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Torii - Japanese Encyclopedia

Torii - Japanese Encyclopedia

Translated by Hilary Keyes

Written by ニコ

2016.12.04 Bookmark

Whenever you visit a shrine, you are sure to see a large gate-like structure out front - that is a torii. Why are they built at shrines, what do they represent? We will introduce these points in this article, as well as some of the famous torii in Japan.

Torii - The Gates to Shinto Shrines


In front of the entrance to Shinto shrines there are large, gate-like structures. These are the torii.

The standard torii gate is formed by two tall pillars, with a large horizontal cross bar connecting the two pillars and a cap piece resting on top of them. By counting torii as a single unit, on a single road leading into a shrine, there may be multiple torii; in this case, the outermost shrine gate is the first gate, next is the second, and so on.

The Meaning of Torii


Shrines are where the gods of Japan reside. Torii are said to be the division between the holy precincts of the shrine and the human world. In other words, torii are the front door to the home of the gods.

The Origin of Torii


There are various theories as to the origins of torii. One of the most well-known comes from Japanese mythology.

In Japanese mythology, there is a story called Ama-no-iwato. After some struggles with her family, the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu O-mikami, closed herself away inside a cavern called Ama-no-iwato, thus plunging the world into darkness.

The other gods and goddesses did everything they could to try and draw Amaterasu O-mikami out from the cavern. After a great number of attempts, part of the series of events that finally succeeded in bringing her out into the world once more the sound of the bird singing as it sat in the wild mistletoe growing outside of the cavern entrance way.

So the concept of 'the gods reside beyond the tree where the bird sits' came about from this myth, and that is why the name 'torii' stuck with these archways as well. Torii is written with the characters for 'bird' and 'reside'.

The Three Most Famous Torii Are...?

Of all the shrines in Japan, with their respective torii, these three shrine gates are the most famous.

Metal Torii (Kimpusen-ji Temple, Nara Prefecture)

This torii is found at Kinpusen-ji Temple (a syncretic Shinto and Buddhist temple) in front of the Zao-do hall in Yoshino, Nara prefecture. It has been recognized as an Important Cultural Property in Japan and stands eight meters tall.

Bright Vermilion Grand Torii (Itsukushima Shrine, Hiroshima Prefecture)


This is the bright vermilion red torii that stands in the ocean off Itsukushima Shrine, in Hatsukaichi, Miyajima Island in Hiroshima prefecture. The current torii is actually the eighth generation of the shrine gate, having been constructed in 1875. This torii has been not only recognized as an Important Cultural Property in Japan, but as a UNESCO World Heritage site as well. Standing at sixteen meters tall, it is considered to be a Grand Torii.

To learn more about Itsukushima Shrine and Miyajima Island, please take a look at this article: More Than Just Itsukushima Shrine - All The Charming Places In Miyajima.

Stone Torii (Shitenno-ji Shrine, Osaka Prefecture)


This 8.5 meter tall torii is located at Shitenno-ji Temple, in Tennoji, Osaka, Osaka. Built in 1294, this shrine gates stands as the oldest stone Grand Torii in all of Japan, and is of course registered as an Important Cultural Property.

Unconventional and Unique Torii

Other than the standard types of torii we have discussed so far, there are also some very unique types of torii found throughout Japan that we would also like to introduce.

Senbon Torii (Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto Prefecture)


The first is found at Fushimi Inari Shrine, located in Fushimi, Kyoto. These torii follow the path leading up the mountain, which is said to sit at the division between our world and the realm of the dead, which is why there are so many barriers (gates) lining this route. This series of torii was dedicated by the worshipers of the shrine from the Edo era to the Meiji era. It is said that there are about ten thousand shrine gates located throughout the Grand Shrine.

Meoto Iwa (Futami Okitama Shrine, Mie Prefecture)


The Meoto Iwa or 'married couple stones' are found in Futamicho, Ise, Mie prefecture by the Futami Okitama Shrine. Not strictly shaped like a standard shrine gate, these rocks are regarded as serving as the boundary between the inner sanctum of a Shinto shrine and the rest of the world.

Beyond the Meoto Iwa, along the ocean horizon you can watch as the sun (Amaterasu O-mikami) rises each morning, and about 700 meters into the ocean from these sacred rocks you will also find the miraculous Okitama Shinseki, a large flat rock that the waves just break over. The Meoto Iwa are the gateway between the realm of the gods and our world.

Torii, the border between the mortal and godly realms of Japan. When you next visit a Shinto shrine, why not spend a little time gazing at the torii itself too?

If you would like to learn more about Japanese shrines, then why not check out this article on the komainu statues outside shrines: Japanese Encyclopedia: Komainu, or if you want to know more about Japan's shrines and temples, take a look at: Temples, Shrines and Charms - A Summary of Japanese Religion.

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