top of page
  • Writer's pictureOlivier

Japan: The 5 Most Beautiful Torii for Long Exposure Photography

Updated: Mar 7

Emblematic of Japanese culture, Torii are found throughout the territory. Symbolizing the passage into a world of spiritual purity, these gates belong to the Shinto religion, originating from the archipelago. Therefore, they are only present in shrines or nearby and often convey an image characteristic of Japan. But which are the most interesting Torii for minimalist photography?


Japan: The 5 Most Beautiful Torii for Long Exposure Photography

What is a Torii

The word Torii literally means “Where birds rest”. This expression refers to the origin of the Torii. These structures are usually made of wood and painted in the typical orange-red color of Shinto shrines. However, it is not uncommon to find very beautiful examples made of other materials such as stone, metal, natural (unpainted) wood, or even concrete.


History of Torii

Torii have a long history that dates back to the Heian period (794-1185). Originally, they were composed only of four poles connected by ropes. These poles fundamentally delineated the plots of shrines by marking their entrance. But quickly, they were given a more spiritual presence, being said to separate the sacred space from the rest of the world.


Later, these poles were connected by horizontal crossbeams to provide more stability. This then became an ideal place for birds (hence the name Torii).


As with any construction, the architecture of Torii has evolved over time and has been expressed in many styles. Today, they are essentially divided into 2 distinct styles depending on whether the upper lintel is curved, called Myojin Torii, or straight, called Shinmei Torii.


The Torii recognized by historians as the oldest in the country is the Torii of the Kinpusenji shrine and temple in Nara, dating back to 1455.


My library: Shinto in the History and Culture of Japan. | Shinto Discovery of the Divine in Japanese Art.


Role and Symbol of Torii

Today, Torii, primarily located at the entrances of shrines, invite visitors to pass beneath them when entering. This marks the transition into a place of purity reserved for the deities of Shinto religion. It is then appropriate to pass back underneath when leaving to signify one's return to the world of mortals.


Tradition dictates that the visitor should not walk through the center of the Torii but slightly off to the side. The passage in the center is indeed reserved for the deities of the Shinto cult (the Kami).


Torii are sometimes located far from the shrine they relate to. It is not uncommon to find them along coastlines, on beaches, or on rocks bordering the sea. When these Torii are placed on water, they symbolize even more the passage of the spirit into this world of purity through prayer.


Although they may appear isolated due to their coastal location, these Torii on the water systematically belong to a shrine, sometimes located several kilometers away. They are oriented along the axis of the main entrance of their respective shrines.


Many Torii are present on the shores of lakes or the coasts of the peninsula. However, they do not all present photographic interest. Depending on how and where they are placed, the context is not always conducive to capturing in images all the purity they represent.


Japan: The 5 Most Beautiful Torii for Long Exposure Photography
 

My Selection:


The 5 Most Beautiful Torii for Long Exposure Photography

Also, having traversed the lake shores and coastlines of Japan for many years, I have selected 5 Torii for their aesthetic qualities and locations. They are very inspiring photographic subjects and invite meditation through the image.


In my selection criteria, I favored clear backgrounds where only the expanse of water can magnify these constructions. Their location and presence in a minimalist landscape devoid of disturbing elements will ensure spectacular photographs in all seasons.


Mon matériel: URTH+. Les filtres ND haute définition pour la photographie en poses longues.

My equipment: URTH+. High-definition ND filters for long exposure photography.

 

1. Konpira Shrine in Hokkaido Prefecture

Arguably the most beautiful Torii in all of Japan for the elegance of its shape and particularly its transverse part, the Torii of Konpira Shrine is located on the island of Hokkaido in Shosambetsu.


Unknown to the public and photographers just a decade ago, it has suddenly become famous among black and white photography enthusiasts.


When I first photographed it, I remember the difficulty we had in finding it. Even the locals couldn't give us precise directions or were completely unaware of its existence.


Moreover, when I presented my photograph below at an exhibition in Tokyo (2017), nobody knew it. I was even repeatedly asked if it was the Torii of the Itsukushima Shrine located on Miyajima Island near Hiroshima, which is incomparable in terms of proportions and context.


Japan: The 5 Most Beautiful Torii for Long Exposure Photography

The Konpira Shrine in Shosambetsu is located 225 km from the city of Sapporo (about a 3.5-hour drive). It is necessary to travel by car, as no public transport lines serve this area. The Torii is located directly behind the Misakidai Park or the Misaki no Yu hotel. You must drive around the hotel and head towards the coast, where you will find a parking area near the fishing port. Then, continue on foot.


Depending on the season of your visit, snow can be a major obstacle. You will have to cross a huge wall of snow and continue through a thick layer of powdery snow to reach the beach. This Torii is located about ten meters from the shore, and the sea is shallow. The rocks jutting out from the surface add a dramatic aspect to the scene. However, there is not much space to step back, as the small beach is backed by a cliff.


Japan: The 5 Most Beautiful Torii for Long Exposure Photography
 

2. Shirahige Shrine in Shiga Prefecture

The Torii of Shirahige Shrine is located on Lake Biwa in Takashima.

Certainly the second most appreciated Torii among photographers today, it was also unknown to locals more than ten years ago. Today, while very famous, this Torii remains one of the most spectacular in the entire country.


Its proportions, color, setting on Lake Biwa, and the presence of Okishima Island in the distance make for a naturally spectacular composition for photography. Unlike the Konpira Shrine, the Shirahige Shrine is perfectly organized to accommodate a large number of tourists. It has a large (free) parking area. Then, you must cross a very busy and dangerous road to get close to the shore.


Japan: The 5 Most Beautiful Torii for Long Exposure Photography

Facing the Torii, you will find a set of very wide steps that allow you to place your tripod at different heights, thus varying the compositions by playing with the background. Depending on the time of year, you will not be alone. Many Japanese stop for a few moments to photograph it and to take pictures in front of it, but they generally only stay for a few minutes.


If you are lucky enough to visit on a snowy day, you might be able to photograph it with a thin layer of snow on the transverse part, which is quite rare. It snows heavily on Lake Biwa but not at this particular spot, curiously. Don't hesitate to return at different times of the day, as the lighting is very different and offers varied results. Sunset is also a special moment if you are staying nearby.


Japan: The 5 Most Beautiful Torii for Long Exposure Photography
 

3. Isosaki Shrine in Ibaraki Prefecture

The unique feature of this Torii is its interesting position on a rock. Perched on this promontory, the Torii of Isosaki Shrine is not in direct contact with the water. However, the Pacific Ocean coast at this location is very wild, and violent winds cast waves onto the Torii in winter.


The conditions for taking pictures are challenging but worth it, considering the waves that crash onto the rocks. The beach is made of pebbles and is quite unstable. It is important to firmly plant your tripod into the ground rather than just setting it down.


My equipment: GITZO Mountaineer S3 and S3 ball head. The ultra-stable and lightweight carbon tripod for long exposures without vibrations. Durability, ease of use, and availability of spare parts. An investment for life.

My equipment: GITZO Mountaineer S3 and S3 ball head. The ultra-stable and lightweight carbon tripod for long exposures without vibrations. Durability, ease of use, and availability of spare parts. An investment for life.


On several occasions, I had to quickly step back because these waves are significant and unpredictable. I therefore left my tripod and camera in the middle of the water for long periods during my long exposures. This can be quite anxiety-inducing if it is not securely anchored in the ground.


Japan: The 5 Most Beautiful Torii for Long Exposure Photography

This Torii is made of stone and is gray in color. Therefore, it doesn't hold much interest for color photography, but the location is magical due to the contrasting presence of these volcanic rocks.


Isosaki Shrine is located in Oarai, 150 km from Tokyo Haneda International Airport (a 2-hour drive) or 80 km from Tokyo Narita International Airport (a 1.5-hour drive). It is necessary to travel by car, following the coast northward from the city of Kashima.


Japan: The 5 Most Beautiful Torii for Long Exposure Photography
 

4. Oouo Shrine in Saga Prefecture

This shrine is located on the shores of the Ariake Sea in Kyushu, one of my favorite regions in Japan.


Oouo Shrine doesn't have one Torii, but four, three of which are located directly in the sea. This is certainly the most famous set of Torii in Japan because the significant tides of the Ariake Sea submerge these three Torii up to their halfway point.


It's an incredible spectacle to witness in its entirety. But then you'll need to stay on site for more than 4 hours. This site is ideal if you want to try a long timelapse. The result is amazing.


At low tide, it is possible to walk under these Torii, which tourists often do. As a result, it is difficult to photograph them in long exposures at low tide. However, the rising tide is rapid and allows you to take several interesting shots depending on the water level.


Japan: The 5 Most Beautiful Torii for Long Exposure Photography

These three Torii are not of a remarkable classic architecture. They are made of wood and painted in orange-red. Their upper crossbeams are made of entire tree trunks and are asymmetrical. The quality of the location, therefore, lies more in the ensemble of these three aligned Torii and the presence of water.


Oouo Shrine is located in Tara on the western coast of the Ariake Sea, 60 km from the city of Nagasaki (a 1 hour 20 minute drive).


Japan: The 5 Most Beautiful Torii for Long Exposure Photography
 

5. Einoo Shrine in Kumamoto Prefecture

Probably one of the most beautiful Shinto compositions on water. Located in the south of the Kamiamakusa peninsula, this Torii is accompanied by two stone lanterns. Originally, these lanterns were placed in perfect symmetry.


My equipment: GITZO Ball Head S4. The ultra-stable and versatile head with friction control. The ultimate in smoothness and precision of movement. A durable reference for landscape photography and long exposures.

My equipment: GITZO Ball Head S4. The ultra-stable and versatile head with friction control. The ultimate in smoothness and precision of movement. A durable reference for landscape photography and long exposures.


However, following the 2016 earthquake that struck the Kumamoto region, causing significant damage (including to the exceptional Kumamoto Castle), the right lantern was slightly rotated. Therefore, the ensemble is no longer perfectly symmetrical today and will probably always bear the mark of this earthquake, as there are no plans, to my knowledge, to realign this lantern.


The calm sea at this location offers numerous possibilities for photography. With the tide being more tranquil than anywhere else along the shores of the Ariake Sea, you will have ample time to fully enjoy your photo sessions.


Japan: The 5 Most Beautiful Torii for Long Exposure Photography

This shrine is relatively unknown and therefore not very crowded. I have never encountered anyone there. The background is not as clear as for the previous Torii. A significant seawall is located on the left side of the distant landscape. Depending on the weather conditions, it will probably be quite visible in the images.


It's worth noting that the shrine is perched high up and offers an interesting view of the Torii and its two lanterns.


Einoo Shrine is located 25 km from the center of Kumamoto city (a 45-minute drive). The entrance is quite discreet and easy to miss, but if you follow the coast along route 266, you will eventually come across it. It has a small parking area.

 

This selection is obviously personal. It corresponds to my aesthetic criteria and aims to be as objective as possible. It is also involuntarily the result of the intensity experienced and the pleasure felt during my visits over the years.


However, the quality of the context and backgrounds of these five sites will allow the majority of photographers to capture them under all circumstances and regardless of weather conditions.


Each of these Torii offers an interesting personal experience of meditation through the image. It's an opportunity to reflect for a few moments on the meaning of our work as photographers and the privilege we have to observe the world with respect through our lens.



WISE Visa Card: The solution for traveling photographers. A single card to manage your money, instantly exchange over 40 currencies at the real rate, pay in local currencies, and have your bank details in more than 10 currencies.

WISE Visa Card: The solution for traveling photographers. A single card to manage your money, instantly exchange over 40 currencies at the real rate, pay in local currencies, and have your bank details in more than 10 currencies.

 

Comentarios


bottom of page