanted to get up there.
As I reached what felt like the tenth area of worship, I was quickly running out of daylight.
It had taken me a good half an hour to get to that point, and I hadn’t completed the loop, and I didn’t know how long the rest of that loop would take.
There weren’t going to be many street lamps as it were, and I had family waiting for me at the base of the mountain. Oh, and I didn’t have WiFi or any signal with me at that point.
I had an inner monologue of weighing the two options I had— head back down on the same path I came up on, or complete the loop to bead back down.
I decided I didn’t fancy being stranded in the woods on a mountain on my own in the middle of Japan, so I quickened my pace as I turned around and headed back down.
Night was starting to take over, and when I finally made it back down, the city had lit up, and the other visitors there were admiring the view.
I did too, as I stopped to catch my breath.
Then, a man came up to me.
Usually, I dont mind talking to strangers in foreign cities. Most people aren’t malicious, and sometimes you get really insightful conversations you wouldn’t have otherwise.
This guy came up to me and started speaking to me in Japanese assuming I was local. His tone changed when I told him I wasn’t, and he started to compliment my hair, and proceeded to ask if he could touch it.
Now, I know certain cultural sensitivities get lost in translation, and what was probably or possibly normal to him, was unsettling for me. I gave him a courtesy smile as I started to zone out and look around for an exit.
When I managed to slip out of conversation, I got back to my family and we decided to head down.
Try to remember that by this time, the cover of nightfall had blanketed over the woods and there weren’t very many tourists left. The route wasn’t exactly brightly lit either so we were making our way out of the woods in the dark.
At the corner of my eye, I noticed the man who’d talked to me on the mountain had started to make his trek down too and walked a couple metres behind us.
For a very long time, it was just us and the man behind us, and we took quite a while to make our way back down again, even though we were all walking pretty fast as it started to get a little unsettling.
When we reached the temple grounds at the bottom of the mountain and out of the gates, we started to see a bit more light and other people, which immediately washed me over with a slight sense of relief.
I hadn’t turned to check if the man was still behind us, but as we made our way through the shrine to get the main road, the multiple statues of foxes were now cast with spotlights, and the shadows that they cast on the shrine were slightly perturbing.
As we finally made it out to the entrance of the initial temple grounds, we were now steps away from the subway, and as we made it through the gantries, I turned behind and the man was no longer in sight.