All about Torii Gates

Let’s talk about torii gates[1] /​ 鳥居. Most people know them by sight and know they are Japanese, but not much more than that. Is there anything more? Lots!

A big torii gate in a small shrine
A big torii gate in a small shrine

You will only find torii gates at Shinto shrines, not at Buddhist temples[2]. The purpose of the gate is to divide our world and the spirit world. You see, Shinto shrines supposedly don’t actually exist in this world. They do, but they don’t. The shrine grounds exist on a place that overlaps with the spirit world. Therefore, they are holy places where the spirits[3] are more likely to hear your prayers. Torii gates mark the entrance to this area.

(From here out, I’ll use the word kami instead of spirit.)

A torii at night
A torii at night

Bigger shrines will have at least two torii gates. There is no hard and fast rule about the order of these torii[4], but I have found that often a red torii marks the entrance to the shrine grounds, then a stone torii marks the actual shrine area. Sometimes there are many stone torii, each one signifying you are closer to the holiest part of the shrine.

A stone torii, marking the entrance to the inner shrine
A stone torii, marking the entrance to the inner shrine

But as I said, there is no hard rule here. Sometimes the red ones are inside the stone ones, sometimes they are even black or unpainted instead of red.

Shrines are typically designed for dramatic effects like this
Shrines are typically designed for dramatic effects like this

As to the torii gates themselves, there are many different designs, and each one tells you different info about the shrine. Some tell you that this shrine is for a local kami, others tell you this shrine is for a kami from a different area, and so on. There are a lot of these small design differences that signify different meanings. They aren’t that important, so don’t worry too much about them.

Probably the most well known torii gate is the one sitting in front of Miyajima Island.

Photo by jpellgen[5]

In the old days, this entire island was considered holy ground, and only a few select people were allowed on the island. It’s much larger than you might think from looking at that photo, by the way. To give you an idea: When the tide is in, the boat to the island goes through the gate.

There is one design difference you might want to be aware of. At inari shrines[6], there tend to be entire paths covered with torii gates. At these shrines, successful people often donate torii gates as a way of thanking the kami for their success.

Inari likes torii gates
Inari likes torii gates

This is only a brief overview. If you are interested in learning more, wikipedia has more info than you could ever want. It’s even pretty accurate on this topic.

  1. Pronounced toh-​​ree  ↩

  2. Unless they mark a shrine within the temple grounds, in which case you will find them at Buddhist Temples. In the past, Shinto and Buddhism mixed together so much they were nearly the same, and we can still see the effects of this today. So… it’s complicated. But the general rule is: torii = shinto shrine.  ↩

  3. The Japanese word here is kami and it is usually translated as gods. This isn’t a great translation, though. Some kami might fit our definition of gods, but many kami don’t. I think spirits is a better translation. Not spirits as in ghosts, but something more similar to “the forest spirits”, which I think is a concept most Westerners can grasp.  ↩

  4. As far as I know. But please let me know if you think I’m wrong.  ↩

  5. I have been to Miyajima and have my own photos of it, but unfortunately the tide was out the entire time I visited. I think it’s much more recognizable with the tide in.  ↩

  6. Inari shrines are pretty common. Look for shrines with kitsune, or fox, statues and you know it’s an inari shrine. Inari is one of the more popular kami. Wikipedia  ↩

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21 Responses to All about Torii Gates

  1. Tornadoes28 Friday, 30 April 2010 at 2:14 am #

    Excellent post. I love torii. Nikko has some amazing torri. Nikko has one of the largest stone torii in Japan, the Ishidorii. It also has a bronze torii, the Karadou-​​torii, the first bronze torii in Japan and pretty rare to see a bronze torii. It is also unique for a torii because it has lotus flowers carved into the foot of the pillars, lotus flowers being Buddhist.

    I look forward to visiting a shrine that has the long path of torii. I haven’t had that opportunity yet.

    • JapanDave Friday, 30 April 2010 at 3:53 am #

      I agree — Nikko is amazing. One of my favorite places.

      One of the most popular inari shrines is fushimi inari in Kyoto. You want to see a lot of torii? You’ll be blown away.

  2. Taeko Friday, 30 April 2010 at 6:49 am #

    Today’s post about ?? was very interesting. Torii is ?? in Kanji. ‘bird’ + ‘exist’… Bird represents Kami? or it’s because birds can have a rest on it?? I wonder how the torii at Miyajima was built? Was it built only when the tide was away?

    • JapanDave Saturday, 1 May 2010 at 12:34 am #

      According to wikipedia, no one really knows the origin of the name. A few of the theories suggest that white birds are connected with death and shinto in old Japan and so this is the origin of the name.

      About Miyajima, yeah I guess it was just built only when the tide was out. So I imagine it took a long time to build.

      (By the way, to everyone, those question marks are suppose to be kanji. I’m working to try to figure out why Japanese isn’t showing up properly on this website. Hopefully it will be fixed soon.)

      • JapanDave Saturday, 1 May 2010 at 10:07 am #

        Fixed it. Torii /​ とりい /​ 鳥居

  3. Horton Friday, 30 September 2011 at 10:04 pm #

    I was lucky enough to be in Kyoto at the fushimi inari in 1989 when they were having a ceremony.  They burned huge stacks of small pieces of wood, each one, if I remember correctly, written with some sort of prayer.  I’m guessing, but I would bet these were pre-​​printed prayers that were purchased as a means to support the shrine.

  4. A.Barlow Wednesday, 18 January 2012 at 6:16 am #

    That’s very cool. Enjoyed the read and learning a bit about this.

  5. Linda Monday, 18 June 2012 at 1:29 am #

    I have a Torii gate at the front entrance of my Yoga and Art studio. I didn’t know what a Troii gate was till after I had it made. I also have 2 Foo Dog at the back entrance. Didn’t know what Foo Dog was till after I put them there. I found out later and they are both in the right places.

    Sometimes it’s better to follow your heart. Sat Nam Linda


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