Our class went to Fushimi Inari, a famous shrine in Kyoto, lined with beautiful iconic red torii gates. Fushimi Inari is advertised as the most popular place to go in Japan, stated by Tripadvisor. As one would assume, there were hoards of tourists and locals, making it hard to walk through the initial Torii. We were encouraged to do the hike to the top of the mountain if we had time to before we had to go home to our host family for dinner. I decided to hike to the top on my own. This was the third time I have done this hike, so while I knew my quads would be in pain, I also knew that it was very doable. The further I went up, the fewer people (tourists) there were, and the more calming it felt. There are multiple view spots on the way that I stopped at, falling in love with the view of Kyoto. Surprisingly, the top is not a view spot itself, rather it is a collection of shrines where you can pray or give offerings; a different kind of beauty, I think.
After making it to the top, I began making my way down the mountain, excited to get ice cream at the bottom. On my way down, I found a dirt path, unlined with gates, and millions of stone steps with overgrown weeds. This unknown and untouched path was surely an invite, so I followed it. I kept wondering why this path existed, as it continued to go on and on with no destination. I finally arrived at a collection of shrines but I noticed this path continued so I kept walking.
All of a sudden, I was by a road and a forest, and I saw a tiny shack-like home in the midst of all the dewey trees. I walked towards this structure, surrounded by wood sculptures; there was a window with a mirror and an older man staring at me through the mirror inside the house. He gestured for me to come in and he met me at his door and invited me inside. When I peered inside, I saw hundreds of wood carved and painted sculptures, and I couldn’t decline his polite and kind invite so I went inside.
I first said, “Ojamashimasu” essentially meaning, I will be burdening your space with my presence, a phrase Japanese commonly use when entering someone’s personal space or home. I forget where the conversation began, but after it began, it didn’t end. He told me about his career as a wood sculptor, coming up on 35 years. He showed me how he began to sculpt, showing me the Buddha outline on blocks, and showed me how it would turn out looking. He told me that often times, people would send him broken sculptures or broken buddhas for him to fix and send back.
He asked me about my knowledge of Fushimi Inari and the significance of various things like the fox. I knew and regurgitated the little I knew (as we were a little behind in class), feeling bad I came to such a sacred place with the little knowledge I had. But, without making me feel stupid or ignorant, he told me about all of the little things Fushimi Inari was about.
Fushimi Inari is a place to ask for prosperity and success for one’s business. People from all over (mainly Japan, but our professor showed us a photo of one from Moscow) donate money to have a Torii built and put up in order to ask Inari to bring success to their business. At Fushimi Inari, the God, or Kami, they are praying to is a fox. A lot of times it has to do with rice fields, and oftentimes you’ll see rice in the foxes’ mouth. Other times, you’ll see a scroll, which signifies wisdom or a gem. He told me that the significance of the fox comes from the specific kanji that is used when writing “Fushimi Inari.” The kanji implies that the bugs are eating the rice, and the mice eat the bugs and the rice, but the fox itself eats the mice (which eats the bugs) which saves the rice fields and makes for a prosperous year.
While my professor said that some of the things he told me, she had never heard, I took everything he said to heart and found more validity in his words than the textbooks itself. Once again, here I am experientially learning.
One might think, why did she go into a random stranger’s home in a foreign country, and I thought the same thing–don’t worry. I couldn’t help but feel nervous here and there, wondering about my safety and if I was stupid for entering this man’s space. Questioning the motives of men and being conscious of one’s surroundings are things women often have to think about. This was one of those times, yet I didn’t want to miss an opportunity. Of course, the reality of it was that he was so genuinely kind, friendly, and wanted to share his knowledge, and I’m forever grateful for this friendship we built and the knowledge he provided. I’m so glad I followed my gut and entered his home, although I know that it is a good idea for me and my peers to exercise caution while traveling.
All in all, the first week of Japan has been great and I hope to continue experiencing the spontaneity I have experienced so far. Spontaneity is, of course, synonymous with this trip, and moments like these remind me why I love traveling so much and, even more, why I love learning about different cultures… even if it is my own culture, I still have so much to learn.