Translated by Hilary Keyes
Torii - Japanese Encyclopedia
Written by ニコ
Whenever you visit a Shinto shrine, you are sure to see a large gate-like structure out front, called a torii. Why are they built at shrines and what do they represent? We introduce these points in this article, as well as some of the famous torii in Japan.
What are Torii Gates in Japan?
In front of the entrance to Shinto shrines are often marked by large, gate-like structures. These are known as "torii" in Japanese.
The standard torii gate is formed by two tall pillars, with a large horizontal crossbar 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.
You will sometimes see Buddhist temples with torii on their precints––however, the gate-like structures at temples look different than Shinto torii usually referred to as "sanmon."
Torii - The Gates to Shinto Shrines
As mentioned above, torii are most often seen at Shinto shrines. Shrines are thought to be where the gods of Japan reside, and torii are said to be the division between the sacred precincts of the shrine and the human world. In other words, torii are the front door to the home of the gods.
Visitors often bow just before a torii when visiting a shrine to show respect or honor towards the sanctity of the shrine. They bow again usually right before they pass through the torii again when leaving.
The Origin of Torii in Japan
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, 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 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 birds singing as it sat in the wild mistletoe growing outside of the cavern entrance way.
The deities of Japan are thought to reside beyond the tree near where birds sit, resulting in the name "torii." Torii is written with the characters for "bird" and "reside" in kanji characters.
Famous Torii Gates in Japan
Of all the shrines in Japan, with their respective torii, these three shrine gates are the most famous.
The Torii at Kinpusen-ji Temple, Nara
Photo by Pixta
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.
The Vermilion Grand Torii at Itsukushima Shrine, Hiroshima
This bright vermilion red torii that stands in the water at Itsukushima Shrine, in Miyajima, Hiroshima Prefecture. One of the most famous images of Japan, the current torii gate 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 (52 feet), it is referred to as a grand torii for its size. This torii is currently under repairs.
The Stone Torii at Shitenno-ji Shrine, Osaka
This 8.5-meter (around 28 feet) 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.
The Senbon Torii at Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto
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 Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine.
Meoto Iwa, Futami Okitama Shrine, Mie
The Meoto Iwa or "married couple stones" are found in Futamicho, Ise, Mie, 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 the sunrise 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.
Sacred Torii Gates in Japan
Torii, as mentioned above, are considered to be 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?