Fushimi Inari Shrine’s Mysterious Residents
The inari Taisha shrine dedicated to the Fox god Inari is possibly the most famous image in all of Japan. Hundreds of giant red torii gates domino up the mountain in an elegant wave of vermillion splendour. Being one of the top spots, it’s always crowded with visitors from around the world. But if you plan to visit at the right time, the crowds disappear entirely and a wondrous event begins to unfold.
Hundreds of Torii gates
Fushimi Inari Taisha is open 24 hours a day. You’re always welcome to come and wander the hills and meander through the tunnels of red torii gates. Each one is donated to the shrine, and the patron’s name is engraved in black onto the gate. When the sun sinks behind the horizon and the evening lanterns gleam to life, Inari shrines more furry residents come out to play. After dark, the red gates are illuminated softly, making the experience calmer and more serene than the bustle of the daytime. Out from the corners and crevices of the mountain, dozens of cats appear.
The cats of Inari Taisha Shrine are super friendly, sitting pretty more a picture or brushing against your legs before running off into the night. The cats wander around the pathways, darting in and out as you follow up the trail. All sorts of cats live here, big cats, tiny kittens, and cats with fur white as the snow that glints in the moonlight. Their personalities as different as their coats. They’re happy to sit in the prime spots and let you take a picture of them basking like glorious cat kings. Or sitting serenely as you nuzzle them behind the ears for a few minutes or all night.
Who doesn’t love cats?
I was feeling a little drained after spending two weeks hopping around the country. So when I reached Kyoto and the weather became icy I decided to relax for the afternoon. I’d been to the Inari shrine once before, on a cold, rainy day in the winter. People passed to and fro clutching colourful umbrellas close to them and huddling against the cold. I’ve always been lucky enough to find InarI Taisha free from crowds. It’s a little ethereal to have the place all to yourself, I felt like I was in a dream, or a private movie set from my imagination.
The first time was an afternoon of perfect clarity, just me, myself and the mountain. This time, I decided to go at the end of the day and catch the shrine after dark. I arrived just as a gathering of Japanese sportsmen had lined up in front of the shrine to pray. We stood a moment in silence, waited for them to clap twice, bow and clap again. Then carried on our way through the torii gates.
Just as I made my way a little up the first hill, a pair of gleaming eyes appeared out of the darkness and walked towards me. It was a cat, her beautiful white fur glowing against the red of the gates. She sat, eyeing me curiously, and I smiled as she passed. The next minute, we were surrounded as more cats began to appear on the steps and out from the dense shadows.
Messengers from the Gods
It was an incredible sight, I’d never heard of cats being seen here before. A few of them were following an old Japanese man along the path, and he was clicking to them with his fingers, but then they would move off and disappear. I spent a moment stroking a gorgeous little white and ginger cat sitting regally on a plinth. I spent more time fussing the cats than exploring the shrine that night, and before long headed back down the mountain to catch the last bus back to the hostel.
Find out more about the sacred Inari Shrine here
The unexpected moments are always the most special
The shrine is already a magnificent sight, but the cats just make it all the more special and one that not every tourist gets to experience. In Japan, cats are considered lucky, and it’s common to find one residing in a sacred site. The Inari cats are possibly messengers of the Fox god Inari, or perhaps the Fox spirit himself in disguise. Who knows where they came from, but they chose the Inari Shrine as their home and the locals couldn’t love them more. Not everyone gets to call one of the most sacred sites in the world their home.
Have you ever visited the Inari shrine cats? Or do you prefer it in the day? Let me know in the comments or get in touch!
Inari Shrine is included in the handy map of some of my favourite spots in Kyoto.
How to photograph Fushimi Inari at night -
How to get to Fushimi Inari Shrine -