Assuming the worst for the tail end of Japan’s busiest vacation period, Golden Week, some friends and I booked a house in downtown Kyoto where we would be staying for four days.
We acquired the house from an Osaka blues musician who rents it out for extra income every now and then.
Once we had all finally arrived in Kyoto (we came separately, me preferring the shinkansen over the night bus due to the ride’s markedly beautiful landscapes), we met up with the property owner who promptly guided us throughout the house as we oohed and aahed at its immaculate, traditional Japanese aesthetics.
The house even had a zen garden, functioning as the courtyard between the dining room and bathrooms; needless to say, we were pretty stoked.
We were not, however, terribly stoked about the position we were forced into after a couple of other students on our program had backed out of joining us at the last minute; since the price per person was practically doubled, I ended up having to borrow money from my friend Charlotte to cover my cut of the rent.
Moving on from that annoyance, we ventured out to a popular sake brewery nearby, or, nihonshuu, as the Japanese call it (sake simply means “alcohol”).
After perusing the options for a while, two of my friends and I decided to split a variety case of three small bottles for the night (approximately $5 each).
When we got back to the house, all of my friends seemed to collapse simultaneously which led me to understand just how fatigued they really were from both their lack of sleep and their morning hike at the nearby Shinto shrine, Fushimi-Inari, devoted to the mischievous, though highly revered, Japanese fox god.
Since I have always found the Inari Cult to be the most fascinating aspect of Shinto spirituality and especially because my energy was then at its peak, I figured I might as well catch up with my friends and spend my afternoon beneath the shrine’s innumerable vermilion torii.
At first, I was underwhelmed by the size of the entrance shrine, expecting something even grander, but still excited to pray to the fox god at long last.
Of course, I didn’t have to walk much further into the complex to revere its its unfathomable vastness as the trails beckoned me to go up, down or around the mountain at almost every turn.
After having ascended about halfway up the mountain, I grew bored of the main drag with its domino-esque row of torii constantly leading the way, so I decided to follow my own intuition, which led me far, far away from other people and deep into a bamboo forest.
I had begun to think I was lost until I finally discovered a set of shoddy, moss-ridden altars to the fox god, resting beside an eroded house.
The stone reads kami, the kanji word for “god,” which is repeated several times.
I stayed at this one for a while, offered fifty yen, clapped my hands twice to summon the fox god, prayed and bowed before the altar, until I noticed a cat on the trail beside me.
It looked at me with a knowing expression that seemed to penetrate to the core of me, though its body language grew skittish as I drew closer.
Then, it bounded up a different trail that seemed trodden, though heavily overgrown, before turning to stare at me again with that same esoteric expression (except this time I managed to capture it on-camera).
With no reason to go home early or to reject a potentially spiritual animal connection, I decided to trust my instincts that the cat wanted to lead me somewhere so without further ado, I took on after it.
As the climb grew steeper and steeper, I began to seriously doubt my sanity.
“Who else is crazy enough to follow a cat through a mountain forest they’ve never even been to before?” I asked myself.
But just as I lost sight of the cat, as I panted and cursed from my fatigue and the stifling midday humidity, I reached the summit, which was only a couple minutes down from the complex’s main shrine.
Reveling in the surprising outcome of following my feline friend, I decided to wander a little more before reaching the very top and thus, admitting defeat.
Of course, this is where things go wrong and karma, inevitably, enjoys a good nibble of my puffy, proud ass.
This oni looks about how terrible bad karma feels.
I went where I felt like going, which led me through some pretty woods, though it was clearly nowhere on the shrine’s map due to its lack of distinctive torii, which then somehow led me to the outer suburbs of Kyoto, where I was welcomed by a committee of pointing, gawking Japanese children.
As the sun began its descent, I climbed up, roughly, the way I came and asked the first person I encountered to point me the way to the top.
Luckily, the man understood me through my debilitating exhaustion and I finally made it there, just in time for sunset.
I prayed once more at the final altar, took a few more pictures and chatted with a fellow photographer until the sun actually set, then ambled my way down the mountain, damning my day’s considerable amount of activity but not regretting it for a second.
On the way home, I got terribly lost on my way home but thankfully received some help from officers at a police station who helped me figure out where a taxi driver could drop me off nearby, since our house’s street was inaccessible by car.
Stress, combined with hunger and fatigue, led me to decline my friends’ offerings of beer as I kicked off my socks, threw my head onto the couch pillow and descended into dreams of foxes, above and below the earth.