travel

Beware the setting sun in Kyoto’s most famous shrine

Fushimi-Inari shrine is a beautiful place that grows increasingly intimidating as the sun begins to set.

“Just don’t go after dark,” warned the Japanese man with a smile. “It is a very scary place after dark.”

The rich red architecture glowed as bright as the setting sun as the sacred fox statuettes danced in their rays. The chatter of excited Japanese children bounced throughout the shrine before floating away in the breeze.

Shinto devotees burned incense in honour of Inari, their goddess of rice. The smoke followed visitors around the shrine, tickling their nostrils like playful spirits.

The innocence of the scene drew me in further, too enamoured by its beauty to heed the Japanese man’s warning.

Torii gates guarded the mountain base. Scattered but strong, poised like soldiers. Their red frames shimmered in the receding sunlight, but gradually darkened into an eerie maroon.

They had a friendly demeanour though, as if a hand was held out, welcoming me into the bamboo forest.

I obliged.

Now surrounded, the lines of Torii gates stretched beyond sight. One after another, thousands upon thousands of the red archways lined the mountain paths. It was a sight like no other.

I was pulled through. Perhaps by my own curiosity, perhaps by something else.

The lanes twisted and turned; direction and breadth underwent metamorphosis.

Swaying lanterns became increasingly vivid as the surrounding hues grew darker. But it did not matter. The path went on and so did I.

The Torii gates eventually halted, and I was thrust into the bamboo forest with no protection. It was a stunning environment though, a natural Japanese beauty that I was blessed with witnessing first-hand.

I wandered on, forgetting everything but the path under my feet.

It separated sometime later, and a fork in the road returned my consciousness.

Another Torii gate stood to my right, but this one lacked the charm of its relatives. It stood slightly crooked, but still proud. The brilliant red it once donned now grizzled and bleak.

It wasn’t threatening, more akin to an old man who wanted left alone. I neglected its wishes and stepped through.

The path descended, creeping downhill, and I was no longer alone. Statues surrounded me; these ones less playful than the foxes that graced the shrine’s entrance.

They reiterated the older Torii gate’s message, not wanting disturbed. Samurai, generals, and the yōkai of Japanese myth. Each figure different, but all consistent in their eyes focused on me.

I was in a graveyard.

The thought dawned on me in a moment, but that feeling will resonate always. The air suddenly grew thick and heavy as I stood in the midst of history. The ongoing cries of birds above pierced my ears, and goose bumps raised on my arms.

It was time to go. I nodded in respect, strange for an atheist. Swivelling, I returned up the path and avoided the gaze of the statues that surrounded. I don’t remember too much of the journey back, just two things in particular.

First, the relief of being embraced again by the Torii gates at the shrine’s entrance. And second, that I now fully understood the warning of that knowing Japanese man.

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