JQ Magazine: In Kyoto, a New Year’s Day Disaster

Rashaad at Fushimi Inari-taisha, Kyoto.

By Rashaad Jorden (Yamagata-ken, 2008-2010) for JQ magazine. Rashaad worked at four elementary schools and three junior high schools on JET, and taught a weekly conversion class in Haguro (his village) to adults. He completed the Tokyo Marathon in 2010, and was also a member of a taiko group in Haguro.

New Year’s Day. A day some welcome in a crazed stupor while others might celebrate it in serenity. Or maybe confusion.

I would be spending my New Year’s Day on vacation in the Kansai region. Upon getting off the bus in Osaka, I had no idea what locales I’d explore. But my plans were nothing to be stressed about as I’d simply follow the recommendations of my Lonely Planet.

And others. Shortly after checking into my hostel in Osaka, I met an American college student on a homestay in Tokyo. She had come to town for the same reason I had. So quite naturally, we started to talk about places worth visiting in the Kansai region. Fortunately for me, she was familiar with several tourist spots in the area.

I definitely knew about Kyoto’s infinite number of shrines, but I wasn’t sure which ones to visit. However, my compatriot recommended Kiyomizu-dera, Kinkaku-ji, and Fushimi Inari-taisha.

So I was off to Kyoto the next day. I crossed the first two locales off my list, but I didn’t have time to fit in Fushimi Inari-taisha. No worries—I had two more days in the region. My biggest concern was finding something to do other than going to bed at 10 p.m. on New Year’s Eve. Fortunately, four other Yamagata Prefecture ALTs who were taking a road trip to Hiroshima stopped in Osaka that night, so I had some friendly faces to ring in the new year with.

After a night of clubbing, I went to bed at roughly five a.m. On a normal morning, my eyes wouldn’t have seen the light of day until noon. But guests at the hostel had to evacuate by ten a.m. to allow for daily cleanup. And besides, I had—at most—40 hours left in my Kansai trip upon returning to the hostel. So I got up at eight a.m. to take the train to Kyoto.

Roughly an hour later, upon getting off at Inari Station, I felt like I was in a Tokyo train during rush hour. Everyone seemed to share the same brilliant idea of making a hatsumoude at Fushimi Inari-taisha. Not surprising, considering the shrine, which was dedicated to the gods of rice and sake by the Hata family in the 8th century, is considered one of Japan’s most popular.

Just as I was getting off the train, I noticed a woman holding a Lonely Planet Kyoto guide. We quickly struck up a conversation, and I learn she’s Jenny from Seattle. While I would’ve been perfectly fine exploring the shrine solo, I was happy to share observations with a fellow English-speaking traveler.

Fushimi Inari-taisha is different from most shrines I’ve visited. The area—consisting of five shrines across the woods of Inari-yama—doesn’t have a simple landmark to be admired. It actually presents a hiking opportunity as its pathway rises four kilometers up the mountain. Once Jenny and I went under a big torii near the entrance and weaved our way through the crowds, we started the hike.

This was pleasant due to it being relaxing and full of torii, quintessential Japanese structures I love. I had no idea as I’d see so many of them at Fushimi Inari-taisha. The torii weren’t the only Japanese symbol we got acquainted with there. The shrine is also populated with stone foxes, as foxes are the messenger of Inari (the god of the rice harvest).

When Jenny and I reached the summit, I was amazed. Not because of the actual hike, but because the sight of a New Year’s Day crowd, torii and stone foxes make Fushimi Inari-taisha a sight to behold. While on the summit, Jenny told me she was going to spend the next 15 minutes writing thoughts and observations in her journal. She had taken copious notes throughout the hike, which was facilitated by her ability to read kanji. I certainly could’ve waited for her to complete her journal entries, but I was impatient to leave the area and explore other parts of town. So I said goodbye to Jenny and started my descent.

The easiest way to return to the station would have been to go back down the same path. I figured I could reach the station in an about an hour. But as I began my descent I saw what looked like a shortcut through the woods, so I didn’t hesitate to take it.

However, when I saw a parking lot a few minutes later, I realized something wasn’t right. There are no parking lots adjacent to the shrine or train station. Without a map and uncertain, while making my way back to the summit I spotted a group of people all sitting down. I really wanted to ask them for help, but I couldn’t even say “I’m lost” in Japanese. So I continued to zigzag in search of any sign of the train station or summit of Inari-yama. At that point, being stranded at night wasn’t a concern of mine as it was before noon. But as I bounced from one portion of grass to another, nary another soul was in sight. Amazing considering how crowded Fushimi-inari Taisha gets on New Year’s Day. Then again, others don’t foolishly walk off into the woods.

I continued to freak out when all I saw were trees and no sign of human life. The only thing I could do was walk in somewhat of a straight line for a while and hope for the best.

Which turned out to be a group of older folks going on a stroll. They appeared to be veering toward the summit of Inari-yama or the highest point I reached when I was climbing with Jenny. I didn’t want to freak them out, so I quietly followed them. I definitely could’ve risked getting myself even more lost, but within several minutes, I found life—the summit of Inari-yama.

And an interesting way to celebrate the New Year.

For more on Fushimi Inari-taisha, click here.