All about Torii Gates

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.

Interested in reading more on Japanese culture? Read on!

  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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28 Responses to All about Torii Gates

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

    Today’s post about 鳥居 was very interesting. Torii is 鳥居 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.

  2. 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.

      • Dave Friday, 19 May 2017 at 1:56 pm #

        Dave, bro you sound like a great guy.

  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

  6. Robert Thursday, 11 June 2015 at 8:10 am #

    Very interesting data. A question, are there torii gates around/within the Aokigahara Jukai? I wanttpo visist (have never been to Japan) and love the architecture as well as the woods. I figure, if you’re going to visit the woods in Japan might as well make it the controversial Aokigahara.

    • JapanDave Friday, 12 June 2015 at 2:46 am #

      It is considered a place of demons so I would imagine no. Unlike the cross which traditionally can be used as a weapon against evil, the torii is just a marker, a gate from one world to the next, and it wouldn’t be used that way. Buddhist temples might be built in places of evil in order to calm the restless spirits, but not shrines. But then again I’ve never been to Aokigahara, so I can’t say for sure. Searching around I can’t find any mention of them there.

  7. Николай Friday, 11 September 2015 at 4:48 pm #

    Великолепные произведения искусства великой Японии, старинной и такой современной! Я никогда не встречал у себя в России ничего подобного. У нас конечно тоже есть подобные постройки и ворота, но они выполнены совсем в другом стиле. Ваш стиль меня поражает. Планирую у себя в загородном доме тоже поставить такие ворота Тории.

  8. Ian Thursday, 5 May 2016 at 11:57 am #

    Do you know anything about the giant-scale 20th century torii that are seen at certain places like Heian Shrine (Kyoto), Miwa Shrine, near Nara, and on the road from Tsuruoka to Mount Haguro in Yamagata? I am not sure what material they are made from; I assume concrete. I wonder if they date from the Shintoist decades leading to the Second World War, or whether they were put up earlier as part of the Meiji restoration. I can’t find any answers on a quick internet search.

    • JapanDave Monday, 9 May 2016 at 10:31 pm #

      Good questions. I don’t know what they are made of. The torii at Heian Shrine is a repreduction of the original. I have no idea what it is constructed with, but concrete is a safe bet. However I would guess the original giant one wasn’t made from concrete. Probably wood, similar to the giant floating torii at Miyajima. The torii at Miwa shrine was built in the 80s, so we can probably rule out it having anything to do with the Shinto cult from pre WW2. What is it made by….? Again concrete is a good guess.

    • Jeanne Wednesday, 20 July 2016 at 4:43 pm #

      Ah, i see. Well th’ats not too tricky at all!”

  9. Mark Marlowe Monday, 17 October 2016 at 11:12 am #

    Not entirely true about there being no Buddist temples with To Rio Gates. There are examples, for one, the Enryaku-ji monastery near Kyoto has one.

  10. Mark Marlowe Monday, 17 October 2016 at 11:13 am #

    Not entirely true about there being no Buddist temples with Torii Gates. There are examples, for one, the Enryaku-ji monastery near Kyoto has one.

    **** Corrected stupid auto correct mistake on previous post ****

  11. Mario Vazquez Thursday, 26 January 2017 at 1:25 pm #

    I was stationed in Otsu on Lake Biwa from May 1948 to March 1949, The Giant Torii near the Heian Shrine was a grey color. I went into Kyoto almost daily to our USO which was nearby the Shrine and always admired it. I loved the beautiful Shrine.I always wondered how tall and wide it was. Can anybody tell me.It looks beautiful and colorful now.

  12. N Elizabeth Johansen Saturday, 25 February 2017 at 1:17 pm #

    To say that torii won’t be found at Buddhist temples is inaccurate. There are any number of Buddhist temples that have torii along with a small Shinto jinga on the grounds. The Higashi-Honganji Temple Complex is one such place where torii can be found on the grounds of a Buddhist temple complex.

    • JapanDave Tuesday, 7 March 2017 at 1:27 pm #

      There are some temples that still house shrines. It’s not too common these days for a variety of reasons, but you’re right, they can still be found. But I did mention that in the article—see the footnotes. Perhaps I should bring that up to the main article to avoid confusion.

  13. random guy Tuesday, 4 April 2017 at 7:54 am #

    this is an amazing post i love the pictures


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