The simple Shinto torii gate always exerts a mysterious pull on my curiosity. Aside from the fact that they nearly always come with trees, they are usually beautiful forms, inviting a thoughtful sojourn exploring the Shinto shrine complex beyond, or working out what deity they signify in Shinto nature worship.

Rural Fukushima prefecture has many Shinto deities

Encountered all over Japan, in forests, on roadsides, in city alleys and private gardens, the elegant shape of the torii gate can be seen demarcating the everyday world from the sacred world of Shinto deities. They can be tiny or enormous, made from natural timber, stone, in vermilion red, or functional concrete. The presence of a torii gate is the simplest way to identify a Shinto shrine from a Buddhist temple, although the two religions harmoniously coexist even on the same site. Consistently appearing in Shinto architecture right down to the dress of shrine maidens, the colour red symbolizes the sun and life, and is thought to repel evil spirits, danger and illness.

The original meaning of the word torii is unclear. The enigmatic literal meaning of the two kanji characters which write torii  鳥 居 can be translated as ‘bird perch’, but it is possible that it derives from the term tōri-iru 通り入る, meaning to pass through and enter – the function of the gate separating the human world from the spirit world.

Theories of the origin of torii gates abound:

  • the ancient religious use of bird perches in groups at the entrance to villages throughout Asia, which were thought to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck
  • the association of white birds with souls of the dead in folklore and the three-legged crow in Japanese mythology
  • similar symbolic gates were widespread in Asia in ancient Hindu and Buddhist sites, possibly transmitted back to Japan with Buddhism from the 6th century

Inari & the FOX guardians

Tiny foxes guarding an important rock, near Hakone Jinja

Often seen within Shinto shrines are a pair of fox statues, guarding a subshrine or a sacred object. These are the messengers of the deity Inari, a busy god with many portfolios: rice and agriculture, fertility, sake, merchants, swordsmiths and general prosperity and success. The foxes, messengers of Inari, can often be seen with keys to the rice granary in their jaws, a common sight in agricultural areas. Foxes are mythical shape-shifters, often into female form to fatally seduce men, and are believed to have the power to speak. They are mischievous and cunning, but bring protection from bad fortune as well.

The bibs are an interesting feature, placed by devout local people to protect the deity and thereby assist the souls of deceased relatives. As a deviation from the usual foxes, in Takayama I came across a pair of bears as shrine guardians.

The most well-known (and photogenic) Inari shrine is Fushimi Inari in Kyoto, with its hill paths completely covered with red torii gates, donated by businesses grateful for success. There are many other Inari shrines across Japan which have this same style of torii avenues without the crowds.

Hie Shrine in Akasaka, Tokyo

But my favourite torii gates are the weathered and authentic ones deep in the country. Next time you travel on regional trains in Japan, look out for isolated groves of trees in the middle of fields or hillsides – hidden in the middle is likely to be a local Shinto shrine worshipping some ancient deity of nature. Take note of the style of the torii gate if you are lucky enough to catch a glimpse – simple country shrines show an authentic spirituality which is often lost in important shrines.

Rustic torii on the other side of Kakunodate, where the tourists don’t go

 (all images are by and remain the property of Relle Mott)

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