Japan Journal: Day 1- Fushimi Inari Taisha
Updated: Jan 25, 2018
It's funny but if I had to name my biggest fear about traveling alone, it's that I would get lonely. Loneliness, is like a cancer... actually, no I take that back. Cancer is worse. WAY worse. What was I thinking comparing those two?
Actually, loneliness is more like a tapeworm. It sits just inside of you, making you feel like shit, and just getting bigger and bigger the more you try and eat your feelings away. But tape worms can sometimes poke out of your butt or something I think... I don't know, This isn't a perfect analogy.
But the fear that I would be lonely is ironic because in actuality, I'm lonely all the time regardless of where I'm at. I'm lonely in my small apartment with my dog. I'm lonely when I'm opening Christmas presents around my family. I'm lonely when I go out for drinks with my friends. And I'm especially lonely when I'm teaching, even though the class is full of the chaotic, volatile, radioactive half-life of teenagers at their most hormonal.
On the subject of traveling alone, a friend of mine recently said to me, "It really is strange traveling alone. I felt silly going to eat alone. Like, ashamed even."
But sitting in this little diner next to my hotel eating my first Japanese style breakfast, I felt like I was keeping it together. You'd think I wouldn't be, eating alone, scarfing down a big chunk of salmon, a bowl of some kind of beef dish, a big bowl of rice that I would usually mix the beef dish into, miso soup, some kind of purple coleslaw type salad (but better tasting and with no mayonnaise, so, not actually like coleslaw at all), some seaweed, and then washing it down with tea.
You'd think that mean little tapeworm inside of me would just be going to town. I had no phone, no way to contact anyone, and no way to speak to the locals, no idea where I was most of the time, and every reason to panic. But amazingly, I was alright.
I was appreciating the moment.
I think it's because I had my camera with me.
Now I'm not going to say my camera is like my friend, that would be pathetic. But, it does give me a purpose while I'm there. I'm there to take pictures. To get up early, and run around, and carve out just enough space in this small country to get the shot I'm looking for. But all the while, I worried that that switch might turn, and I'd spend the rest of my time in Japan in complete misery.
Alright, moving forward.
The Imperial Park was a bust. Where to go next? Fortunately for myself, there is a lot to see in Kyoto. I decided to head to one of the places I had been really looking forward to going: Fushimi Inari Taisha.
I pull out my guidebook, appropriately from a company called “Lonely Planet,” (which is morbidly appropriate given my concerns) and plotted my course to Inari Mountain.
It seemed like a pretty simple route there. Just one train. I’d never taken a train in Japan before, but I had the rail pass, so how complicated could it be? Turns out, very. I took three trains before getting to my stop. Before then, I went back and fourth with each train seemingly skipping the exit I needed until just by chance I got onto a train that happened to stop at the exit I needed. I had no idea how I did this, and I wouldn’t be able to duplicate this success later in the day, but in the mean time I congratulated myself on my successful navigation of the Japanese train system.
It wasn’t efficient but I didn’t die either!
I walked to Fushimi Inari Taisha, following the large crowd of people that I both hoped were walking to the place I wanted to go and who I also hoped would somehow spontaneously combust right before entering it so I could explore it alone. I was sure one of these things would eventually come true.
But even if they had spontaneously combusted, it wouldn't have made the slightest bit of difference. Apparently, Fushimi Inari Taisha was a popular place for large crowds of people, and all of the large crowds in Kyoto had got the memo to show up today. They formed a thick line of slowly shuffling heads gawking and shoving their cameras each others faces trying to photograph every nook and cranking of every shrine, anticipating the top of the mountain as if it was a ride at Disneyland that had gotten WAY out of control.
Smartphones, compacts, and DSLR’s popped out of the mass of humanity like flowers on a rosebush, and every camera was in another camera’s way so that no one really got any good shots of the place. Just when you thought you had a decent shot, out some moron would come carelessly walking into your shot and muck the whole thing up.
It was maddening.
I was getting tired of the whole business, so I took a little side trail going god knows where and instantly found myself in a completely different kind of place. A bamboo grove so thick, it blotted out much of the light from the grey skies above. I hiked around, leaving most of the crowds far behind me, and much to my delight, there were shrines here too. And graveyards. The lighting wasn’t too great for photographs through, but beggars can’t be choosers. I saw waterfalls, and moss, and tulips, and a vending machine just out in the middle of nowhere. (I love all the oddly placed vending machines in Japan! Especially the ones that serve hot coffee!)
Finally, I had walked the path until it dropped me back on the main path, just outside of the top of the mountain, and even though my shoes were all muddy and I was noticeably sweatier and smellier than the tourists who had come up the main way, I had no doubt I had taken the right path.
I took a selfie at the top of the mountain as the gawkers cast judgmental looks my way.
All the people around got me kind of down. All these shrines, and graves, and fox statues, somehow lost all of their magic next to the gawking faces of the multitude of tourists. Their presence (and I'm sure mine too) seemed to push out whatever inherent spiritual aspect the place had until the only thing left to do... was drink.
There were all these little tiny, traditional restaurants on the way back down and I decided if I wasn’t going to be able to connect spiritually with the place, I was going to drink with it instead. So every time I saw one of these little inns, I’d stop and have myself a small bottle of sake.
On my third bottle, I decided to have myself a selfie too, so I put my DSLR on the table next to mine, guesstimated what focal distance to set it at (all my lenses are manual), set the timer on it, and then ran back to the other table in time to pose with my little sake cup and smirk.
The little old Japanese lady who ran the place looked at me like I might have a potential screw loose. Not the first time I did it, but probably around the sixth or seventh she started really questioning my sanity. Especially since by that point, I had drank all the sake and was just posing with an empty cup!
I was having a great time though, so I apologized for my stupid behavior and ordered another small bottle of sake from her, this time enjoying it without the distraction of the camera, on a mountain in Japan surrounded by shrines and graves... and tourists.
And then I decided to stop being yet another tourist ruining what should be an otherwise spiritual experience, and took the train back to my hotel.
Of course taking the train took me hours because I got lost again, but I got there eventually, had a nice, hot bath, and then slept like a big sweaty baby.