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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.
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
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.
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.
(all images are by and remain the property of Relle Mott)
Shikoku Henro-michi Pilgrimage Trail: 1200 years old and 1200 kilometres long
Following on from the Tohoku Basho walk, we headed south to Shikoku island to walk selected highlight sections of the famous Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage trail, which circumnavigates Shikoku, least visited and smallest of Japan’s four main islands.
Starting in Tokushima, with some trepidation due to the trail’s reputation, we set off. We loved it! The long trail covers many different landscapes in Shikoku, from flat valley road walking through rice paddies and villages, to mountain forests. It was varied, interesting, beautiful and best of all, a true pilgrimage. The atmosphere of the ancient temples on top of sacred mountains was unmistakeably spiritual – we felt the serenity!
The Japanese Henro pilgrims wear white robes which will become blessed once they complete the 88 temple circuit – and they will use these as their funeral robes.
Trail-markers come in different forms on Shikoku:
Matsuo Basho was a wandering poet in Japan in the early Edo period who, together with his poetry apprentice Sora, set off in 1689 on a 2,400 km journey by foot to Tohoku, the northern part of the main island of Japan. This journey is described in his masterwork Oku no Hosomichi or in English The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Basho’s poems are exquisite, succinct thoughts evoking time and place, written about the people, landscape and experiences of his travels.
After admiring Basho’s succinct and elegant poetry for several decades, in May 2018 three friends embarked on a journey attempting to follow the old trails Basho’s feet had walked in 1689.
Trains, buses, boats and taxis filled in the gaps as we made our way on mountain trails, rural backroads, the Mogami River and sometimes busy highways. Our souls were eased with temple stays and our aching feet soothed with hot springs, and the kindness and hospitality of local people made our trip a wonderful experience, unlike Basho’s description of staying in Hojin-no-ie:
Bitten by fleas and lice, I slept in a bed,
A horse urinating all night close to my pillow
Following Basho’s footsteps as a cohesive walking route, it’s best to start at Naruko Onsen in Miyagi prefecture, and then focus on Yamagata prefecture. Trails to walk are the Dewa Kaido road, the Natagiri Pass, and the three sacred Dewa Sanzan mountains, including the 2446 steps leading up to the mysterious Mt Haguro temple complex. Close the loop by visiting beautiful Yamadera temple where Basho wrote this poem:
In the utter silence
Of a temple,
A cicada’s voice alone
Penetrates the rocks
The Tohoku Basho walk requires quite a lot of planning and a guide is recommended, as the trails are not connected and not well-marked. This region receives heavy snow from as early as November until May, so choose to walk in the warmer months. Mt Gassan alpine walking trail is only open from July 1 to September 15. Autumn colours are spectacular up here in the north. Taking the touristy boat ride down the Mogami River just as Basho did, reveals spectacular, steep, forested mountains from the fast-flowing river, relatively unchanged since Basho’s time:
Gathering all the rains of May,
The River Mogami rushes down
In one violent stream
Accommodation in pre-booked ryokan (traditional inns) allows soaking trail-weary bodies in natural hot springs baths and enjoying delicious seasonal meals. Transport between walk locations is by train and taxi – visit the local tourist information centres for maps and advice.