Fushimi, a small town only a short 15-minute train ride from Kyoto station, has a fantastic shrine to Inari, the Shinto spirit guarded by fox sculptures. The fox is Inari's messenger and guardian. In fact, this is the home shrine to Inari; all smaller shrines with fox statues are subsidiary to this one.
Inari is the rice god, the spirit who insures an abundant harvest and general prosperity. Inari is particularly popular with entrepreneurs and businessmen, since the god assists in business success and accumulating wealth. In gratitude - or perhaps in anticipation of having something to be grateful for - individuals and corporations have torii gates built at the shrine. The red-orange gates, indicating the sacred ground of Shinto shrines, are one of the classic visual images of Japan: a gate framed by two columns or posts supporting two crossbars, one extending beyond the uprights.
The first gates, at the transition from the town to the shrine, are the largest. This area, just at the base of Mount Inari, is given over mostly to a Buddhist temple. As Johnnie Hillwalker explained during our walking tour of Kyoto, the Buddhas and the Shinto spirits are all very friendly. If a place is sacred to one, others will also find the same ground holy. Neither belief is upset when shrines and temples are built side-by-side, and Japanese people have no difficulty reconciling and practicing the two faiths.
Behind the temple are more torii gates and individual shrines to Inari. Further up the hillside, the torii gates suddenly come together, becoming a tunnel: each gate is built immediately adjacent to the next. At intervals, the gates thin out and there is a collection of individual shrines, some ornate, with a dozen or more small torii gate models, others simpler, all with small carved foxes. At higher levels, there are scenic lookouts over Kyoto and tea houses where a tired visitor can get a snack and a rest. The gates and shrines continue up the hillside for 4 kilometers (2.4 miles)!
I found it exotic and mysterious, but being able to read Japanese could spoil the effect. Each gate is marked with information about the donor. As we walked through, my daughter began pointing out, "This one is from an eyeglass shop and an optometrist... this one is from a department store." I had to tell her to stop because she was removing all the romance and intrigue!
In a somewhat unrelated topic, you may encounter inari sushi. There is no raw fish in inari sushi. It consists of rice and sesame seeds wrapped in fried tofu... and it's tasty!