A torii (鳥居?, lit. bird abode) is a traditional Japanese gate most commonly found at the entrance of or within a Shinto shrine, where it symbolically marks the transition from the profane to the sacred. The presence of a torii at the entrance is usually the simplest way to identify Shinto shrines, and a small torii icon represents them on Japanese road maps. They are a common sight at Japanese Buddhist temples too, where they stand at the entrance of the temple’s own shrine, called chinjusha (鎮守社?, tutelary god shrine) and are usually very small.
Their first appearance in Japan can be reliably pinpointed to at least the mid-Heian period, because they are mentioned in a text written in 922. The oldest existing stone torii was built in the 12th century and belongs to a Hachiman Shrine in Yamagata prefecture. The oldest wooden torii is a ryōbu torii at Kubō Hachiman Shrine in Yamanashi prefecture built in 1535.
Torii were traditionally made from wood or stone, but today they can be also made of reinforced concrete, copper, stainless steel or other materials. They are usually either unpainted or painted vermilion with a black upper lintel. Inari shrines typically have many torii because those who have been successful in business often donate in gratitude a torii to Inari, kami of fertility and industry. Fushimi Inari-taisha in Kyoto has thousands of such torii, each bearing the donor’s name.
The function of a torii is to mark the entrance to a sacred space. For this reason, the road leading to a Shinto shrine (sandō) is almost always straddled by one or more torii, which are therefore the easiest way to distinguish a shrine from a Buddhist temple. If the sandō passes under multiple torii, the outer of them is called ichi no torii (一の鳥居?, first torii). The following ones, closer to the shrine, are usually called, in order, ni no torii (二の鳥居?, second torii) and san no torii (三の鳥居?, third torii). Other torii can be found farther into the shrine to represent increasing levels of holiness as one nears the inner sanctuary (honden), core of the shrine. Also, because of the strong relationship between Shinto shrines and the Japanese Imperial family, a torii stands also in front of the tombs of each Emperor.
As prominent a temple as Osaka’s Shitennō-ji, founded in 593 by Shōtoku Taishi and the oldest state-built Buddhist temple in the country, has a torii straddling one of its entrances. (The original wooden torii burned in 1294 and was then replaced by one in stone.) Many Buddhist temples include one or more Shinto shrines dedicated to their tutelary kami (“Chinjusha”), and in that case a torii marks the shrine’s entrance.
Benzaiten is a syncretic goddess derived from the Indian divinity Sarasvati which unites elements of both Shinto and Buddhism. For this reason halls dedicated to her can be found at both temples and shrines, and in either case in front of the hall stands a torii. The goddess herself is sometimes portrayed with a torii on her head. Finally, until the Meiji period (1868 -1912) torii were routinely adorned with plaques carrying Buddhist sutras. The association between Japanese Buddhism and the torii is therefore old and profound.
Yamabushi, Japanese mountain ascetic hermits with a long tradition as mighty warriors endowed with supernatural powers, sometimes use as their symbol a torii.
Various tentative etymologies of the word torii exist. According to one of them, the name derives from the term tōri-iru (通り入る?, pass through and enter).
In both Korea and Japan single poles represent deities (kami in the case of Japan) and hashira (柱?, pole) is the counter for kami.
The first torii could have evolved already with their present function through the following sequence of events:
- Four posts were placed at the corners of a sacred area and connected with a rope, thus dividing sacred and mundane.
- Two taller posts were then placed at the center of the most auspicious direction, to let the priest in.
- A rope was tied from one post to the other to mark the border between the outside and the inside, the sacred and the mundane. This hypothetical stage corresponds to a type of torii in actual use, the so-called shime-torii (注連鳥居?), an example of which can be seen in front of Ōmiwa Shrine’s haiden in Kyoto.
- The rope was replaced by a lintel.
- Because the gate was structurally weak, it was reinforced with a tie-beam, and what is today called shinmei torii (神明鳥居?) or futabashira torii (二柱鳥居?, two pillar torii) was born. This theory however does nothing to explain how the gates got their name.
The shinmei torii, whose structure agrees with the historians’ reconstruction, consists of just four unbarked and unpainted logs: two vertical pillars (hashira (柱?)) topped by a horizontal lintel (kasagi (笠木?)) and kept together by a tie-beam (nuki (貫?)). The pillars may have a slight inward inclination called uchikorobi (内転び?) or just korobi (転び?). Its parts are always straight.
Torii parts and ornamentations
- Torii may be unpainted or painted vermilion and black. The color black is limited to the kasagi and the nemaki (根巻?, see illustration). Very rarely torii can be found also in other colors. Kamakura’s Kamakura-gū for example has a white and red one.
- The kasagi may be reinforced underneath by a second horizontal lintel called shimaki or shimagi (島木?).
- Kasagi and the shimaki may have an upward curve called sorimashi (反り増し?).
- The nuki is often held in place by wedges (kusabi (楔?)). The kusabi in many cases are purely ornamental.
- At the center of the nuki there may be a supporting strut called gakuzuka (額束?), sometimes covered by a tablet carrying the name of the shrine (see photo in the gallery).
- The pillars often rest on a white stone ring called kamebara (亀腹?, turtle belly) or daiishi (台石?, base stone). The stone is sometimes replaced by a decorative black sleeve called nemaki (根巻?, root sleeve).
- At the top of the pillars there may be a decorative ring called daiwa (台輪?, big ring).
- The gate has a purely symbolic function and therefore there usually are no doors or board fences, but exceptions exist, as for example in the case of Ōmiwa Shrine’s triple-arched torii (miwa torii, see below).