Torii are the traditional Japanese gates or archways to Shinto sanctuaries or other sacred areas. Torii (鳥居 【とりい】, literally “bird’s perch”) first appeared in Japan in the tenth century (Heian period) and are traditionally made of stone and wood, but more recent variations are also made of copper, reinforced concrete, stainless steel or other materials. They are either left unpainted or covered in a layer of vermillion. Commonly, a single torii is placed at the entrance of the shrine precinct. In case of multiple torii the first and largest one is called ichi-no-torii (一の鳥), with sometimes so many other torii lined up that they create veritable tunnels or archways. The best place to see such torii gates is Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari Taisha, where thousands of them are placed in an endless array of gates.
Torii according to Hokusai (Image credit)
Origin and Function
Due to their prevalence in Asia it has been suggested that torii may have been inspired by Indian torana, Chinese pailou (牌坊, páifāng) or Korean hongsalmun (紅箭門). To this day it is still unclear whether torii are a uniquely Japanese cultural concept or a foreign import. What is clear however, is their function of separating the profane and the mundane from the sacred.
As for the word torii itself there have been several etymological explanations: either tōri-iru (通り入る) which means “to pass through and enter” or – as mentioned above – tori 鳥 (bird) and iru 居 (to be [somewhere] or to sit), bird perch. There has been an age-old connection between birds and death in Japan, as both the Kojiki as well as the Nihon shoki mention how Prince Yamato Takeru had turned into a white bird after his death, choosing his burial ground in that shape. Consequently, his burial mound had been called shiratori misasagi (白鳥陵, white bird grave). Other classical Japanese texts too support the close connection between the souls of the dead and white birds.
Types of torii
There are different types of torii, depending on
In addition there are countless variations and hybrid forms usually named after the most prominent shrines they can be found at.
- whether the posts (柱 hashira) are perpendicular or slightly inclined
- whether the top lintels (笠木 kasagi) are straight or curved
- whether the tie beams (貫 nuki) usually held in place by wedges protrude from the posts or not.
Shinmei type 神明鳥居
The simplest and most likely oldest type of torii is the shinmei family, characterised by straight kasagi, round and perpendicular hashira and straight nuki without the connecting strut (gakuzuka 額束). Examples of the shinmei type are the torii in the Inner and Outer Ise Shrine (伊勢鳥居 Ise torii) in Mie Prefecture or the Kasuga torii at Kasuga-taisha (ichi-no-torii 一の鳥) in Nara Prefecture. The Meiji period saw the establishment of what is now called “State Shintō” (国家神道 Kokka Shintō) that aimed at creating a strong sense of national unity and cultural identity among the Japanese. Shrines of that period, like for instance the Yasukuni Shrine (靖国神社 or 靖國神社 Yasukuni-jinja) in Tokyo, also feature torii of the archaic shinmei family.
Shinmei type of torii
The torii at the Outer Ise Shrine (left) and at Yasukuni Shrine (right).
Ise Grand Shrine
Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo
Itsukushima Shrine (厳島神社 Itsukushima-jinja) on Miyajima, Hiroshima
Shime or chūren type 注連鳥居
It is not clear whether the shime-type can be considered a proper family of torii or if they just constitute a very archaic form of shinmei-torii. Typically, a rope (注連縄 shimenawa, literally “enclosing rope”) was tied from one post to the other to mark the border between the outside and the inside of the shrine. The most famous shime-torii can be seen today in front of the worship hall (拝殿 haiden) at Ōmiwa Shrine (大神神社) in Nara. Another example is the Yasaka Shrine (八坂神社 裏門) in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture.
Shimenawa are lengths of braided rice straw rope used for ritual purification in the Shinto religion. They can vary in diameter from a few centimeters to several meters, and are often seen festooned with shide. A space bound by shimenawa often indicates a sacred or pure space, such as that of a Shinto shrine.
Ōmiwa jinja (大神神社) in Nara (photo credit)
Myōjin type 明神系鳥居
The myōjin torii are without doubt the most common torii style. They are characterised by curved upper lintels (kasagi [see above] and shimaki [島木, secondary lintel]). Both curve slightly upwards. Kusabi (楔, wedges), nuki (貫, “penetrating tie beams”) as well as gakuzuka (額束, struts often covered by a tablet carrying the name of the shrine) are present. The posts or pillars (柱 hashira) are often slightly inclined. A myōjin torii can be made of wood, stone, concrete or other materials and be vermilion or unpainted.
Myōjin torii 明神系鳥居
The torii at Kumano Hongu Taisha in Tanabe, Wakayama Prefecture (熊野本宮大社) (left) and at Shitennō-ji Temple (四天王寺) in Osaka (right). It is said that in the past torii were also used at the entrance of Buddhist temples. And even today as prominent a temple as Osaka’s Shitennō-ji, founded in 593 by Shōtoku Taishi and the oldest state-built Buddhist temple in Japan, features a torii.
Kumano Hongu Taisha (熊野本宮大社)
Shitennō-ji Temple (四天王寺) in Osaka