Story of the torii

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Let`s learn something about the torii gates! You`ve probably seen them. You`ve probably passed through them. But what is there to know about it?

Gate to the sacred world of Shintō


Put simply, the torii is the entrance to a Shintō shrine, dividing our profane human world from the sacred home of the Shintō gods (kami 神). The torii also protects the kami. Btw, torii is not to be confused with the gates of Buddhist temples that are usually called mon (門). 
Ever struggled with telling apart a shrine from a temple? The torii makes it easy! 
torii = Shintō shrine            
no torii = Buddhist temple              
(*in most cases...)

The origin of the torii OR the cockerel and the goddess


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The kanji for torii 鳥居 could literally be translated into “where the bird is” (鳥 tori = bird, 居る iru = to be or exist). But what does Shintō have to do with birds? There is actually a quite convincing explanation to this to be found in Japanese mythology – the myth “ama no iwato” (天岩戸).
Amaterasu (天照大神), the most important goddess in Shintō religion and so-called direct ancestor of the Japanese imperial family, once was really mad at her brother. So she hid in a cave and, since she is the goddess of sun and light, left the world in fully darkness. In order to lure her out of the cavern, the other gods tried lots of things, even threw a dance party for her, until they finally came up with this idea: A cockerel was put on a perch in front of the cave and the gods made it crow to fool Amaterasu into thinking it had become dawn without her. It worked and she came out, the cave was sealed up behind her and the world was shining in light once again.
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There are several other theories that try to explain the origin of the torii. One of them saying torii means “pass through and enter” basing on the similar pronounced verb tōri iru (通り入る). 
A less likely theory claims that, since the torii gates are often made out of wood, torii means “tree”, because if you pronounce the English word “tree” in a Japanese way it somewhat sounds like "torii". Yeah, um, no.
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Torii`s style check


Torii are mostly made from wood or stone and differ in their style. In general the person, institution or company who donates the money for the torii gets to decide its material and shape.  Rumour has it there are about 60 different types of styles, the shinmei torii (神明鳥居) with straight upper lintels and the myōjin torii (明神鳥居) with upwards curved upper lintels being the two representative ones.
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Why is the torii red?


You`ve probably already noticed, but there are two kinds of colors of torii: red and white (or plain wood and plain stone). The red painted gates are not only an eye catcher, there is actually a special meaning behind the color.
While the red color of the shrine gates symbolizes vitality and protection against evil and, practically, serves as a preservative, because it`s made of mercury, white on the other hand is the original color of torii and stands for sacredness.
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Exceptions are the torii of Inari shrines. There are actually about 30.000 Inari shrines all over Japan with the main one being the famous Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyōto. By the way, Fushimi Inari Taisha consists of thousands of torii and the writings you can see on it say the name of each ones donator. These red Inari shrine torii carry one extra meaning: a good harvest. That way the color red underlines the purpose of Inari shrines: worshipping the Inari god, god of agriculture and industry and of course foxes (kitsune 狐).

Beware! Let the gods pass through!


Be careful when you enter the passage to the holy grounds of a shrine through the torii gate! Because it is the way for the gods, you are not allowed to go through the torii in the very middle, but only on the sides.
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I hope you found some of this interesting. And now: You are ready to go (through)!

Stefanie Hähnel