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Japan: Shirahige and its Floating Torii on Lake Biwa

Updated: Mar 9

The Shirahige Shrine, located on the shores of Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture, Japan, is famous for its floating Torii, a symbol of the transition from the profane world to the sacred. Founded over 2000 years ago, it is one of the oldest shrines in the region. The vermillion red Torii provides a striking contrast with the lake and the surrounding mountains, attracting photographers and visitors from all over the world.

Japan: The Shirahige Shrine and its Floating Torii on Lake Biwa

This shrine is a major attraction for those seeking to experience the harmony between Japanese nature, culture, and spirituality. The shrine also organizes traditional festivals, adding to its cultural and spiritual appeal. Here's how to prepare for a photo session and what to expect.

Details of its history and characteristics.

1. Origins

The Shirahige Shrine is estimated to have been founded over 2000 years ago, making it one of the oldest shrines in the region. It is dedicated to the deity Sarutahiko-no-Okami, associated with longevity and good fortune.

Over the centuries, the shrine has undergone several repairs and renovations. However, it has retained its traditional architectural style. Today, the shrine is separated from its Torii by a busy and dangerous road, which obviously deprives it of the peaceful atmosphere that was intended at its construction.

For this reason, I have never felt tranquility or spirituality during my photo sessions there. And I'm not even talking about the increasing number of photographers who visit from morning to night. Setting up a tripod for long minutes or even hours is now a challenge. Therefore, it is best to favor rainy or snowy days. Then, without a doubt, you will be alone.

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2. A Torii on the Water

The shrine is particularly famous for its Torii (traditional Shinto gate) located in the lake a few meters from the shore. This floating Torii creates a picturesque image, especially at sunrise or sunset (see below). This is much to the delight of the many photographers who gather on the large steps facing it.

The Torii symbolizes the passage from the profane world to the sacred world. Its position in the water adds an additional dimension to this symbolism, enhancing the purity and spiritual nature of the shrine. The Shirahige Torii, still relatively unknown a decade ago, has become a popular tourist attraction for its typical architecture and proximity to the shore. Read the article on the history and symbols of Torii for more information.

Japan: The Shirahige Shrine and its Floating Torii on Lake Biwa

4. Events and Festivals

The shrine organizes various festivals and events throughout the year. One of the most notable is the annual Shirahige Festival, which takes place in June and features traditional rituals and Shinto processions.

5. Lake Biwa

As Japan's largest freshwater lake, Lake Biwa is a central element in the culture and history of the region. The Shirahige Shrine, located on the edge of this lake, adds significant cultural and historical dimensions to this natural landscape. See all the articles dedicated to Lake Biwa.

6. Conservation and Tourism

With the increase in tourism, efforts are being made to preserve the shrine and its natural environment, while accommodating visitors who come to admire its beauty and soak in its tranquility. However, the space remains particularly tight.

A large parking lot has been developed to accommodate a maximum number of visitors. A small Seven-Eleven supermarket (known as Kombini in Japan) was even built more recently. Therefore, you can easily grab a meal or a hot drink in winter before returning to your tripod, which is very appreciable.

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The Floating Torii

The floating Torii of the Shirahige Shrine is definitely the main point of interest for tourists and photographers. It has several distinctive features:

1. Location on the Water: The Torii is distinguished by its unique location, set in the waters of Lake Biwa. This creates an impressive setting, especially when viewed with the lake and sky in the background.

In the distance, one can see Oki Island (Okishima) which aligns with the Torii and is often prominently featured in images.

This is not a problem as the island's shape is interesting and it provides a scale to the scene. It places the Torii in relation to its distant landscape. Moreover, it reminds us that we are on the shore of a lake and not on a coastal edge.

2. Design and Structure: Typical of Shinto Torii, it has a structure with two pillars connected by two horizontal crossbars, the upper crossbar being slightly larger than the second. Its construction is robust to withstand the natural elements of the lake.

This Torii is indeed reinforced at the base by four other small supporting pillars. This additional structure is often present at the base of large Torii or those exposed to the weather. It also adds perspective to the construction. Therefore, lateral views are particularly interesting in photography. However, these images are more difficult to capture due to the proximity of the road and the limited space available (photos above).

3. Vermilion Color: Like many Torii in Japan, the one at Shirahige Shrine is painted in vermilion red, a color believed to ward off evil spirits and diseases. This striking hue beautifully contrasts with the blue-gray of the lake and the green of the island's mountains (if you are photographing in color).

4. Foundation in the Lake: Its foundation is designed to remain stable and firmly anchor the Torii in the water. This is an engineering feat considering the variations in water level and the significant silt in Lake Biwa. Regular maintenance is necessary to maintain its structure and appearance, given its constant exposure to natural elements.

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6. Maintenance: Like all Shinto constructions, this Torii always appears almost new. The renovation of shrine buildings is very regular in Japan, much more so than for temples, which are only renovated when they have suffered damage. Cleanliness is indeed a fundamental value of Shinto worship. As a result, significant sums are invested at regular intervals to ensure the maintenance of their impeccable appearance.

How to Get to Shirahige Shrine

Kyoto is often the most convenient starting point for getting to Shirahige Shrine. Kyoto is well connected to other major cities in Japan via the Shinkansen high-speed train network.

1. Train to Otsu: From Kyoto, take a local or express train towards Otsu, the capital of Shiga Prefecture. The journey takes about 10 to 20 minutes.

2. Train to Omi-Takashima Station: From Otsu, take the JR Kosei line to Omi-Takashima Station. The journey lasts about 40 minutes.

3. Bus or Taxi to the Shrine: At Omi-Takashima Station, you can take a local bus or a taxi to Shirahige Shrine. The bus journey can take about 20 minutes, while a taxi ride will be a bit shorter.

4. Walk to the Torii: Once you arrive at Shirahige Shrine, the floating Torii is easily accessible. It is located right on the edge of Lake Biwa and can be reached in just a few minutes on foot from the main entrance of the shrine.

5. Alternatives: For those who prefer guided tours, there are organized tours from Kyoto that include a visit to Shirahige Shrine and other attractions around Lake Biwa.

If you plan to visit other sites around Lake Biwa, opting for a car rental is necessary for more flexibility.

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The Final Word

The Shirahige Shrine continues to captivate with its unique blend of natural beauty, spirituality, and history, attracting both pilgrims and photographers from around the world. The floating Torii is a remarkable example of the harmony between nature, spirituality, and Japanese culture, forming an iconic image in the landscape of Lake Biwa.

Undoubtedly, this Torii is one of the highlights of Lake Biwa for minimalist photography. It is a must-visit location, but consider avoiding the tourist seasons if you wish to fully immerse yourself in the tranquility of the place during your photo session.

Mon livre: Miroirs d'eau du Léman au Biwa. Editions Glénat. Disponible sur ce site.


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