Fushimi Inari Shrine
Tucked away in southern Kyoto, Fushimi Inari Shrine (called Fushimi Inari Taisha/伏見稲荷大社 in Japanese) became a major sightseeing destination in part thanks to the scene in 2005 Hollywood blockbuster Memoirs of a Geisha. However, with the number of tourists arriving in Kyoto steadily rising for years now (aside from an obvious drop due to COVID-19), there’s no doubt that the shrine and its beautiful gates would have risen to popularity in one way or another by now, even without the help of its movie cameo. These days, the red shrine gates, or torii (鳥居) draw massive crowds throughout the year, making it hard to take pictures without including a few happy strangers taking center screen. So here are a few tips on how to take pictures of Fushimi Inari Shrine itself, and not the other visiting travelers.
In the end, catching a great shot of the shrine and the torii has a lot to do with luck. But a little advance planning can seriously increase your chances of arriving at a less crowded and less crazy shrine. Sakura (cherry blossom season) at the beginning of April, mid-summer, and peak koyo (autumn foliage viewing) season around November are all periods when tourists gather in Japan, which makes them less than ideal times for capturing the perfect snapshot. Of course, if you’re a traveler taking a nice vacation to Japan, chances are pretty high that you’re heading to Kyoto close to those seasons, too. The only time of year that you absolutely will not be able to catch a photo without other people is New Years. From January first to the middle of the month, Fushimi Inari is packed with locals and travelers alike, all there to celebrate “hatsumode” (初詣), the first shrine visit of the year. Photographing the crowds of hatsumode at the shrine can certainly be fascinating, but you’re definitely not going to get any serene shots of the gates without people.
Even if you end up visiting Japan at a more opportune time of year, the shrine will still get pretty crowded. For a picture of the most popular torii areas with golden afternoon shining through them, you can easily expect to wait half an hour or more for a chance to take pictures without some stranger off to the side, even on relatively empty days. For a less boring and stressful photoshoot, however, you might want to try arriving at Fushimi Inari Shrine either very early in the morning, or late in the evening.
As a Shinto shrine, the grounds basically don’t close. Shrine keepers and priests are generally only around throughout normal business hours, so if you’re hoping to pick up a charm or souvenir while you’re there, then you do need to arrive around 9 to 5. But if your end goal is a good photo, get there around sunrise, or closer to sunset. There are far fewer visitors, and the dramatic lighting can make for some very cool views, anyway!
Most photos of Fushimi Inari Shrine focus on the Senbon Torii (千本鳥居), literally “the thousand shrine gates,” which are neighboring paths lined with closely packed torii, fairly close to the entrance and main shrine hall of Fushimi Inari. They’re the epitome of the shrine’s image, gates painted bright vermillion and built so close together that you can barely slip a hand between them. They are always by far the most popular, and most crowded area of the shrine, because they are so very iconic.
But the Senbon Torii aren’t the only beautiful part of the shrine. The map above depicts the entirety of the shrine grounds, and while it’s easier to understand if you read Japanese, you don’t need to read to see that the paths stretch high into the mountain. At the bottom of the map is the entrance to the shrine, and the Senbon Torii (the two rows of torii to the far right) aren’t the only torii in the shrine.