Stairway to Heathen

Today I took the short train ride to Inari, to visit the shinto shrine there. I’m not religious, but I find temples and shrines interesting, They can be built in the most extraordinary places. Totally awe-inspiring on occasion. Today I chose Inari, because it is so close to Kyoto where I am based. I haven’t managed to get there on my previous 4 visits, so today was my chance. There a lot of people getting off the train and the temple platform, and even more already there. The entrance is very crowded, especially for a Monday, weekday.


I’m informed by the very helpful staff of the temple, who have set up a table marked ‘English Information’, that has my attention straight away. They tell me that nearly all the signage is in Japanese, so I should take this piece of paper, written in English to help me navigate the site. I am grateful for this small courtesy, It helps to have some sort of directional guide. They also tell me that it takes about 2 hours to do the full climb up to the top of the hill. Hopefully climbing down is faster. This is some sort of test for the devout, so that counts me out already, but I’m up for it, just for the experience.


I set off along with the multitudes. We have to thin out a little to allow us all to pass through the first gate. We are all shoulder to shoulder as we pass the various early stages of the walk. Soon the path divides into two, one up on the left and the other for returning pilgrims on the right. These paths are noticeably narrower, so we thin out a little more. We emerge. into a cleared space and then start the climb. Don’t know how many steps there are, as I can’t read the signage. At the Moro Temple near Nara, not that far from here, they told us that there were 700 steps, more or less straight up the mountain. I could believe it.


Here, it’s a little different we wind and wander around the hill for a couple of kilometres. It’s only a gentle climb at first, but soon gets serious, then steeper. Luckily there are small places to stop and spend money on iced tea, ice cream and even meals. There is no charge to visit this shrine, but there is a lot of money changing hands at each of the half-dozen way stations. I have brought my own bottle of water, but it is soon gone. It’s a hot day, 30oC and swelteringly humid with it. I’m soon dripping in sweat. Even if I’m not religious, a walk like this is probably good for me. Not so for a lady ahead, who takes a fall and has to be carried out on a stretcher by the rescue squad. They passed us running up the stairs half an hour ago. I’m full of admiration for these guys. They are so fit.



It crosses my mind that if the walk is 4 km and with all the twists and turns and wriggles in the path, it is probably more than that, then there is the fact that we are also undulating and always climbing, then the 4 ks on the 2D map might be 5 k on the ground? it then strikes me that each step would be 50 cm. normally, but since we are climbing stairs for a lot of the time, perhaps my steps are only 200 mm to 300mm. for some of the time. Maybe I will take as many as 12 to 15,000 steps to do the full circuit? Maybe not, but it’s this sort of thing that goes through a person’s mind as he walks/climbs for and hour or two.

I eventually reach the top. Inari is the patron of manufacturing, so I can claim that I’ve made it!

The crown of the hill is a series of graveyards or cemeteries. It’s a long way to go to die and there have been times during the ascent when that possibility has crossed my mind. So what did I find there?


A good view, a slight breeze. Some marketing. Is nowhere sacred?


I find going down instead of being easy, is almost as hard, It creates a lot of pressure on the toes as I descend one step at a time. It really worked my calf muscles going up, now my toes coming down. I eventually reach the bottom again. It’s past midday and really heating up now. I reach the level ground and a place to stop and rest, but instead of rest I get accosted by a friendly Japanese man who wants to discuss the subtleties of the English language with me. I’m not the right person to ask. I failed English at school. Still, I do my best to answer his questions. He wants me to explain to him why English is such a complex language, with so many words that can be used to say the same thing, like broken and shattered. I apologise for my lack of knowledge, but do my best to explain the difference, it;’s all about degrees of difference. I go on to explain that English isn’t just one language. It’s a conglomerate, with roots in Greek, Latin, French, German and Danish. England was invaded many times. Everybody left something behind. He goes on to ask if I’m a Christian, all westerners are Christians, aren’t they? I tell him No. Not everyone. He asks if I’m Catholic? No. Am I Anglican? No. what religion am I then? I’m not. I don’t have a religion. Then I’m a heathen in Christ’s eyes! Possibly, but I’m not really interested, thank you!

I take my leave, I can see where this is going. When I arrived at the bottom. My legs were like jelly, I had to keep moving my weight from leg to leg to get comfortable, so the time being harassed by the stranger was a useful time to get my legs back. I feel better now, knowing that I’m a heathen. I somehow feel a bit pious about it. Can you be a pious Heathen?