It’s a ten minute walk from the train station to Kyoto’s famous Fushimi Inari shrine. You step onto the platform and through a sequence of red pillars and cross beams, making your way through the automated metal ticket gates, then into the sunlight and out onto the street. It’s a scene like many others in 21st-century Japan — cars and bikes pass pedestrians on the narrow, shop-lined road. Concrete and asphalt cover the ground, while power lines and street lights stretch across the sky. You cross streets and turn corners, passing shop signs, motorcycles and vending machines until eventually you arrive at the feet of a large torii gate. This wooden, red-painted structure, comprising two wide pillars and two lintels, cuts a striking figure against the sky and the surrounding paraphernalia of modern life. It marks the spot where the movement of the city ends, and the sacred ground of the Fushimi Inari shrine complex begins.
In this virtual tour by Japanese tour service Japonisme, this ten minute trek is condensed into about thirty seconds of video footage, but it’s just enough to give you a sense of the dynamic nature of Kyoto — a 21st-century city with a rich cultural history that continues to live and breathe within its bounds.
Mayco, our guide for this 75-minute tour, tells us of Kyoto’s past as the capital of Japan from 794 to 1869, remarking that some people still consider it to be the nation’s capital over Tokyo. She goes on to illustrate several of Kyoto’s cultural offerings with a wide selection of photos and on-the-ground video footage, pausing periodically to engage her audience with questions, and fill in the story behind the visuals.
Using this hybrid presentation style, Mayco guides us into the shrine complex. We follow clusters of visitors along the wide, maple-lined walking path and up a set of stairs, catching a glimpse of the red-and-green accented building that houses the main shrine before passing through another large torii gate. Here we get our first look at one of the most famous views in Japan: the Senbon Torii, or 1000 gates.
Layers of red wooden frames stand back-to-back in a seemingly endless sequence, forming a dense canopy over the stepped trail below. Mayco explains how, in the past, people would donate a gate to the complex to celebrate a wish that came true — a tradition that has since evolved into a 5 year waiting list, a price range of 2000-15,300 USD, and approximately 10,000 gates that visitors can walk through over the course of a 2-3 hour hike.
She says that there are over 30,000 shrines in Japan dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of harvest and business, and that many of Fushimi Inari’s donations nowadays come from companies looking to bolster their good fortune as well as advertise their business (each gate is inscribed with the name of its donor). Even if you are familiar with the Senbon Torii, you, too, might find yourself surprised by the details of its modern-day afterlife.
Japonisme’s KYOTO VIRTUAL TOUR Showcases City’s Robust Cultural History
Mayco then takes us for a deep dive into the world of geisha — specifically geiko, or geisha of Kyoto. She explains how, during the period of peace and financial growth that followed the country’s unification under the Tokugawa shogunate, people had more freedom to travel and indulge in recreation. This led to the development of commercial districts along pilgrimage paths, including the road to Kyoto’s Yasaka shrine, where a robust geisha culture flourished.
Using a series of photos, she takes guests through a side-by-side comparison of geiko and maiko, or apprentice geiko. We learn to identify geiko from their simpler style of dress and the defined hairline formed by their wig, and maiko by their use of seasonal accessories and natural (but traditionally styled) hair. Mayco describes the stages of intense training that girls must go through before they officially debut as geiko – this includes learning the Kyoto dialect, mastering a number of traditional Japanese arts, and sleeping with their necks propped up on a padded rod in order to maintain their styled hair throughout the week. If, like this writer, your knowledge of geisha is limited to passing visual representations, you might be stunned to learn about the work that it takes to both maintain this iconic image and establish a career from it.
Mayco highlights several other exclusive-to-Kyoto destinations, including a famous Zen garden, scenic walking paths, and traditional-style alleyways ideal for a night on the town. Along the way she points out places to dine, favorite spots for taking pictures, and where, exactly, you might see geiko and maiko on their way to work.
Packed with information and a colorful array of visuals, this tour offers an in-depth look at some of the most iconic images in Japanese culture, illustrating the reality of their development within Kyoto, and the tangible role they still have in people’s day-to-day lives. It is easily recommended to anyone with a desire to travel, especially those who may be limited by their budget or Covid-related concerns. It is also recommended to those who enjoy learning specific details and anecdotes as a way of digesting larger concepts of history and culture.
Check out Japonisme’s website for information on upcoming tours.
Images courtesy of Japonisme, unless otherwise noted
About the Author: Lily LeaVesseur
Lily LeaVesseur has harbored a fondness for the arts since she was a few months old, when her parents took her on her first of many stroller rides through the halls of the Art Institute of Chicago. Even after moving to San Diego as a child, she returned many times so that she could stare down her favorite pieces, combing them over again and again for clues to their greatness.
She carried this enthusiasm like a missionary, and in high school petitioned to re-open the single Art History course on the roster so that she could study it with her friends. She loved feeling like she could unlock some sort of intangible mystery behind works of art, and looking for herself within the artists that created them.
Since then Lily has continued to explore art both analytically and creatively. She now writes poetry and non-fiction, sometimes accompanied by illustrations or watercolor, and hopes to one day collect these works into a graphic novel. When she's not writing or drawing, she can otherwise be found skating with friends, experimenting with new food combinations, and/or lying on the floor contemplating the transcendental nature of TikTok.