Let’s talk about torii (toh-ree) gates. Most people know them by sight and know they are Japanese, but not much more than that. Is there anything more? Lots!
Photo by Kevin Jaako
You will only find torii gates at Shinto shrines, not at Buddhist temples1. 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 spirits2 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.)
Photo by Chris Gladis
Bigger shrines will have at least two torii gates. There is no hard and fast rule about the order of these torii, 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.
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.
Photo by Toby Oxborrow
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
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 shrines3, 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.
Photo by Bill McIntyre
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.
Unless they mark a shrine within the temple grounds, which is actually common, though small. Also, sometimes they do mark 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 there are exceptions, but the general rule is: torii = shinto shrine. ↩
The Japanese word here is kami and it is usually translated as gods. Many people, myself included, don’t like this translation for a number of reasons. 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. ↩