You know those pictures you see of orange tori gates lined up one after another, creating a fantastic tunnel?
Those pictures are of Fushimi Inari in Kyoto. Visiting there was a really cool experience for my sibling and I while we were on our trip to Japan.
What to Know Before You Go to Fushimi Inari
If you’re taking a JR train to Fushimi Inari, you’re in for a treat. It’s a super quick train ride away, and you’ll be met with the first orange tori gate when you step out of the station. You literally just have to walk across the street.
Once you pass through this first gate, you’ll enter a huge complex with places to pray and shops to purchase souvenirs. From there, you’ll enter the first tunnel of tori gates. Bear in mind that this path will take you up a mountain–wear appropriate clothing for your trek!
The gates get thinner the higher up you go up–the most condensed section is right there at the bottom.
The Story Behind the Gates
We were told that when you pray at Fushimi Inari, you are undertaking an obligation. The complex is set up as a shinto shrine dedicated to wishes for wealth. Should your wish be granted, you should use a portion of your money to donate another one of these orange gates.
That means that the tunnel created by the gates isn’t just a cool way to get people to come pray; it’s a manifestation of the success people and organizations have had since offering their prayers.
It’s also why the gates are closer together at the base of the mountain rather than the top; odds are that by the time you visit, there will be more gates up at the top than when I went as more wishes for wealth are granted!
Am I praying for wealth at Fushimi Inari or something else?
When we made it to the main shrine, I threw in my go yen and prayed. I found myself praying for wealth, sure. Because that’s what you do when you’re there.
But I also found myself not so much desiring material gains for material gains’ sake. I found myself praying for the things money can grant: independence, freedom (hopefully to travel some more!), and the ability to be an actor in my own life rather than a passive vessel. To create my own path rather than being forced to walk upon one I had been told to travel.
Because it isn’t ever really about money. It’s really easy to fall into the numbers trap, measuring our success with a calculator in hand. But the reasons we pursue money are our true driving motivators, and we should never lose site of them. They’re what keep us grounded, and what can push us to keep going when things get hard.
I’ll be sure to let you guys know if they ever end up erecting an orange gate in my name.
What would you pray for at Fushimi Inari, besides the obvious request for cash?
When we wake up each morning, we have no idea what the day has in store for us.
Sure, we can have plans. Sure, we can set goals.
But along the way, plans can become derailed. Obstacles can pop up between us and our goals. Emergencies can happen, taking precedence.
While this all sounds rather negative and pessimistic, believe it or not, this fact of life can be a beautiful thing. We can make new connections with people we didn’t know existed. Sometimes those people become a big part of our lives.
We can conquer those obstacles, giving us confidence in our own strength. And we can adjust our plans to include beautiful experiences we didn’t see when we were further back on the path, our view of the future obscured.
The Day I Woke Up Not Expecting to Climb a Mountain
We followed the walking path down from the bamboo forest, by a beautiful river, and over Kyoto’s iconic bridge. From there, we were under the impression that we’d have a short walk to the monkey park.
It was short. We walked up some stairs and paid the 550 yen each admission fee.
I don’t know what we were expecting after that. We knew the monkeys weren’t this close to the base of the mountain. Maybe there would be a gondola to take us up?
Or maybe we just hadn’t thought that far ahead.
The climb at Iwatayma is difficult.
In the heat and humidity of Japanese springtime, we realized we were going to have to climb this intimidating mountain. I’m susceptible to heat exhaustion and heat stroke, even when I am incredibly fit. Which I am not at this point in my life, though I am working to change that.
It hadn’t rained in over a week, and the humidity clung to us like a wet blanket, making us sweat out of every pore. We weren’t the only ones disillusioned by the unexpected hike; I saw a woman in wedge-heeled sandals sulking up the mountain with her family. At every turn on the winding path, there were fellow tourists catching a breath. Stretching. Resting.
At a certain point my sibling asked if we should just turn around. This was going to take forever. But we already had sunk costs–the people who run this place were extremely smart to put the ticketing booth at the bottom rather than the top of the mountain.
We decided we didn’t want to let a mountain defeat us. So on we trudged. When at last we reached the top, we were rewarded with spectacular views of the city of Kyoto. I hadn’t known it was quite as large as it is until I saw the mountaintop view.
We were also rewarded with spectacular experiences we would have missed had we given up and turned around, taking the easy but far less enriching path.
Bonding with Monkeys
Okay, we didn’t so much bond with monkeys as much as encroach on their natural habitat. The animals allow you to do so because there is a feeding station set up in their home, and because of trained experts keeping their behavior in check at every given moment.
When we first rounded the final stretch of the path before reaching the mountain’s crest, there were some free-range monkeys messing around in the woods. It was honestly a little unnerving; these are wild animals, and this was their territory. Fortunately, one of the people working there came along with a clicking device–unafraid to herd them back to the safer area up at the crest.
When we reached the top, we stood feet away from monkeys searching the grass and floating sakura (cherry blossom) petals for bugs to eat. We saw them grooming each other. I paid a tiny fee to feed them some apples–by hand!
We got to see babies play fighting with their siblings. Adults expressing their disinterest with humans after they realized you were out of food. That one a-hole monkey that no one wanted to groom. I felt kind of bad for him.
It was a fantastic experience–unlike any other animal encounter I’ve personally had before. After a few minutes, the angst of being around wild animals subsides as you realize the trained and vigilant staff has everything under control.
Read the signs as you hike Iwatayama.
Another big reason that we felt comfortable was that along our arduous hike, there were signs at every resting point, instructing you how to–and how not to–interact with the monkeys. They showed you the faces of docile monkeys, angry monkeys and scared monkeys. You got instructions to not bend down next to the monkeys, and to not look them directly in the eye or smile at them. And you definitely needed to turn your flash off for photography.
Unfortunately, some who hiked faster than we did appeared to miss these instructions. As they blew by the rest stops, they missed clues that would have told them not to look directly in these monkeys eyes, or not bend down next to one with their infant for an Insta-worthy photo op.
Luckily, the staff were on their game. The few situations that did arise were extremely minimal because they were excellent at their jobs and headed off problems before they really unfolded.
But it could have turned out a lot worse if even one of those situations had slipped under the radar.
Lessons Learned from Iwatayama Monkey Park
I did not expect to learn so much from a tourist attraction, but I really did glean a lot of insight from our trip to Iwatayama Monkey Park.
Sunk Costs Aren’t Always a Bad Thing
We often like to talk about the sunk cost fallacy in personal finance. The most ubiquitous example is gym memberships. Often people will continue their memberships because they have paid so much for it already–even though they don’t use the gym they’re paying for access to. This leads to more money spent on something you don’t even use rather than calling it quits and accepting the losses.
But in Arashiyama, I came to the realization that sunk costs can also be a great motivator. Even though we had only spent about $5 for the privilege of our hike, the fact that we had already paid the money kept me going. Had we not spent that money up front, I would have been more likely to acquiesce to the idea of turning around, thus denying myself a fantastic experience.
Go Your Own Pace–And Read the Road Signs
While I was determined to climb the mountain after we had gotten started, I knew due to past experience that I was going to have to take it a lot slower than some of these people passing us. I needed to avoid passing out. I was cognizant that this made my sweaty self look less than other people facing the same obstacle. But I also knew my own body and that things would turn out better if I paced myself.
By pacing myself, I didn’t rush past those important instructional signs along the way, teaching me how to interact with the monkeys safely. Sometimes being the first to the top isn’t the most important; sometimes it’s all about being as prepared as you can be when you get there–even if that means your journey takes a little longer.
The same can be applied to our financial goals. It’s rough when others get somewhere more quickly than we do. But they’re not facing the situation with the same set of life experiences and past financial baggage (or lack thereof) that we are. Everyone’s money journey is different; getting to the top first doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be the one who enjoys it the most.
You can climb mountains.
There was a point at the beginning of the hike where I wasn’t sure if I could do it. Climbing a mountain was not something I had envisioned myself doing when I rolled out of bed that morning, and the monkey park might not have been on our to-do list if we had known what a Herculean task it would be.
But partially because of the sunk costs, partially by pacing ourselves, and partially through sheer determination, we made it to the top. We were rewarded with breathtaking views, a new perspective and enriching experiences.
You might look at that mountain and think it was nothing. But for me, it was a hard thing to conquer.
I’m nothing special, but I can do hard things. And you can, too. Your mountains might look different than mine, but you can conquer them. Once you do, you’ll find new perspectives and a sense of pride at the top.
Believe it or not, while I was in Japan my friend, who I was visiting, had to work!
We took the opportunity to spend some time in Kyoto. I’d have a hard time deciding on a favorite place I visited while in Japan, but I could definitely see myself living in that city. Even within the city streets, I found my soul once again moved by the immense beauty that can be found across the Pacific Ocean.
One neighborhood we knew we wanted to hit while we were there was Arashiyama. This is where you’ll find the famed bamboo forest among a million other cultural delights. I planned this part of the trip pretty strategically as I wanted to optimize our time without feeling rushed.
As I did so, I also unintentionally planned a very girl power tour of Arashiyama–which ended up being a very cool thing.
Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple
The first thing we did on Arashiyama day was hop onto a train crowded with tourists from central Kyoto to Arashiyama. The ride was pretty quick–only a few stops–but hot and claustrophobic.
Luckily, when we got off the train we were headed somewhere a little off the beaten path: Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple. To get there, we took a cab for the sake of time. It was part way up a mountain, and from there, we’d be walking downhill (almost) all day as the sites got progressively more crowded.
But I think we were the first visitors of the day at this temple, and only a few couples came in after us. It was quiet and serene and peaceful.
Oh, and littered with a ton of Buddha statues. Twelve hundred of them to be exact.
These statues were made by lay worshipers under the instruction of an artisan in the 80s. They’re meant to demonstrate the many expressions of Buddha–or disciples of Buddha. It depends on which literature you read, and I probably should have asked which it was while I was there. Many of them are serious and spiritual, but then there are fun-loving ones, too.
Why is Otagi Nenbutsu-ji on the Girl Power tour of Arashiyama?
But those statues aren’t the reason Otagi Nenbutsu-ji makes the Girl Power list. First, the temple was founded by a woman — Empress Shotoku — in the 8th century. It has been destroyed, rebuilt and relocated several times since its inaugural opening.
On top of having a female-initiated history, the temple itself is dedicated to two important bodhisittvas: the goddess of mercy and the god of space. There are beautiful statues of these bodhisittvas both inside and out, but you’re not supposed to take pictures inside of Buddhist temples.
The fact that Kannon — the goddess of mercy — is represented by a female is unique to the flavor of Buddhism which passed through China on its way to Japan. In Southern and Southeastern Asian cultures, Kannon’s equivalent is usually male.
Admission here was less than $3 each.
When you’re done at Otagi Nenbutsu-ji, you’ll turn right on the road closest to the temple–the one lined by trees on the right side.
About two to five minutes down the road you’ll see a big, orange tori gate leading to a stone road on which I saw no cars. This is Tori Motto, and it is an ancient and historically preserved street.
The architecture itself is beautiful, with thatched roofs covered with moss. As you walk the road, you’ll be greeted by various shops and restaurants. We didn’t eat here, but I did do some shopping. Which, if you know me, is a little out of character.
But I was enchanted by the fans and origami. Blown away by the skill that went into making hand bags and jewelry. This is where I was going to buy traditional Japanese chatchkis to bring home to my kids. And a new purse. Because mine had not-so-conveniently broken on the the walk from Otagi Nenbutsu-ji to the Tori Motto.
All but one of the shops I went into was owned by Japanese women.
Gio-ji was the temple I was most looking forward to visiting in Arashiyama. It was located just off the Tori Motto right where it tees. This temple is known for its moss gardens, which looked crazy serene and peaceful in the pictures. Heck, it looks serene and peaceful in my pictures.
But it had been very dry in the region to this point in our visit, and without rain the gardens looked a little, well, brownish yellow. With a little bit of green. It sounds super ungrateful to say something like that, but really what I think happened is that I made it so beautiful in my head that there was no way reality could keep pace.
It did rain a couple days later. I’m sure at that point the gardens turned lush and green.
But this temple did not disappoint. While the gardens weren’t quite what I expected, the actual structure was a great experience. It’s humble in size, but inside you’ll find statues of four women, which I assumed were meant to pay tribute to the women who founded this site.
The primary leader, Gio, was a dancer who fell hard for a powerful chieftain in the country’s capital. He fell hard for her, too–until he didn’t. When he abandoned her, she decided to dedicate her life to Buddha, establishing Gio-ji.
She lived the rest of her life as a priestess, as did her mom and sister who came along with her. Someone else that came with her? Another one of that cheiftan’s ex-lovers!
Dude sounds like a piece of work.
But going in to pray in front of those four figures was something special. A reminder that strength and virtue don’t come from the value men see in us.
Admission here was less than $5 each.
Okay, so technically, Tenryu-ji was founded by a male shogun in the 1300s. However, on this same site in the ninth century, Empress Tachibana no Kachiko founded Japan’s very first Zen Buddhist temple: Danrin-ji. Thus, it definitely counts for our girl power tour.
This is probably the biggest tourist attraction in Arashiyama, so it was very crowded. We weren’t really sure how much inner peace we were going to find inside at that particular moment, and wanted to save 500 yen each, so we opted to just do the gardens.
There is nothing “just” about the gardens at Tenryu-ji–especially at peak cherry blossom season. They’re beautifully manicured–simultaneously delicate and robust. Every corner we turned was breathtaking, whether we were walking alongside the temple or up a path in the adjacent mountain.
I’m sure the temple is amazing; there must be a reason it was so crowded. But definitely, definitely don’t miss the gardens.
Admission here cost us a little less than $5 each just for the garden. It would have doubled if we had chosen to go into the temple, too.
Throughout Arashiyama we found ourselves surrounded by bamboo, but the main alley that you see all the pictures of is right outside the gardens of Tenryu-ji. It’s amazing and magical, but also super crowded.
The path is shorter than we thought it would be, but it’s definitely still worth a walk through. Especially since it’s free. Just make sure your expectations are matched with its actual length and the amount of fellow tourists you’ll encounter.
We cut through it on our way to our final destination of the day, which had nothing to do with girl power and deserves a post unto itself.
When we were planning our trip to Japan, I was really interested in seeing Buddhist temples. We did that, and it was amazing, and I’ll tell you all about it on another day.
Somehow, though, I overlooked another spiritual option: Shinto shrines.
They’re completely different and separate from Buddhism as I understand it, and serve to worship the spirits of the natural world. They were everywhere–in the middle of the city, the countryside, near natural wonders…
I felt a ton of peace at these shrines as I watched others come to pray. These shrines appear to be an integral part of Japanese life, so our friend taught us how to pray, too.
Here, we learned about the spirits of nature; you will not see an icon representing them. We learned to wash our hands and mouths, offer up our goyen (5 yen coin), ring the bell to alert the spirits of our presence, bow, clap our hands, pray and bow again.
We also learned of the fortunes you can purchase, as our friend was kind enough to get us each one. my sibling got a very lucky one and I got a medium luck one. But if you get bad luck, you can hang your fortune on these clothesline-like cords, and hope that prayers will remove your ill fortune.
Study Shrine in Wakayama
This shrine was located not too far away from a school my friends attended. Here, you’d come to pray for luck on an exam or other school-related endeavor. This is where I learned you can also purchase these plaques–you write the thing you’re hoping for on the back, and then hang it with others’ prayers.
To get to this one, you climb some pretty steep steps–or go around the side and climb up a trail. The views from the top were way worth it.
I’m hesitant to tie money to spirituality, but I know you’re all here because of the personal finance. While there were some extras you could purchase at the Shinto shrines, visiting them was 100% free. You could spend the equivalent of less than a nickel if you wanted to pray. You could also go on to get your fortune or put your prayer to pen with a plaque, but it wasn’t a requirement.
Buddhist temples did sometimes have a few extras you could purchase. But there was also an admission fee from 300-500 yen just to visit the grounds.
It wasn’t money I minded or regretted parting with. But if you’re planning on visiting Japan and want to hit as many spiritual sites as possible, that’s definitely something to keep in mind with the budget: Shrines are more affordable.
More Shrine Pictures
Don’t forget to follow on Instagram for more shrine and castle pictures this week. We visited some really gorgeous locations courtesy of my amazing friend and host–you will want to see them!
After we appreciated how free and beautiful nature can be in Shirahama, we ventured across mainland Japan to Nachi Katsuura. My friend had just started working in the rural town, and it’s not something that would have been on our itinerary otherwise.
I’m here to tell you that it should be on yours.
Driving there was awesome. We got to see so many things along the way that we would have missed with another mode of transportation. Because we were driving from Wakayama, a good portion of the trek was along the shore.
The things we saw once again were free because they were natural. And they were stunning.
I heard a couple stories about the Hashigui-iwa rock formations. One told of gods placing the imposing, shattered stones where they are today.
Another said the people of the region kept trying to build a bridge, but a sea monster surfaced after each attempt, destroying their work.
Geologically, this likely used to be all one rock face. Tsunamis destroyed it over time, shattering some of the rocks and moving others closer to the shore.
Whatever story you want to believe, it’s a really incredible thing to see.
The Tallest Waterfall in Japan
The tallest waterfall in Japan is located in Nachi Katsuura, and it’s a sight to behold. At its base is a shrine where locals can pay reverence and ask favors of the spirits living inside this natural wonder. We got there later in the day, but I also believe there are shrines as you work your way up the mountain. Across the top of the waterfall, there are boundary markers which are regularly replaced in Shinto fashion.
The waterfall itself is breathtaking, but the surrounding mountains add to the beauty. I may have cried in Shirahama, but my sibling held back tears in Nachi Katsuura. In that moment, taking in the gargantuan majesty of the mountains, I believed as the people of old that these edifices of nature’s sheer power held within them spirits that were older than time itself.
Sunrise in the Land of the Rising Sun
We were only in Nachi Katsuura for one night, but the next morning we rose early to watch the sun rise over the Pacific Ocean–an experience I’ll never forget. The beach in the small town is gorgeous, with sand and stone steps and picnic areas along grassy outcrops.
When the sun breaks free of the horizon, it truly is red for a while–something I have seen nowhere else. Once it gets higher in the sky it turns more yellow and then white, but its first presentation is reflective of the country’s flag. If you’re on the East Coast of Japan, I’d highly encourage you to wake up early to witness the magnificence of Sol.
See More on Instagram
All of these fantastic experiences were free. And I’ll be sharing more images of them on Instagram over the next week. It was crazy beautiful, so be sure to follow along!