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Memoirs of a Ryokō-sha

The scene at the end of Memoirs of a Geisha (the film, not the book) where we see a flashback of the main character Sayuri - when she was still a little girl known as Chiyo - running through hundreds and thousands of stunning vermilion gateways is one of my the most memorable and visually arresting scenes I've ever seen. I loved the book when I first read it - at the time, I was still young enough to be caught up in the romanticism of it all, and I hadn't yet questioned the strangeness of the age gap between Chiyo/Sayuri and the Chairman (especially when they first met), or (*spoiler alert*) the potentially creepy tone behind the idea that he - a grown man - was the one who had asked Mameha to train this little girl to become a geisha in the first place, with the intent of someday buying her mizuage and/or becoming her danna... until they finally met both as adults, and things didn't go as planned. But putting that aside for a moment - as well as the other controversies surrounding both the book and the movie (from claims of the leaked anonymity of a source and inaccuracy, to cultural appropriation and the casting choices) - the looks of the film are certainly stunning, from the scenes showcasing the beautiful landscape to the costumes (oh, those kimono fabrics!).

So when I took a trip to Japan with Kyoto as one of my destinations, I knew that the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine – which is where that scene was set – was definitely at the top of my list.

Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, Kyoto, Japan
Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, Kyoto, Japan / Photo by Yi-Hwa Hanna

I adored this place. The air was so still, so quiet, that the only sounds I could hear were the crunch of the gravel as the heels of my boots clicked along the path, the chirp of birds flitting around the trees beyond, and the sound of my breath catching as I sighed at the sheer beauty of the landscape beyond the pillars. Fox figurines peppered the landscape, dotted between the little shrines and looking out upon us like mysterious guardians, eerily lifelike. It was March, the chill of winter still lingering in the air and nipping at my cheeks to give them a rosy flush, yet springtime was clearly creeping in with pink buds nestled in among the greenery, ready to bloom. Although the shrine is a very popular tourist destination in Kyoto – both for foreign and Japanese tourists, including numerous school kids from all over Japan – it’s so vast that it’s easy to become delightfully lost in. I loved that about this place. I always find it such a shame that in many of the world’s most beautiful places (like the Taj Mahal, for instance), no matter how tranquil they may have been once upon a time, in the modern day with hordes of tourists descending upon them it’s not easy to just quietly reflect upon their beauty and take it in, as I imagine must have been easier in ye olden days. I feel like the full appreciation for a lot of these places is often lost this way, and while of course there are many travellers who truly know how to appreciate things (and I’ve been guilty of whizzing past certain sights myself), sometimes you can’t help but wish the entire place would clear out just so you could reflect on things quietly and, well, alone. The tunnel of gates here is 4km long and beyond them lies acres of forest, so thankfully, no matter how busy it gets, it’s actually relatively easy to find your own little space of peace and quiet here, at least for a little while. If you’re planning to walk all the way through the path of gates from one end to the other, prepare a lot of time – it can take you a couple of hours, especially if you keep pausing to look at things (or take pictures) along the way. Now for a little bit of background: There are more than 30,000 Inari-Jinja (Inari Shrines) in Japan, and the Fushimi Inari shrine is the main one. These Shinto shrines worship the Inari kami, supreme or divine beings/spirits in the Shinto faith, of fertility, rice, and so on. The exact origins of when this type of worship started are unknown if I’m not mistaken, but it was widespread as of the 16th century, and many modern businsses and people continue to revere the kami even in the modern day – apparently, Japanese cosmetics giant Shiseido has shrines on top of their corporate headquarters! As you walk around the Fushimi Inari shrine, you’ll notice lots of fox figurines everywhere. These foxes, known as kitsune, are the Inari’s messengers. In Japanese folklore, foxes are often depicted as wise creatures that possess magical abilities, such as being able to assume human form when need be. They wield such power and influence that people are said to worship them or make offerings to them too as deities in their own right. The foxes often hold a key in their mouth, and these are meant to be the keys to the rice granaries. The vermilion gates, called torii, are donated or bought to signify something’s transition to becoming sacred, and these gates (of which there are thousands) line the footpaths between the smaller shrines. Each gate is somehow unique, and it’s amazing seeing how the new ones, bright red with fresh lacquer and more modern scripture, are nestled comfortably side by side with older ones, where you can see the colour chipping off in places, with more old-fashioned writing on them. You can’t help but wonder how many years that particular gate has been standing there. From one side, you can see the fiery posts stretching as far as the eye can see, bare and smooth, while from the other direction, hundreds and thousands of names adorn the gates from the people and business, big and small, who donated them. While my favourite part was walking through the stunning torii-flanked foothpaths, visiting the actual main Fushimi Inari Shrine is also important. You can’t miss it – it’s quite large, and in front of it you’ll find tons of people buying omamori charms and writing their wishes on wooden ema boards, some plain and some coloured, hanging them up and praying for their hopes and dreams to come true. I made a wish, of course – but as for what it was, that’s my secret…


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