What Is a Torii Gate?

Torii gates are iconic structures that can often be found at the entrances of Shinto shrines in Japan. They have a long and fascinating history that dates back centuries.

In this article, we explore the origins of these lovely gates. We also explain what they truly mean to the Japanese people.

Let’s get started.

Key Takeaways

  • A torii gate is a significant symbol in Japanese culture, representing a spiritual and physical boundary between the sacred and secular worlds.
  • These gates can be found in shrines, temples, and natural landscapes throughout Japan.
  • There are two main types of torii gates: the shinmei style and the myojin style. The shinmei style is simpler and is commonly seen in smaller shrines, while the myojin style is more elaborate and is often found in larger shrines and temples.
  • Torii gates hold historical and symbolic value and have been a part of religious practices for centuries. The vibrant red color of many torii gates symbolizes vitality and the life force.
  • Passing through a torii gate is seen as a symbolic act of entering a sacred space. Proper etiquette when visiting a torii gate includes walking to the side, bowing, and engaging in a purifying ritual.

What Is A Torii Gate?

A torii gate (Torii (鳥居)) is a traditional Japanese gate made of wood, often seen in front of Shinto shrines and some Buddhist temples. It is a symbolic entrance to the sacred space of the shrine.

There are many different kinds of torii, but most of them have two cylindrical vertical posts, on top of which is a crosswise rectangular beam that goes past both posts and ends a short distance below the first beam.

In Shinto, the torii gate represents the boundary between the ordinary world and the realm of the deities. It serves as a transition from the secular to the sacred, providing protection to the shrine and its worshippers.

The History of Torii Gates

The history of torii gates in Japan goes back to ancient times. The Torii is said to be related to the Torana, an Indian gateway arch that made its way to Japan when Buddhism spread there.

Others say torii gates are related to traditional Chinese gates in Manchuria and other parts of China.

While the exact origin of torii gates remains unknown, they are believed to have their roots in Japanese mythology and ancient religious practices.

Today, torii gates can be found in various locations throughout Japan, ranging from small local shrines to famous landmarks like the Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto.

These gates continue to attract visitors from around the world, who come to experience the rich cultural heritage and spiritual atmosphere associated with them.

The Meaning of Torii Gates

Torii gates in Japan have a significant meaning. They symbolize the separation between the physical and spiritual realms.

You can often find these traditional gates at the entrance of Shinto shrines, acting as a transition point from the ordinary world to the sacred space of the shrine.

The Torii gates are most famous for their vibrant red color. This color, known as vermilion, holds symbolic importance.

In Japan, vermilion is believed to possess the power to ward off evil. It has been associated with the color of blood flowing through the body, representing vitality and the life force.

Proper Practices for Torii Gates

In order to show respect for Japanese culture and beliefs, it’s advised to learn the proper practices and etiquette to follow when visiting a torii gate.

Proper Etiquette

When passing through a torii gate, walking to the side through a torii gate is customary instead of going straight down the middle. 

The space in the middle is only for the kami (God) to pass through. People also bow once before going through the gate, both when entering and leaving the shrine. The bow should always be facing the shrine, not outward, even when leaving the shrine.


Before passing through the torii gate, many visitors engage in a purification ritual known as “temizu” (手水 (てみず, chozu-ya, temizu-ya, or temizu-sha depending on the shrine). It involves washing hands and rinsing the mouth using a bamboo ladle provided near the gate.

Remember that this is not really about washing your hands clean. It is more of a cleansing ritual, so you do not have to wash your hands really hard.

Two Types of Torii Gates

People say that there are about 60 different types of torii gates in Japan, but it is hard to tell which ones are which. 

Overall, they can be categorized into two major types: the Shinmei torii gate and the Myojin torii gate.

Shinmei Torii (神明鳥居) GatesMyōjin torii (明神鳥居) Gates
Has a simpler style The kasagi (笠木), or the upper part of the Torii gate, is straight They usually lack gaku (額), which is the name of the shrine Commonly seen in small shrinesGenerally painted in vermillion red The kasagi (笠木) and pillars of the gate have a curve Gaku (額) is usually present Present in large shrines and temples

Popular Torii Gates to Visit in Japan

Throughout Japan, there are numerous famous torii gate locations that showcase the country’s ancient customs, architectural mastery, and stunning natural beauty. 

Here are some popular torii gates to visit in Japan:

Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto

Located at the base of Mount Inari, this famous shrine is known for its thousands of vibrant orange torii gates that lead up to the mountaintop.

people walking on wooden bridge

Photo by Susann Schuster on Unsplash

Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima Island

This UNESCO World Heritage site features a stunning torii gate that appears to be floating on water during high tide. It is considered one of Japan’s most beautiful sights.

Nezu Shrine, Tokyo

This historic shrine in Tokyo’s Nezu district boasts a picturesque path lined with torii gates, creating a tranquil atmosphere amidst the bustling city.

Hakone Shrine, Hakone

Situated in the scenic Hakone region, this shrine offers breathtaking views of Lake Ashi and iconic torii gates leading up to the main hall.

Kasuga Taisha, Nara

Located in Nara Park, this shrine is famous for its stone lanterns and moss-covered torii gates, creating a magical atmosphere that reflects the ancient capital’s history.


Torii gates are well-known symbols in Japanese culture. They hold great significance for their historical and symbolic value.

These gates serve as a spiritual and physical boundary that separates the sacred and secular worlds. You can find them in various places, including shrines, temples, and even natural landscapes.

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