Torii Gates In Japan Their Meaning and Use

Torii gates are a common representation of Japanese culture. These tall, vermillion-painted parallel gates are unique symbols of good tidings.

These gates represent many things. The most common symbol is to separate the divide between the secular world and the Sacred Shinto Shrine area. Celebrating this divide gives visitors the chance to visit one of Japan’s most sacred spaces. 

Japanese Shinto Shrines have torii gates at their entrance to welcome visitors. Torii gates are said to cleanse negativity and leave only positive welcoming energy before visitors pass inside.

It is said that the toxicity cleanses by torii naturally makes a profound impact on the spiritual experience of those visiting shrines. Most often, they have no idea it is happening.

What is the Meaning of Torii Gates?

At its most basic a Torii gate is a symbol of separation from the physical world to the area of sacred or divine space. Torii can also mark a special area such as a mountain or a natural formation such as a large rock that is considered a sacred object.

Since at least the 7th century, Shinto practitioners have revered Mount Fuji as a sacred location. Shinto is Japan’s native religion or spirituality. Mount Fuji’s base and slopes are dotted with Shinto temples. Shinto shrines are dedicated to the Shinto faith’s supernatural deities, known as kami.

Shinto Shrines

Torii Gates represents the division between the secular world and the Shinto religion. Notice these gates in front of Shinto shrines, distinguishing the separation between a supernatural space and the common world.

Buddhist Temples

In some rare cases, Buddhist Temples have torii gates as a symbol of welcoming. The welcoming gesture greets guests as they enter the Buddhist temples. Most Buddhist temples have what is termed as a sanmon gate. They differ in appearance greatly from a Shinto torii gate.

Niozo guardian statue at the Sensoji Buddhist temples sanmon gate in Tokyo

Sanmon gates with magnificent roofs and ferocious temple guardian sculptures are known as niozo in their columns can be seen at temples such as the Todaiji Temple in Nara or the Sensoji Temple in Tokyo. Sanmon gates can be ornate buildings in themselves before arriving at the temple building itself.

How Are Torii Gates Used? 

The sacred ground and the ordinary world are separated by a torii gate.

The proper method to enter thru the torii gate is to bow once in front of it, however, this is not usually done by most people. It is not customary to walk through the gate in the exact center. Take a little detour to the left or right of the main path. The kami, or gods, are said to walk through the gates on the central pathway.

There are several purposes for torii gates. One of the most critical uses for torii gates is to welcome people who approach temples and shrines. Depending on the religion that the visitor is practicing or the kind of monument they are visiting, torii might be there for different intentions. 

Torii are spread across Japan in almost every region. Most torii are dedicated to various kami or gods. It is believed the kami has protected Japan in every war since the early 12th century.

You can also find Torii in front of a few Buddhist temples to indicate warm welcoming. The Buddhist version of torii is an adaptation of the Shinto shrine torii. Both are used in a very similar way, and in some rare cases, they are visibly difficult to distinguish.

Buddhist Uses

When it comes to Buddhist temples, you will find torii gates outside. Torii gates are a sacred practice that allows Buddhists to welcome visitors before they enter. After a brief prayer, guests (including foreign visitors) may enter the temple and enjoy a guide-led or self-guided tour of the temple. However, every temple is often different. 

Before leaving, you will say a prayer of graciousness. Your closing prayer will seal the visit.

A red gate marking the entrance of a Buddhist temple in the Motomachi area of Yokohama

Shinto Uses

Shinto shrines use torii for several reasons. Torii has a traditional use, acting as welcoming signs to the entrance of Shinto shrines. Proper etiquette requires visitors to only walk on the sides of these entrances, allowing the middle to be considered a sacred space. This sacred space is only allowed for kami.

The most profound reason that Shinto invented torii was to create a division between tangible and spiritual. Creating this invisible connection allows Shinto to form a union between themselves and the gods.

As you talk through the shrines, you will notice the continuous appearance of torii gates in Shinto shrines. The gates allow proper connection with the gods. 

What Types of Torii Gates are There? 

The Torii gate has gone through several evolutions and adaptions across Japan. With its widespread use originating in Asia, torii gates are celebrated in India, Korea, China, and Thailand. Many more versions of the colossal gates are among these countries, which act as a universal welcome sign to visitors.

More or less, the vision for Torri gates is the same (although they might be called something different outside of Japan). 

Where Can You Visit Torii Gates?

Any Shinto shrine you visit in Japan will have a torii gate to welcome visitors inside. There are roughly 80,000 official Shinto shrines across Japan. Shrines vary from the world-recognized Itsukushima Shrine to Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha, located at the summit of Mt. Fuji.

Shinto Shrine found near the top of Mount Fuji

Many gates are bright red vermillion-covered. No matter what the structure consists of, most gates are vermillion-covered with a bright red hue. Despite being thousands of years old, in some cases, this hue has held its bright color, which makes these gates even more incredible. 

The Great Torii of Itsukushima Shrine

One of the most renowned gates is The Great Torii of Itsukushima Shrine, on the island of Miyajima. This bright red gate sits in the middle of the aquamarine water, making it a perfect picture!

Itsukushima Shrine

The Itsukushima Shrine is unique because of its design evolution. Initially, Itsukushima Shrine was made from wood, and today, it stands with a four-legged design made fully of concrete.

Itsukushima Shrines Torii gate

Hachiman Shrines 

Hachiman shrines are dedicated to the kami Hachiman. There are over 40,000 Hachiman shrines across Japan.

Usa Jungu Shrine

The most popular Hachiman shrine in Japan is Usa Jungu Shrine, one of the oldest shrines in Japan. The Usa Jungu shrine has several bright red gates throughout the garden. As you stroll between gates, take in the beautiful architecture dedicated to the kami Hachiman.

Sanno Shrine

Praying at Sanno shrines is said to be a great way to pray for fortune and luck. Similarly, this is a good way to remove curses and rid yourself of bad luck. A fantastic example of a popular Sanno shrine is the Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine which protects visitors against misfortune. 

Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine Otsu

Good luck is said to come after visiting Hiyoshi Taisha, thanks to Masaru, the monkey who delivers messages to the deities. In times of misfortune, Masaru, the curse-removing monkey, will deliver your prayer to the deities. Upon hearing your prayer, the deities will rid you of bad fortune. 

Final Thoughts

Torii gates have multiple meanings, each considerably more special depending on the connection it may serve to you religiously. These structures are symbols of welcoming and positivity, but they are valuable in other ways too.

People recognize the red torii gates across the globe as a symbol of Japan. Few know that these actually represent the close bond between the kami and the Japanese people. 

For generations, torii gates have served as the protectors and lookouts for thousands of valuable Shinto shrines. Through grief, peril, and war, these shrines have withstood time and strife so Japan can seek prayer and cherish the kami.

Visting Shrines Across Japan via Tripadvisor

My fascination with Japan began several years back at a roadside bonsai stand while on vacation. I became more interested in the where and why's more than the trees themselves. My love of Bonsai led me to further research my interest in the gardens where they originated from and the places and people that surrounded those little trees. My curiosity was well rewarded upon visiting Saitama where the National Bonsai Museum was located and Omiya Village the bonsai mecca for lovers of this ancient art form. Exploring many towns and villages and even making my way to Japan's furthest southern prefecture of Okinawa. I hope to share my love of this wonderful and exotic place with all those who want to know more about Japan.