Torii: Gateway to a Sacred Space

The entrance to a Shinto shrine (in Japan, but also elsewhere) is customarily marked by a torii, a form of gate which marks the entrance to a sacred space.

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Torii come in many sizes, and may be made from stone, wood, or other materials, though many (if not the majority) are constructed from wood and painted red. (The color translates “red” from Japanese, even though many Westerners would call it “red-orange”–or, in some cases, simply “orange”).

Many shrines have more than one torii, and the gates often grow more frequent the closer visitors get to the shrine’s most sacred spaces. 

Fushimi Inari, south of Kyoto, reputedly has over ten thousand torii, most of which were donated to the shrine as an act of worship.

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Many of them bear the donors’ names carved into the back sides of the vertical posts.

15K09 Inari gates

The oldest standing torii in Japan dates to the 12th century, but torii are referenced in written works as old as the tenth century, so their use dates back at least that far.

One of the most famous, and iconic, torii is the “Great Torii” (in Japanese, otorii) that stands on the beach at Miyajima and marks the entrance to Itsukushima Jinja (Itsukushima Shrine)Originally constructed in 1168, the otorii has been rebuilt eight times since then–most recently in 1875–and survived the atomic bombs that leveled Hiroshima (which sits directly across from the island, on the other side of a narrow strait).

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At low tide, the base of the torii is exposed, and visitors can walk beneath it. Barnacles encrust the base of the pillars to a height of over three feet–the height the water covers at high tide–and people often place coins between the barnacles, for luck and as an offering to the gods of the shrine.

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Even tiny shrines have torii marking the entrance to the sacred spaces, like this one, at Ootoyo Jinja, which lies along the Philosopher’s Path in northeast Kyoto:

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The torii’s iconic, easily-recognizable shape is often associated with Japan, though torii appear at shrines throughout Asia (and elsewhere). Wherever it appears, the torii represents a gateway, symbolizing entry into a sacred space.

Its close connection with nature is not coincidental, either–Shinto recognizes the sacredness of nature, and the divine spirit that exists within many natural phenomena, from rivers to mountains to trees, and even animals (though it’s harder to make them stay behind the gates).

The torii is one of my favorite Japanese symbols, not only because of my love for Shinto shrines (though I admit that, too) but because its simplicity and brilliant color make it impossible to ignore. The torii sends a message–“this space is special, treat it with reverence”–and reminds us that, despite the day-to-day rush, there are places, and concepts, which are timeless and worthy of mindful contemplation.

Have you visited a shinto shrine? What symbols–Japanese or otherwise–are most meaningful to you?