Torii Gates

Torii - Gateways to the Sacred 鳥居

Jake Davies

Torii, the iconically Japanese gateways that typically mark the entrance to Shinto shrines are ubiquitous all over the country, and are even used as a symbol on maps to mark the location of a shrine.

Buddhist temple locations will be marked with a swastika. Torii range in size from only a few inches high to monumental structures straddling roads such as the massive torii on the road to Heian Shrine in Kyoto, and while wood and stone were the earliest known construction materials, concrete, steel, bronze, ceramic, and even plastic is used sometimes.

Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima.
An icon of Japan second only perhaps to Mount Fuji, the floating torii of Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Probably the best known of the torii that are placed in the sea or lakes, the Itsukushima torii is an example of a Ryobu style torii. At 16 meters it is probably the largest wooden torii in Japan and is made out of Camphor wood.
Fushimi Inari near Kyoto.
A feature of Inari shrines are virtual tunnels composed of multiple, vermillion torii, each one usually featuring the name of the person or business who donated it. The one pictured here is the most well known example at Fushimi Inari near Kyoto, though they can also be found at thousands of other smaller Inari shrines.

Origin of Torii

As with many Japanese traditions the exact origin of torii is not known and there are mainly two competing theories, one saying that it is an indigenous invention, and the other that it is a variation on an imported idea.

Neighboring cultures with symbolic gates that may have influenced the design of torii are the Hongsal-mun of Korea, the Pailou of China, and the Torana of India, with the latter being a strong contender as some sources say that the legendary monk Kukai introduced a torana in the ninth century. As the first mention of torii in any texts is not until the tenth century, credibility is added to this particular theory.

This Myojin style torii made out of steel has taken the curve to extreme lengths.
This Myojin style torii in Hagi made out of steel has taken the curve to extreme lengths.
A small wooden torii.
A small wooden torii which is probably the earliest form they took, still fairly common at smaller, rural shrines throughout Japan.

Sacred Space

Torii were probably not just associated with shrines, but rather many kinds of sacred space, however in the early years of the Meiji Restoration (1868-) the government banned the use of torii at any place other than officially registered shrines of the new State Shinto, which is why even today certain of the Sect Shintos still do not use a torii. Nowadays, however, torii can be seen in Buddhist temples at the entrance to the temple's own shrine or chinjusha.

Torii, lit. "bird perch" mark the transition from the profane to the sacred and may sometimes be hung with shimenawa or a sacred rope festooned with zig-zag-shaped folded pieces of white paper.

Kumano Hongu Taisha, Wakayama, Japan.
Currently the largest torii in the world is this one at Kumano Hongu Taisha in the small town of Hongu in Wakayama. It is almost 40 meters tall and 42 meters wide, constructed out of steel. Prior to its construction in 2000, the biggest torii was at Sakurai in Nara straddling the road leading to Omiwa Shrine.

Torii Styles

There are a wide variety of torii styles with numerous sub-styles, as well as individually unique torii. The most commonly seen style is known as Myojin Torii. These feature an upwardly curving top lintel, known as kasagi, and a common sub-style is Ryobu that feature a pair of small pillars supporting the main pillars.

Another major style is Shinmei, featuring uprights, hashira, and cross pieces that are straight. Torii of this style became very popular with the rise of State Shinto because of their link to Imperial sites.

One other type of small torii needs mentioning. Driving in the countryside you may see small vermillion torii by the side of the road. Sometimes they may actually be marking a small altar, but many times they are simply a warning not to dump trash. Likewise you may see a small torii on a wall down narrow alleys in places like Kyoto. These are a warning not to urinate there.

Yuga Shrine in southern Okayama is in an area famous for Bizenware ceramics.
Yuga Shrine in southern Okayama is in an area famous for Bizenware ceramics and komainu in the area are often made of the distinctive red pottery, The torii, however, is quite unusual. In Arita, an area of Saga famous for porcelain, a shrine has a torii made out of porcelain.

Images of Torii

Okinawa

A shinmei style torii on Okinawa.
A shinmei style torii on Okinawa. Shinto was introduced to the islands in the late 19th century, and this style of torii was also popular at shrines built in Japanese colonies.

Hiyoshi Taisha, Kyoto

Torii at Hiyoshi Taisha near Kyoto.
The Torii at Hiyoshi Taisha near Kyoto is unique. Many believe the gable on top refers to Mount Hiei, at the base of which the shrine stands, but in fact it has Buddhist symbolism and was therefore removed in the early Meiji period and only replaced in the postwar period.

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