Japanese Gate Typology (31)

This is a series of posts describing the many varieties of Japanese gate, or mon (). If you look at the preceding kanji more closely,  you can think of it as a picture of a pair of swinging doors, reminiscent of saloon doors in a wild west movie. I thought that it would be a nice idea to bring more awareness to a western audience as to the tremendous diversity in forms and types of Japanese gates. This series intends to be a gateway to gates.

Previous posts in this series:

  1. Heijūmon 
  2. Kabukimon 
  3. Kōraimon 
  4. Yakuimon 
  5. Yotsu-ashimon 
  6. Munamon 
  7. Commentary
  8. Uzumimon 
  9. Yaguramon 
  10. Rōmon
  11. Shōrōmon
  12. Taikomon
  13. Nijūmon
  14. Sanmon 
  15. Niōmon 
  16. Nitenmon
  17. Sōmon 
  18. Wakimon 
  19. Chokushimon
  20. Onarimon 
  21. Tansōmon 
  22. Zuijinmon 
  23. Miyukimon 
  24. Agetsuchimon 
  25. Mukai-karamon
  26. Hira-karamon 
  27. Nagayamon 
  28. Ryūgūmon 
  29. Amigasa-mon
  30. Sukiya-mon  


Torii (鳥居), Part I.

Tori () means bird, and i () means to sit/rest, so this gate’s name means: a roost. I suspect that for many westerners, this is the form that first comes to mind when mentally envisioning a Japanese gate.

The origins of torii are, as they say, shrouded in the mists of antiquity. The are historians who argue for a Chinese or Korean derivation for this gate type, and there are others who insist it is an indigenous Japanese construction. One thing is certain though, and that is that torii associate to Japanese shines, or jinja. Where you see a torii, it is a matter of looking through the gate, and following along the path until one comes to the shrine. Torii, given that they are religious architecture, are not suitable structures to erect in front of a house, a garden, or, as in the following photo, a massage and day-spa business for that matter:

A mere 35 minute’s drive from my house. Regardless of how good the massage might be, or how friendly the dog is, I would nevertheless describe the above scene as ‘cringeworthy’. Those of a more charitable bent might simply call the use of a torii in front of a massage studio cultural appropriation, and that is something that goes both ways, east and west.

Torii are thought to have existed since at least the middle of the Heian Period (794 to 1185), given their mention in a document called the Izumi Kuni Oo-jinja Ryūkichō (和泉国大鳥神社流記帳), an inventory of the property of the Oo Shrine in Izumi, a document dating from 922.

It is likely that torii developed from a process where a sacred spot was initially designated by the placing of 4 posts to surround the area. Straw ropes were then tied from one corner to another to define the sacred space. This designation of special places as sacred ground was discussed in an earlier post from the ‘word is Out’ series, in regards to the word temple (in connection to the word template).

There is a type of torii still extant which manifests this very simple idea, termed shime-nawa-torii, (注連縄鳥居) or shime-bashira (注連柱) or, in an alternate reading of the first two characters, 注連, as chūren-torii (注連鳥居). A famous example can be found in Nara Prefecture, at Ōmiwa Shrine (大神神社):

Another example of this archaic from of torii, also in Nara, is found at Hibara Jinja (檜原神社):

In some places you will see chūren-torii where the slender rope is supported with a wooden lintel which goes across from post top to post top – the transition for a two post gate with straw rope hanging across, to a gate with two posts and a horizontal lintel is not difficult to imagine. The single lintel proved to make for a weak bit of construction, so a secondary lintel was later added below to improve lateral stability.

There are two main classes of torii, and many sub-types. The two main divisions are between those torii which have straight timbers, shinmei Torii (神明鳥居), and those which have curved timbers, myōjin torii (明神鳥居). Notice the characters used for the two types, shinmei (神明) and myōjin (明神), are simply reversed in order from one another. One of the vexing aspects of the Japanese language is that Japanese characters can often have multiple readings – here the character ‘‘ meaning ‘god’ is read shin as a prefix and ~jin as a suffix, and the character ‘‘ meaning ‘bright’, or ‘morning’, is read as either myō or as mei, depending.

In this post we’ll look at the simplest forms of torii and follow up in the next post or two with a look at the other types.

Shinmei Torii (神明鳥居).

Also referred to a two-post torii, futabashira-torii (二柱鳥居).  The horizontal members are straight, the posts stand either plumb or inclined inwards (termed uchi-korobi). There is a top lintel, kasagi (笠木), which may be rounded (called marukasagi, 丸笠木), flat, or peaked so as to shed water, in which case the lintel section is pentagonal.

Here’s a drawing of a generic shinmei torii:

As you can see, the relation between post spacing and overall length of the kasagi is on a 3:5 ratio. The lower lintel meets the posts but does not pass beyond.

Gates with only two posts, if entirely of wood, must have the lower post ends buried deeply into the ground – up to 7′ or so – in order to be stable. Of course, even with charring and preservatives, the lifespan of softwoods in contact with the soil is on the order of 15~20 years or so, which means that these sort of torii, more than any other kind, are essentially disposable structures. This fits in well with Shintōism’s cult of purity in which structures are built anew on a 20 year cycle – shikinen-zokan as it is termed. I wrote about this practice in more detail in a 2009 post entitled ‘Tradition?

Given the marginal durability and high cost of ‘pure’ materials, it is no surprise that an awful lot of shrines in Japan now have torii made of welded steel, concrete, or stone. I’ll try to stick with wooden examples as much as possible here in this series however.

Let’s look at an example of a shinmei torii. The first is at Kaiko no Yashiro (蚕ノ社) in Kyoto:

If one made the same structural arrangement as above, but using logs with unpeeled bark, or kuroki (黒木), the gate takes the name of kuroki torii (黒木鳥居), one of the sub-types of shinmei torii. Here’s one such gate, at Toyuke Dai-jinja (豊受大神社) in Kyoto:

Detail view:

Leaving the bark on makes this type of torii the most short-lived example, failing within 10 years typically. Some modern reconstructions involve synthetic materials, concrete, plastics even, however I’ll spare readers the indignity of pictures.

Another variant on the shinmei pattern is to have the lower tie beam, nuki, extend through the main posts, and connect to those posts with a wedged cog joint, watari-ago tsugi. This type of torii is termed a kashima torii (鹿島), is named after the place where it first appeared, Kashima Jingu (鹿島神宮) in Ibaraki Prefecture, however the current gate at the site is made of stone:

Here’s a wooden example of the kashima type, Ōsawa Onsen Jinja (大沢温泉神社) in Iwate Prefecture:

Another variant form on the shinmei pattern features an upper lintel composed of two pieces, the kasagi on top and shimaki below. The ends of these two beams are cut at a slant and a strut, or gakuzuka 額束 is fitted between the underside of the shimaki and the nuki below. This form of gate is termed the hachiman torii (八幡鳥居). Hachiman is a figure from Japanese mythology, and is the god of archery and war. Many Shintō shrines are dedicated to this figure.

An example of hachiman torii, from Iwashimizu Hachiman Jingu (石清水八幡宮) in Kyoto:

Another form of shinmei gate is called the kasuga torii (春日鳥居). It is virtually identical in detail to the hachiman type, with the exception being that the ends of the double top lintel, kasagi and shimaki, are not cut at an angle. Here’s an example, from the site where the first kasuga torii appeared – Kasuga Shrine (春日大社) in Nara:

Notice that there is a subtle proportioning at work here with the horizontal members – they decrease in section height as you move from the nuki at the bottom, to the shimaki, an then the kasagi. Originally, this gate, which has it’s own special name Ichi no Torii (一の鳥居) was built in the Heian period and had a flat top beam. Currently, the style has been changed from it’s original form, to have a slightly curved top beam, which technically makes this gate now in the myōjin style rather than the shinmei. As such it makes a good place to end today and serves as a segue into the following post in this series which will deal with torii having curved and straight members.

Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way. On to post 32

4 Replies to “Japanese Gate Typology (31)”

  1. To my eye the angled posts/curved beam versions are the most pleasing. What about water installations? In that case is the function to direct or frame the vision of a sacred place, even if that place is not accessible?

    Harlan Barnhart

  2. Harlan,

    thanks for your comment. In answer to your question: yes, that is part of it. Torii are located on approach paths to shrines, and many times the path is in the forest, up a mountain, or similarly obscured. With water around the torii, the shrine ahead is likely well-framed and clearly ahead (when approaching by boat).

    With torii that are placed in the water there is something else suggested as well, besides the framed scene indicating a shrine ahead – the torii appears to float, and this suggests that state between the sacred and the profane, a boundary that is in transformation.


  3. Hi Chris,
    The blog is excellent. Thank you!
    I'm a structural engineer and trying to relate connections to stability. Do you know what connections are traditional at the top of the posts and at the base for a timber hachiman tori. The wedges make sense and it looks like a mortice and tenon at the top of the strut but I cant work out the others.
    Thanks in advance.

  4. Tom,

    thanks for the question. If you are asking me as part of your professional work, then please contact me on email and we can discuss further.


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