This stunning shrine complex was dedicated to the gods of rice and sake by the Hata family in the 8th century. As the role of agriculture diminished, deities were enrolled to ensure prosperity in business. Nowadays, the shrine is one of Japan's most popular, and is the head shrine for some 30,000 Inari shrines scattered the length and breadth of Japan.
The entire complex sprawls across the wooded slopes of Inari-yama. A pathway wanders 4km up the mountain and is lined with thousands of red torii. There are also dozens of stone foxes. The fox is considered the messenger of Inari, the god of the rice harvest (and, later on, business). The Japanese traditionally see the fox as a sacred, somewhat mysterious figure capable of 'possessing' humans. The key often seen in the fox's mouth is for the rice granary.
The walk around the upper precincts of the shrine is a pleasant day hike. It also makes for a very eerie stroll in the late afternoon and early evening, when the various graveyards and miniature shrines along the path take on a mysterious air.
To get to the shrine from Kyoto Station, take a JR Nara line train to Inari Station. From Keihan Sanjô Station take the Keihan line to Fushimi-Inari Station. The shrine is just east of both of these stations.