Just Me in Japan – Kyoto and the Gods of Inari

Thursday 22 November 2012

Today I get my first look at Narita in the daylight.  It’s still a bunch of overpasses and flyovers.  But I’ll get another look before I leave next week.

I grab the first shuttle bus back to the Airport to catch the Narita Express to Shinagawa, and then the Shinkansen “Nozomi” onwards to Kyoto. The top speed of these trains is 300km/hr (yet their stopping time is 3 minutes, 45 seconds!). There has never been a major accident in all their years of operation, which commenced in 1964. The average delay for the shinkansen (bullet train) for the entire year of 2007 was 30 seconds.


Waiting for the NEX, I came across this vending machine.  Spying a can of coffee, I press the button, thinking it will be something like a cold choc milk – I’ll be darned if it didn’t come out of the machine hot!

The Nozomi bullet train which I will be travelling on from Shinagawa to Kyoto, is the fastest train service running on the Tokaido/Sanyo line. The word nozomi in Japanese means “hope” or “wish”, and I’m on this train (as opposed to a cheaper one) cause I wish to be in Kyoto ASAP. The trip takes about 2.5 hours and it’s at this point that I wish I’d learnt to say “excuse me, but there’s 3 seats here and only two of us – would you mind moving over the end seat so I can move my suitcase a little and my legs stop going numb?” in Japanese.  But I didn’t, so I have to endure.

Most shinkansen trains in Japan offer seats in two classes, which are typically found in separate cars, these are ordinary or green. Not much difference except maybe more footroom – unless you bring a big suitcase and have a numbskull sitting next to you. 

I arrive in Kyoto around 11.30am and decide to brave the luggage delivery service. For Y750 (~$9) per piece, you can have your luggage delivered direct from Kyoto station to your hotel. I am a little concerned when there are no English speaking staff available, but I think me and the guy who served me had quite a worthwhile conversation (no Japanese from me and no English from him) so I hope my luggage will turn up to the right place.

I grab some sandwiches from the station before boarding another train, this one to Inari, about two stops out of Kyoto.  My plan for today is to climb a mountain – Fushimi Inari – half way if that’s what I can manage, all the way if my hard efforts over the last six months have paid off.

“In any part of Japan, you’re all but certain to come across an Inari Shrine. you’ll recognise it instantly by the pair of stone fox statues that are stood guard either side of the entrance or main torii – the particularly ‘oriental’ – looking couple of pillars (commonly painted red or orange at an Inari shrine) that are joined at the top by two cross pieces. So, what exactly is Inari, and what’s with the stone foxes? The first thing you need to know is that Inari is the kami (or god) or rice. Therefore, keeping Inari happy is pretty darned important to the Japanese, given that rice is an absolute staple of most meals. In times gone by, a successful rice harvest made the difference between survival and starvation. It had the same importance to the Japanese as a good potato crop had to the Irish. But what about Inari him-, her- or (and I mean this with the utmost respect) itself? Can we put a face to the name? Well, in this case it just so happens that we can, although when it comes to many Shinto kami, you won’t always be so fortunate. Inari is commonly depicted in one of two ways: either ‘he’ is an elderly man, usually bearded and carrying a couple of bundles of rice, or else ‘she’ is – and here I quote my Buddhist head-priest brother-in-law – ‘a beautiful fox-faced young woman’. Next question: what’s with the foxes? Well, foxes are good for the rice harvest, y’see – they eat other animals that would otherwise damage it, like field mice and birds. In fact, a long, long time ago, a group of foxes went to see Inari to pledge themselves as his servants. I can only imagine that working for a kami was a hell of a lot more exciting than scratching around in dustbins at one in the morning. ‘Keep an eye on the rice crop,’ Inari told them, so that’s just what they’ve been doing ever since.”
 
“A Gaijin’s Guide to Japan”, Ben Stevens

See – it is cold!

This is where I manage to hit my first hitch with the trains, ending up on one that may be a direct train insted of the one I wanted, cause it doesn’t stop at Inari. Realising after about 15 minutes that I probably should have arrived 7 minutes ago, I jump off the train and catch one back the other way, this time to the right stop.

As soon as you pass through the station gates, you can tell you have arrived at the shrine, as a striking massive red torii gate greets you. There are all sorts of shops selling offerings and trinkets along the entrance way. 

Fushimi Inari Shrine is an important Shinto shrine in southern Kyoto.  In fact, it is the most important of several thousands of shrines dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice.  It’s famous for its 4km hike through 1,300 vermillion torii gates, which lead into the wooded forest of the sacred Mount Inari.  And there are statues of foxes EVERYWHERE!  Foxes are thought to be Inari’s messengers, resulting in the many fox statues across the shrine grounds.  It takes about 1 hour to climb to the apex, but the view is spectacular.  And you can stop at any point along the way and turn back.  The halfway point is the Yotsutsuji Intersection, where you can also stop for a rest.

 

Front entry to Fushimi Inari Taisha
The view from half way at the Yotsutsuji Intersection

 

The vermillion torii gates that line the way – they have been donated by companies and individuals over time
 
Beautiful Autumn leaves

 

I’m glad its really cold here, because it’s hard work climbing the mountain and I’m down to a t-shirt. All the Japanese I see climbing the steps have jackets on and I can’t understand why – it’s hot work!

There are little restaurants along the way so you can stop and take a drink or some food and there’s lots of places to stop and rest also. In fact some of the little restaurants look stunning, they have little rooms with huge windows where you can sit and take tea.

But I don’t have time cause I’ve got a task to complete – I want to get to the top of the mountain. As mentioned, it is hard work and I have to stop to take small breathers (I mean photos!), after a couple of hard sections of stairs, but finally, I see it – a sign indicating the top of the mountain. I’ve made it!

TOP of the MOUNTAIN!

Task complete, I wander down the Omotesando, which is a little street full of souvenir and food shops, browsing before hopping back on the train to Kyoto.

I’ve read several times that first impressions of Kyoto can be something of an anticlimax. With everything you hear, read and see of Kyoto in movies, when you first step out of Kyoto station and into the streets for the first time and gazing around at the concrete around you, you are likely to feel that all you’ve heard and read about Kyoto is just so much tourist-literature hype. Thinking back, this is exactly how I felt the first time I visited Kyoto. Although we found lots of spots that were just beautiful and traditional, I guess I was expecting the whole of Kyoto to feel the way I’d imagined it.  The advice is to be patient, for the beauty of Kyoto is hidden from casual view behind walls, doors, curtains and façades. But if you take a little time to explore, you will discover that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of pockets of incredible beauty scattered across the city.  And, the closer you look, the more there is to see.

So instead of catching the subway, I decide to walk to my hotel. It’s quite a walk after the mountain, but it’s a good way to get my bearings.  Kyoto is actually quite easy to get around as it’s laid out in a grid pattern.

I check into the Hotel Gimmond when I arrive, and I’m glad to find my luggage has preceded me – gotta love Japan! The room is small, but really, what do you need – just a bed at the end of the night.

I quickly change and head out to the streets with enthusiasm. It doesn’t take long before I start to wane, but I hit the Nishiki Markets, which is where I wanted to have a browse to try and stock up on some fruit.

 

Nishiki Market is a narrow, five block long shopping street lined by more than one hundred shops and restaurants.  Known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen”, this lively market specialises in all things food relate – fresh seafood, produce, knives and cookware, and is a great place ot find seasonal foods and Kyoto specialties, such as sweets, pickles, dried seafood and sushi.

Some of the shops freely give out samples or sell sample dishes and skewers meant to be eaten then and there. There are also a few small restaurants and food stands selling ready-made food. The market has a history of several centuries, and many stores have been operated by the same families for generations.  So I stock up on fruit – lovely looking bananas, an apply and beautiful strawberries – and then decide to head back to the hotel.  Besides, it’s 5pm and rather dark now!

  
My original plan was to head for the night time illuminations at Kyomizudera Temple, but that will have to wait until another night – I’m just exhausted, I’ve left my glasses back at the hotel and my feet just won’t carry me anymore.
 
Despite my best intentions to eat only Japanese in Japan, I decide to head to the Italian restaurant, Daniel Bella Rosa’s, in the hotel lobby for dinner and a glass or two of red.  It’s a plan that pays off – I order a prawn and mushroom past with my red and it’s divine.  A perfect serving and it tasted awesome.  A great end to a successful day!
 

But I’d have to say, the highlight of the day would have to be whilst I’m showering and suddenly notice this sign….welcome to Japan.

 
 

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