Early Mornings at Inari Shrine
With the earliest shrine structures first built in 711, the Inari Shrine is a storied, and totally massive, complex.
Reaching Mount Inari is relatively straightforward. The shrine is located just a short walk away from the JR Inari station. It can also be reached by a short walk from the Keihan Mainline Fushimi Inari Station.
The shrine, at least early in the morning, also has plenty of parking for both cars and bikes. For a full Kyoto experience, rent a bike and ride through the city's streets to reach the base of the shrine.
The most important thing to keep in mind about the shrine is get there early. Think about the earliest you would be willing to visit a destination, and then get to Inari Shrine two hours earlier. We visited just after 6 AM, and the shrine was already beginning to fill up. By 10 AM, as we were leaving, the entire complex was thronged and significantly less pleasant.
Also, be prepared to spend unpwards of four hours on the mountain to see everything; vital information if you get hangry. However, there are vendors at various stops selling food or snacks, including tea and boiled eggs, and plenty of drink machines.
On Kyoto's Mount Inari (Inariyama) stands one of the most impressive and legendary Shinto shrines in Japan. Dedicated to the spirit (kami) Inari, the shrine honors the god's patronage of fertility, tea, industry, and — perhaps most importantly — rice.
Starting at the base of the mountain, the shrine weaves its way up and up to the very summit through woods, along lakes, and nearly always through the seemingly endless tunnels of the brilliantly reddish-orange torii.
Each wooden torii is donated by a Japanese business or individual. Over time, as the torii inevitability rot away and decay, the gate is removed and a new one is placed in its stead, keeping the shrine dynamically alive.
The road to the top of Inari can take a significant amount of time. After arriving a little after 6AM to beat the crowds — gotta get those empty torii tunnel shots, amirite? — we didn't make it back down to the base of the mountain until after 10. This was largely a product of us stopping to ooh and ah at every bend of the gates, every glance at the multitude of mini sub-shrines off of the main path, and also to oggle at the innumerable and unique kitsune (statues of foxes, the messenger spirit of Inari) we constantly stumbled across.
And while the torii were undoubtedly magical, the entire expanse of the shrine is like stepping into a Miyazaki movie as kitsune loom over passages and act as fountains while small side paths lead to mini shrines hidden in mini-mountain spring ravines complete with their own tiny waterfalls.
For those who either physically cannot climb the entire mountain, or have had their full of torii gates and are short on time, the torii tunnels lead to the Yotsutsuji Intersection after about a 45 minute climb, which is a perfect place to catch your breath and turn around if needed.
Here the torii tunnels split off towards the main shrine at the top of the mountain and other side shrines. At this point there is no longer significant variation in the trail, although as a completionist I found hiking the rest of Inari to be intrinsically satisfying and worth it. The intersection also provides a panorama view of Kyoto spread out below