Torii gates are iconic symbols found throughout Shinto shrines in Japan. They mark the crossing between the normal world to the sacred world. In ancient Japan, they were traditionally made of wood or stone, but today, they are made of reinforced concrete and even stainless steel.
They can also be absolutely massive, towering over trees and buildings. Some are found in the middle of the city, others in rural forests or on lonely mountains. Some are even in the water, such as Miyajima’s Itsukushima Shrine, famous for its “floating” torii gate.
While torii make great photo opportunities, they also mark important places of worship, so it’s good to know a bit about what you’re visiting before you do. Here are five iconic torii gates in Japan.
1. Torii of Peace
The Torii of Peace at Hakone Shrine is one of the most sought torii gates for photographers and sightseers. That’s because of its unique position where it appears to be floating on the water but is close enough to land that you can stand in the center and pose with it.
Hakone Shrine itself is a bit distanced from the famous torii gate, through the luscious greens of the trees and up a stone staircase. There are also two other large torii gates, making the shrine’s location clearer in the dense forest. There, you can find out more about the history of the shrine in the homotsuden (shrine treasure house), or get omamori (protective charms).
The shrine has a long history going back as far as the year 757 and was famously visited by many military commanders, as well as by travelers to pray for a safe trip. The area is known as a “power spot,” where you can pray for various different blessings, including fortune, traffic safety and matchmaking.
Kamiiso-no-Torii is another gorgeous gate surrounded by water, but this time, it sits on the rocks looking out onto the ocean. This one is less accessible by us mere mortals and though it is possible to climb your way there, it’s rare to see anyone near the gate itself. The waves crashing against the rocks around it make the torii all the more impressive, reinforcing its image of strength against the elements.
The shrine associated with Kamiiso-no-tori is the Oarai Isosaki Shrine, founded in 856, which is said to be when the two deities, Daikoku-sama and Sukunahikona-no-Mikoto, descended upon the coast of Oarai. The torii is said to be the spot where they descended.
At any time of year, the gate is an impressive sight, but one of the most popular times for locals to visit is on New Year’s Day. From the right angle, the sun rises directly between the two pillars of the gate, making for a spectacular start to the new year.
3. Tenku no Torii
Stepping away from the gates at the water’s edge Tenku no Torii or “gate in the sky” is the perfect place to marvel at the power of Mount Fuji. Located uphill from Kawaguchi Asama Shrine, this is a much smaller torii, but no less picturesque.
The shrine was created in order to worship Mount Fuji. The torii was then built as a spot to pray at the shrine from a distance. At the shrine, there are also seven sacred cedars that are more than 1,200 years old and have been designated as natural monuments of Yamanashi. One pair stands close together, and are considered trees of matchmaking. Other than matchmaking, people visit the shrine to pray for safe births and general good luck.
If you are here to take pictures, the shrine asks that you are mindful of other visitors and refrain from photography during festivals or when worshippers visit the site. To cover facility costs and maintenance, the shrine asks for 500 yen to take a photo with a camera but it is free to take them on your smartphone.
4. Oyunohara Torii
The Oyunohara Torii in Wakayama is not to be missed, as it is the largest torii gate in the whole of Japan. This torii gate towers over the shrine entrance at 33 meters tall.
Kumano Hongu Taisha is the main shrine of the Kumano Sanzan, a trio of three shrines in the Kumano region. Pilgrims regularly travel between the three, and the sight of this incredible torii lets them know they’ve reached the main shrine. The shrine was first documented in the early 9th century but was likely built much earlier. Unfortunately due to a flood in 1889, the shrine was relocated to about a kilometer away from its original location.
After you pass through the giant gate, you’ll find 158 stone steps leading you to the shrine itself, where the main hall and its characteristic thatched roof will be waiting. Dotted around, you might notice a three-legged crow symbol. This is yatagarasu, a messenger of the gods, whose three legs symbolize heaven, earth and mankind.
5. Motonosumi Shrine
This one is a bit sneaky because it’s not a single iconic torii gate, but a series of 123 torii gates, lined up to create a memorable sight on the coast of Yamaguchi.
The story surrounding Motonosumi Shrine is that in 1955, a fox spirit appeared to a local resident of Nagato Town, telling him to build the shrine. The work for the shrine began in earnest in 1987 and took 10 years to complete. It’s not surprising that it wasn’t a quick job, as the torii-lined path stretches over 100 meters.
It’s not unusual to find a money box at shrines, where you throw a coin in and make your prayer or wish. What is unusual about the coin box at Motonosumi Shrine, however, is that instead of being in the usual place on the ground, the box is positioned on the top of the first 6-meter-tall torii gate! For your wish to come true, you need to aim well and throw your coin into the box towering above you.
The shrine is mainly visited for good business, luck with fishing and safety at sea. However, it is also visited for matchmaking, road safety and various other good fortunes.