Japan: The Torii, Symbols of Purity and Spiritual Transition
Updated: Nov 20
The Torii are not just architectural elements that define the landscapes and sacred spaces of Japan. They embody the very essence of Japanese culture and spirituality. Opening a gateway to the history, beliefs, and values of a nation, they symbolize the passage from the profane world to the sacred world, according to Shinto religion.
Fine Art Print © O. Robert
The Torii is literally translated as "bird gate" or "where birds perch" in Japanese. It constitutes a traditional gateway associated with Shinto shrines. These structures, recognizable by their vertical posts and horizontal crosspieces, represent the entrance into a pure, spiritual, or sacred world.
Having photographed dozens of Torii across the country for over 15 years, I have often pondered their history, styles (if they exist), size, and materiality. Similarly, the endless moments of photographic reflection facing these Torii built on water have led me to want to know more about their intriguing situation.
Through this article, I attempt to provide some information that I hope will be useful and that I have gathered over the years. They aim to answer these questions, both philosophical and technical. Although it was difficult to obtain precise information about the history of these Torii, through my research and meetings, I have been able to catalog the main architectural styles recognized in Japan as well as the philosophical values that adorn these spiritual gates.
Finally, you will also find some information on the main Torii which are, for the Japanese, among the most famous in the country.
Library: Shinto in the History and Culture of Japan. | Shinto Discovery of the Divine in Japanese Art.
Contents of the article:
Fine Art Print © O. Robert
History of Torii in Japan
Torii have a long history dating back to the Heian period (794-1185). Originally, they consisted only of four poles connected by ropes. These poles fundamentally delineated the plots of shrines by marking their entrance.
Over time, philosophical or spiritual values were attributed to them. They have since served to separate the sacred world from the profane space. Crossing a Torii, the visitor is supposed to purify themselves and prepare to meet the divine. This notion of purification is central in Shinto religion, where purity and pollution are key concepts.
According to ancient engravings, paintings, or other writings, the first known Torii in Japan date from the 10th century. However, it should be noted that the tradition of Torii could date back to an even earlier period according to some manuscripts.
The first written mentions of Torii appear in Japanese texts from the 10th century, but their precise origin and development remain partly shrouded in mystery.
My equipment: URTH+. High-definition ND filters for long exposure photography.
Although the notion of antiquity is still debated, the Torii recognized by historians as the oldest in the country and still standing is the Torii of the Kinpusenji shrine and temple in Nara, dating back to 1455.
These structures have evolved over time, reflecting changes in construction materials, architectural styles, and cultural influences. Initially, as I mentioned, Torii might have had a more practical significance, devoid of any religious meaning, which has disappeared today.
For example, marking the boundary of a territory or sacred space, before becoming the symbolic gateways we know today. Now, they serve as a spiritual bridge between the profane world and the realm of the Kami, the Shinto deities.
Fine Art Prints © O. Robert
The Roles of Torii
Beyond their religious role, Torii are deeply rooted in Japanese culture. They are often the subject of legends and stories. For example, the story of the floating Torii of Itsukushima, which appears to float on water at high tide, is surrounded by myths and legends, reflecting the harmonious union between man, nature, and spirituality.
Torii can also take various forms and be constructed from different materials. The most classic ones are made of wood, painted in bright orange-red (the color of Shinto shrines) with black ends, but there are also those made of stone, metal, and even concrete. This diversity reflects the evolution of Japanese society over the centuries while maintaining a deep connection with traditions.
In philosophy, Torii can be seen as a metaphor for the journey of life, marking the passage from one state to another, from ignorance to wisdom, from the profane to the sacred. They remind us that life is a path marked by transitions and transformations, and that each stage has its own meaning and importance.
Fine Art Print © O. Robert
The Gate of the Kami
By passing under a Torii, the profane thus enters a sacred enclosure reserved for Shinto deities known as Kami. These Kami are divinities or spirits that infuse the universe. They are not gods in the omnipotent sense of the word but rather sacred manifestations of nature, ancestors, concepts, or spiritual phenomena.
Kami reside in natural elements such as mountains, rivers, trees, as well as in objects or specific places considered sacred. This belief reflects an animistic view of the world, where each element of nature possesses a spiritual essence.
Kami can influence the well-being and fortune of humans, hence the importance for the Japanese to maintain a harmonious relationship with them through rituals, prayers, and offerings. Shinto worship does not consider them as perfectly good or bad, but rather as forces that can be benevolent or hostile, depending on the circumstances. The Kami thus embody the complexity and interconnection of nature, spirituality, and humanity.
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.
The Styles of Torii
Although today only two architectural styles seem to be distinguished, Torii, like any construction, have evolved into several distinct styles over the centuries, each with its own characteristics and history.
Here are some of the most remarkable Torii styles:
1. Myojin Torii: This is probably the most widespread style, characterized by its slightly curved pillars and a top crossbeam (kasagi) with sloping ends. A second horizontal bar (shimaki) is often attached under the kasagi.
2. Shinmei Torii: This style, associated with the Ise Shrine, is simpler and more austere. The pillars are straight and the horizontal crossbeams are flat and without curves, reflecting an ancient and traditional form.
3. Ryobu Torii: This style combines elements of Shintoism and Buddhism. It features two curved upper crossbeams, as well as a sort of palisade between the two pillars.
4. Kasuga Torii: This style is similar to the Myojin style, but with pillars that flare upwards. It is often associated with the Kasuga Shrine in Nara.
5. Kaku-torii: This style has square-shaped pillars and a top crossbeam, rather than round, giving it a more angular appearance.
6. Miwa Torii: This style is unique in that it does not have a kasagi (upper crossbeam). It is often used for smaller shrines or secondary shrines within a larger shrine complex.
7. Hachiman Torii: This style is named after the Hachiman Shrine and is distinguished by having three horizontal crossbars instead of two.
Fine Art Prints © O. Robert
Each of these Torii styles has its own meaning and cultural context, reflecting the diversity and richness of Shintoism and Japanese culture as a whole. These stylistic differences are not just aesthetic. They often represent the peculiarities of the Kami worshipped in the shrines where these Torii are erected.
The Most Famous Torii
In Japan, several Torii are famous for their beauty, historical significance, or unique location. Here are 6 examples that are particularly notable for both the Japanese and the international community:
1. Itsukushima Torii: Located at the Itsukushima Shrine (also known as Miyajima) in Hiroshima Prefecture, this floating Torii is one of the most iconic in Japan. At high tide, it appears to float on the water, creating a spectacular view.
2. Fushimi Inari-Taisha Torii: This shrine in Kyoto is famous for its thousands of orange-red Torii forming tunnels along the shrine's paths. Each Torii was donated by an individual or a company as an offering.
My equipment: GITZO Adventury. The ultimate backpack. Practical, comfortable, and waterproof. Ideal for landscape photography.
3. Meiji-jingū Torii: Located in Tokyo, this large cypress wood Torii is the symbol of the Meiji Shrine, one of the most important Shinto shrines in Japan, dedicated to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shōken.
4. Heian-jingū Torii: In Kyoto, this Torii is one of the largest in Japan and marks the entrance to the Heian-jingū Shrine, known for its imposing architecture and traditional garden.
5. Hakone-jingū Torii: Situated on the shores of Lake Ashi in Hakone, this Torii is particularly photogenic, offering a striking contrast between the traditional gateway and the natural setting of the lake and surrounding mountains.
6. Izumo Taisha Torii: This shrine, one of the oldest and most important in Japan, is located in Shimane Prefecture. It features several impressive Torii, including a particularly large one at the main entrance.
Fine Art Print © O. Robert
Torii and Water
Torii placed on lakes or the sea in Japan convey a deep symbolic meaning, related to spirituality and Shinto beliefs. These structures, like the famous floating Torii of the Itsukushima Shrine, represent several key elements of Japanese thought and culture:
1. Connection between the Sacred and the Profane: Torii traditionally mark the boundary between the profane world and the sacred world. When placed on water, they emphasize this transition in a particularly visual and striking manner, suggesting a passage from the tangible, everyday world to a spiritual and eternal realm.
2. Harmony with Nature: Shinto worship deeply values nature and all its constituents as it considers them to be inhabited by the Kami. A Torii on water embodies this harmony between natural elements and the sacred, highlighting respect and admiration for the natural environment.
Library: Japan Beautiful Landscapes.
3. Purification: Water holds a characteristic ritual importance in Shinto worship for its ability to purify. A Torii located on water symbolizes this purification. It suggests that passing through the Torii helps to spiritually cleanse those who enter the shrine.
4. Landmark and Welcome: For pilgrims and visitors arriving by sea or lake, the Torii serves as a landmark in the landscape, indicating the welcoming point of the shrine and inviting people to enter into a space of peace and spirituality.
5. Beauty and Serenity: Aesthetically, Torii contribute to a spectacular landscape, creating a striking contrast between human architecture and natural beauty. They symbolize the pursuit of serenity and beauty, values deeply rooted in Japanese culture.
The Final Word
The Torii of Japan, more than just an architectural manifestation, represent a deep expression of Japanese philosophy and spirituality. They symbolize the passage from the material world to the spiritual world, serving as bridges between the human and the divine.
By passing through a Torii, one moves not only physically but also symbolically, from the realm of everyday reality to a space of purity and sacredness. The various styles and locations of Torii, whether standing majestically in forest shrines or appearing to float on waters, reflect the sought-after harmony between man, nature, and the Kami.
These structures, with their simplicity and elegance, invite reflection on our place in the universe and our relationship with the natural and spiritual world. Thus, Torii are not mere constructions, but living symbols of a perpetual quest for balance, harmony, and understanding of life.
Luminar Neo: Artificial intelligence at the service of commercial photography.
My articles on Buddhism, Shintoism, or Taoism are merely a reflection of a personal interest in art and history. They do not aim to convey religious messages, influence, or convince readers in any way. My texts solely seek to document the cultural evolution of countries through photography.
If you liked this post, feel free to leave a comment below and share it on social media. This helps me continue my work. Thank you in advance for your support.