Did we really find a cemetery in Kyoto?

What do you do when, whilst walking through thousands of vermilion gates and Shinto shrines, you unexpectedly wander off the common path and stumble into what looks like a traditional Japanese cemetery?

Little does one know, that nestled away among the bright red Torii Gates and endless sacred shrines of Fushi-Inari Taisha lies something that looks like a sacred Japanese cemetery. It’s easy to miss, confuse, or rather, obliviously walk right on through without even knowing what it is you’re seeing around you. But as the air changes into a mix of something sacred and a little eerie, you soon wonder if it really is a Shinto Graveyard that you’ve stumbled upon in Kyoto.

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Fushimi Inari Taisha is located on Inariyama Mountain and while there are endless shrines all around Japan, Fushimi-Inari is one of the most visited. Dedicated to the Shinto Gods of Rice, Sake and Merchants, it’s easy to see why so many business people come here to place offerings and engage in worship.

The Inari Kami, or Gods, to which people pray symbolizes prosperity and success. Many people, who can afford it, have funded the tangerine-colored torii gates. These have been donated by people with inscriptions of wishes they hope will come true. The main gate to the Fushimi Inari shrine itself was actually donated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi with a wish that his mother would recover.

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There are many smaller shrines located all along the way to the summit of Inariyama Mountain and while many people pray at several points, we prayed at the bottom of the mountain.

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Partaking in the traditional Japanese prayer consists of 8 steps:

  • Start by drawing water from a fountain using the ladle.
  • Using the water in the ladle, cleanse your left hand first.
  • Then cleanse your right hand, being sure to leave some water for the next part of the prayer.
  • Raise some water to your mouth. Spit this beside the fountain.
  • Next, throw a coin into the offering hall and ring the bell.
  • Bow deeply two times over.
  • Clap your hands in succession for another two times while you pray.
  • Bow one last time.

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Tiny torii replicas can also be purchased along the way and used as part of the prayer ritual. Amidst the many smaller shrines located along the hike to the mountain top, you will also see ema cards in which people write their wishes for success, happiness and peace in hopes that the Gods will answer their prayers.

Hundreds of stone foxes or kitsune can be found, along the pathway, amidst the shrines and even in the forest.

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These foxes are thought to be the messengers of the God, Inari. Often, these foxes are present in pairs and are seen with a key in their mouth symbolizing the keys to the rice granaries which they are protecting.

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While walking along the path through the red torii gates, something unusual caught my attention and distracted me. Nothing bad has ever come from wandering off to explore the unknown. This time was no different.

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I scrambled up the high steps and suddenly it went from having many people on the same path hiking up Inariyama Mountain to not a single soul around me.

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The air changed and everything was silent. Moss covered the stairs and pathway before me, and as beautiful as it was, it was a little eerie too.

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Burning incense was lit and what looked like tombstones with Japanese engraving seemed to line the pathways before me. It was as if I had stumbled into a hidden Japanese cemetery.

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Little did I know at the time, that it actually was not a Japanese cemetery but rather Otsuka stones laid there by people as a sign of worship. Inscribed on these stones are names of deities or rather, godly virtues being worshiped.

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These engravings are often done by people who worship Inari Okami under different names. The practice of engraving stones and placing them on the mountain allows families to express their own faith. These stones are better known as otsuka stones and there are now over 10 000 otsuka stones, many of which you will see all around Inariyama Mountain.

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Have you visited Fushimi-Inari Taisha?

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Hi World! I'm Shal - an environmental microbiologist, writer, teacher and artist from Durban, South Africa. I've spent the last two years traveling and teaching Chemistry and English to young kids in Asia. Life of Shal was founded as a way to share travel experiences, tips and other worldly magic with you! Join me on my journey!

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