Near the top of the mountain, we walked into a perfect view of Fushimi Inari’s torii gates. We turned a corner, and there it was waiting for us, with no tourists or anything. A long tunnel of vermillion was being illuminated by a perfectly angled sun, turning every gate a different shade of bright orange, deep and rich in front of us, and golden at the end. It was a tunnel of individual wooden torii gates, two wide round posts on either side of the path, with a squarish, flaired crossbeam structure forming an enclosing ceiling overhead. Despite the winter chill in the air, it felt safe, guarded. The gates were painted black at their base, and Japanese characters crawled up each side. Gentle stone steps were striped with beams of golden sunlight, inviting us to see what was around the next corner.
At the beginning, we never thought we would be so lucky to see such a beautiful view, considering the sheer volume of tourists when we began. At the base of the mountain was the market town, with smoking barbeques, sweet-smelling taiyaki desserts frying, and lots of souvenir shops selling plush fox toys and chopstick sets. A giant torii gate signalled the entrance to the mountain pathways. Most locals and many of the visitors spent their time walking the fifteen minutes through the first section of gates to the first shrine of Fushimi Inari Taisha, and crowds stopped for pictures under the first set of gates. Naturally, we found ourselves easily frustrated by the massive crowds of people crushing to get through. At the shrine, we wrote down our wishes for the year ahead on a wooden fox-headed plaque and hung it with hundreds of others.
Then the real climb began. The torii gates spread out across multiple paths up steep paths all the way to the top of the 233-metre mountain. There were occasional breaks, where a traditional teahouse overlooked a rolling valley, or where stone fox statues with red scarves guarded small cemeteries. Sometimes the path was perfectly flat, other times climbing and dipping and slithering like a great orange snake, offering forest views. Some gates were becoming splintered and decayed in age. Occasionally, we would see a maintenance man crouching down with a pot of black paint, repainting.
At the top of Mount Fushimi, breathing heavily in the crisp winter air, we unwrapped our sushi lunchboxes and admired the view of Kyoto below us. From so high, we barely saw the torii gates, and the mountain was lush and green with forests. The city was low and sprawling, but somehow looked small, hemmed in by the rolling forest hills around it. A few hours it took to reach the top, with plenty of stopping for pictures, and the summit was a wonderful reward.