Torii Gates: Origins and Must-Visit Locations

Torii gates are an instantly recognizable symbol of Japan. They’re the traditional Japanese gates most commonly found at the entrance to Shinto shrines and mark the transition from the everyday to the sacred.

With an estimated 90,000 Shinto shrines in Japan, each with at least one Torii gate, these gates have become synonymous with Japan’s cultural and spiritual landscape. They’re a must-see for visitors to the country.

In this article, you can discover the meanings behind Torii gates, take a stroll through history, and visit some of the most breathtaking Torii sites. We’ve also got you covered with some tips for an unforgettable experience.

What Is a Torii Gate?

A Torii gate is the structure found at the entrance to Shinto shrines, some of which are part of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Japan. Torii gates are traditionally red or vermilion-colored structures, featuring 2 upright posts and 2 horizontal crossbars.

The vermilion color, a bright red-orange hue, is believed to ward off evil spirits and disasters.

Torii gates can also be found in other colors, including black, stone-gray, or natural wood, depending on the shrine’s tradition and local customs.

The simple design symbolizes the Shinto focus on natural beauty and purity.

Origin and Meaning of Torii Gates

There are various theories regarding the origins of Torii gates. One belief is that the name ‘Torii’ derives from “tori-iru,” meaning “bird perch”. Religious uses of bird perches in Asian countries such as Korea included to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck to the villagers.

Another theory suggests that Torii gates may have been influenced by similar structures from India and China, such as the Buddhist ‘torana’, adapting over time into a uniquely Japanese style.

Throughout history, Torii gates have evolved in design and significance, becoming integral to Shinto shrines across Japan. They range from simple wooden structures to grand stone and metal gates reflecting the local culture.

5 Iconic Torii Gates to Visit in Japan

Japan is home to thousands of Torii gates and each has its unique charm and historical significance. Here are 5 of the most iconic Torii gates in Japan you might want to consider adding to your itinerary.

Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto

Senbon Torii, thousand torii gates
Senbon Torii, Fushimi Inari M338 under CC BY – SA 3.0

Fushimi Inari Taisha is renowned for its thousands of vermilion Torii gates, which create a tunnel along the paths of Mount Inari. This shrine, dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice and prosperity, offers a truly unique experience and excellent photo opportunities!

How to get there: From Kyoto station take the JR Nara line. Inari Station is the second stop, it takes around 5 minutes to get there from Kyoto.

Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima

The great floating torii in Miyajima
The great Torii in Miyajima marks the limit between the spirit and the human worlds.

The floating Torii gate of Itsukushima Shrine is a breathtaking sight. Located on the island of Miyajima in Hiroshima Prefecture, this gate appears to float on water during high tide, creating a stunning visual. It’s often considered one of the most beautiful sites in Japan.

How to get there: Travel to Hiroshima, you can get there by Shinkansen from major cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, or Osaka. You’ll then need to take a local JR train to Miyajima Island, usually on the JR Sanyo line. From there take a ferry operated by Japan Railways to Miyajima islands, it’s a scenic walk from the port to the shrine.

Meiji Shrine, Tokyo

Meiji shrine entrance
Meiji shrine entrance

The Meiji Shrine offers a serene escape in the bustling city of Tokyo. Its towering Torii gate, made from 1,500-year-old cypress wood, marks the entrance to this peaceful shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken.

How to get there: the nearest station to Meiji Shrine is Harajuku Station on the JR Yamanote Line. Depending on where you’re starting your journey in Tokyo, board a Yamanote Line train that’s heading in the direction of the station.

Hakone Shrine, Lake Ashi

LakeAshi and Mt Fuji Hakone
Lake Ashi and Mount Fuji in Hakone. Photo by @木更津乃風 (Wikimedia).

Nestled in forests near Mount Fuji, the Hakone Shrine is known for its Torii gate that stands in Lake Ashi. The gate, with the backdrop of the lake and Mount Fuji, is especially popular among keen photographers.

How to get there: you can get to Hakone-Yumoto from Tokyo by getting the Shinkansen to Odawara and changing there to Hakone. Note that you’ll need a separate ticket for this second leg, it’s not covered by the JR Pass. You can then catch a bus to Lake Ashi, this also requires a separate fare.

Heian Shrine, Kyoto

heian shrine kyoto
Torii gate in Heian Shrine, Kyoto

While not as ancient as others, the Heian Shrine’s Torii gate is impressive due to its size and bright vermilion color. It’s one of the largest in Japan and marks the entrance to a shrine built to celebrate Kyoto’s 1100th anniversary as the former imperial capital.

How to get there: to reach the shrine from Kyoto city center, you can take the city bus from Kyoto station. These buses are part of the Raky Bus line which is specifically aimed at tourists and stops at many major attractions.

Other Torii gates to visit in Japan

As well as those mentioned above, you may also like to see the Torii gates at:

  • Shitenno-Ji Temple, Osaka
  • Kinpusenji Temple, Nara
  • Arakura Sengen Shrine, Yamanashi
  • Motonosumi Shrine, Yamaguchi
  • Kumano Hongu Taisha, Wakayama

Each one is unique and worth visiting for a further glimpse into Japanese religious beliefs and traditions. With so many Torii gates dotted around the country, you’ll have the opportunity to see Torii gates wherever you are.

Visiting Torii Gates: Etiquette and Tips

When visiting Shinto shrines and passing through Torii gates, there are certain customs to be mindful of. It’s customary to bow slightly before entering and exiting through a Torii, showing respect to the enshrined deity. Visitors should wash their hands and mouth before entering a Shinto shrine at the water basin provided.

Keeping the pathway clean and refraining from loud conversations are also part of the etiquette. It’s a sign of respect towards other visitors.

Here are some practical tips for planning your visit:

  • Check the opening hours and best times to visit to avoid crowds, especially at popular locations such as the Sensoji temple
  • Wear comfortable footwear, as some shrine complexes involve extensive walking.
  • Consider purchasing a JR Pass for convenient and cost-effective travel between cities and to various shrine locations
  • Prioritize the Torii gates you really want to visit, with so many to see you don’t want to miss out on the ones that interest you most

Japan Rail Pass: Your Ticket to the Torii Gates

The most efficient and cost-effective way to explore Japan’s Torii gates is by using the Japan Rail Pass. This pass offers unlimited travel on most Japan Railways (JR) trains across the country, including shinkansen (bullet trains), local trains, and even some buses and ferries.

You can access many Torii gates using your JR Pass. Check the basic indications for each shrine listed above and plan your route before you travel.

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