So far on our Japan adventure, the stroller has been invaluable. It’s served as toddler transport, luggage mule, eating station and bed. It’s fair to say that it has been integral to the success of our adventures so far. But, no matter how good a stroller is, there’s one situation it can’t deal well with… stairs.
Fushimi Inari Shrine – so many stairs
Emma and I visited the Fushimi Inari Shrine on our last visit to Kyoto, so we weren’t going into the experience blind. The main buildings of the shrine sit at the bottom of a sacred mountain, and they are certainly interesting to look at. Massive Torii gates mark the entrance, and if you’re really unsure of where to go, just follow the throng of tourists. A large, orange-coloured shrine has a row of large bells – one or two of which were being used for prayer, and the rest by tourists in the usual “I don’t really understand this but I’m going to do it anyway because it makes for a good photo” manner.
As impressive as the shrine is, the true attraction in the thousands of Torii gates that line the paths on the way up the mountain. It’s the reason so many people visit, and the reason we were there too. Of course, a path up a mountain means plenty of one thing – stairs. Hundreds and hundreds of stairs.
Wearing a Toddler
Naturally, we had left the stroller at home. However, we still needed a way to transport Hannah when she needed a break from walking/climbing. So it was that we dusted off the baby carrier that we hadn’t used since she was a tiny tot.
Hannah showed some interest in the carrier as I strapped the contraption on. She was a little reluctant to go in at first, but I distracted her with a frog bath-toy that she had dug out of the bottom of a suitcase earlier that morning. Emma worked from behind and wrangled the distracted toddler aboard. In no time at all we were off, Hannah slightly bemused by her new travel arrangements, strapped to my back.
Toddlers are heavy
We travelled that way for the 15 minute walk to Kyoto station and the two-stop ride to the shrine. With a toddler strapped to my back I had no opportunity to sit down. Hannah had become a little restless, so she was squirming quite a bit. I was definitely feeling the weight in my back by the time we arrived.
As soon as we stepped through the first giant Torii gate, I asked Emma to set Hannah free. It was sweet relief when she was lifted out! Still, I was glad we had the carrier. It would have been much harder to hold Hannah in my arms for that time.
Which one is the tourist attraction – the shrine or the toddler?
There are plenty of western tourists in Japan, so the sight of fair skin and light hair is not that uncommon. However, that combination on a smiling, engaging toddler seems to be magnetic. Hannah had quickly become accustomed to having kind Japanese faces peer at her and exclaim “kawaii” (the Japanese word for “cute”).
Hannah is so used to this happening that she now walks down the street smiling at everyone and waving to them. Of course, this only increases the regularity with which she hears the phrase “kawaii”! It’s not even just the little old ladies that she engages with either – businessmen, teen-agers, drunks on street corners…
We are all now accustomed to the attention that Hannah gets on the streets of Japan, but that is nothing compared to the attention she gets at tourist attractions. The Fushimi Inari Shrine was no different.
At one set of stairs, a Japanese tourist took great pleasure in watching Hannah conquer each and every step. She walked up next to her, patiently waiting as Hannah negotiated each one and encouraging her each time. When Hannah took a step, her new best friend took a step. In that way they walked, right to the top. The Japanese tourist tried to coax a hand-shake out of her new toddler friend upon completion of the task, but while Hannah is a big fan of engaging with random people, she is not so keen on physical contact. She ran away.
I followed Hannah as she ran through the forest of Torii gates. The word “kawaii” echoed all around us as we went.
Running, climbing and waving is hard work
Before long, Hannah was absolutely worn out. The adventure of the Fushimi Inari Torii gates, combined with the heat, had made her reach the point of exhaustion far earlier than normal. She began to get irritable, as toddlers do.
I bent down to Hannah’s level to offer some comfort. As I did so, she made it pretty obvious what she wanted. She practically climbed onto my back.
Emma helped Hannah on and strapped her in tightly. Immediately she was calm. We carried on walking up the stairs. With each step the little toddler on my back grew drowsier and drowsier. Eventually she fell fast asleep. We made our way to a spot with excellent views out over Kyoto, then exhaustion got the better of me too. We turned around and headed for the bottom of the mountain.
Photos of tourists – tips for Fushimi Inari Shrine
1- if you want hundreds of excellent photos of tourists taking photos of things, the best place is at the start of the Torii gates. We could barely get through the masses, because so many people seemed hell-bent on snapping a photo of other people taking photos of Torii gates. I can just imagine the riveting slide shows that their poor relatives are in for when they get home.
2- if you want some decent photos, take a little walk. I walked half way up this mountain with a toddler strapped to my back. It was hard work, but not that hard. The further up you get, the less tourists there are. At some point, the crowds actually thin out so much that you can take photos without random people in them.
3 – take water with you, or prepare to get hosed (not a photo tip, but worth knowing). It may be a sacred mountain, but the proprietors of the vending machines sure do know how to stiff a desperate pilgrim. The higher up you get, the more expensive it becomes. I did find it funny that there’s a sign about a third of the way informing people that they are at the last toilet, due to the mountain being sacred, yet you can purchase an ice-cold bottle of Pocari Sweat from a vending machine next to a statue of a religious icon three-quarters of the way up. I guess gods get thirsty too…
4 – take the road less travelled. The Torii gates are the main attraction, bet there is also plenty to see along the way. Keep your eye out for little detours and shrines off to the side. There are some amazing things to see, and barely any other tourists. You also have the advantage of seeing the Torii gate from the outside, which provides a different (and equally interesting) perspective for your photographs. When returning down the mountain, there is a path that takes you right away from the Torii gates. Take it. You’ve seen the gates already and there are some amazing shrines and statues to see. There are also far fewer people, the water is cheaper and there are some interesting houses that remind me of Shenmue.
5 – if you have a fair-skinned, fair-haired toddler, she will become the tourist attraction. Luckily, you’re in the prime position to snap photos of her! Remember to take plenty of photos of the family enjoying themselves at the shrine and in the Torii gates. After all, chances are there are plenty of great shots of the gates all over the internet, but these memories of your little one are priceless!
Toddler Wearing – The Verdict?
Wearing a toddler is hard work, it doesn’t matter how good your carrier is. Sometimes, however, it is the best way to cart your toddler around, especially if they decide it’s nap time. We have seen a lot of Japanese people wearing babies and toddlers while we have been here, so the local consensus seems to be that it is the easiest way to get around.
If I have the option of a carrier or a stroller, I’ll take the stroller every time. If I know that I’m going somewhere that is not stroller friendly, I’ll happily strap Hannah to my back.
Fushimi Inari Shrine – the Verdict?
Fushimi Inari is well worth the visit. Spend a small amount of time at the shrine down the bottom, then head on up the hill until the tourists thin out. Once you reach the point where you are no longer fighting others for footpath space, take the camera out. Be prepared to take on loads of stairs, and take plenty of water.