I think the most famous is the one in Mukojima (the name of the island is “Itsukushima” but not even locals use it) and seeing any of the thousands of pictures it’s been featured in, makes it easy to understand why: built at a spot where depending on the tide it seems like it’s floating in the water, with its rather unorthodox architecture (its ryobu/両部 design is not the most representative) and with the bright red of cinnabar making strong contrast with the blue of the sky and the sea, it still conveys the metaphysical aspect I imagine its makers 8 centuries ago intended and which made UNESCO to include it in the world heritage lists. Or perhaps it is the thousands of smaller ones in Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari Taisha, almost mandatory photographic subject for everyone visiting the old capital and background for numerous films. But anyone who thinks that they are something exotic that only reveals itself to the initiated is mistaken: the torii (鳥居) are everywhere in Japan –to the extent that after a certain point you stop noticing them.
I’m obviously exaggerating: the inconsistency they create when you see them in the middle of a field in the countryside or jammed between buildings in the cities, makes you stop abruptly and deal with them; their symbolism, a gate separating the clean space of a Shinto shrine from the tainted of the rest of the world is rather obvious even to those who aren’t involved with Japan’s old religion and overlook the other details like the shimenawa (注連縄) ropes and the lightning-shaped shide (紙垂) strips of paper that usually adorn them and strengthen the border between the shrine and its surrounding space. No one knows exactly where they came from, when they first appeared and if they are a Japanese invention or an import from Asia but the concept of a gate is so widely spread in all cultures that it would be unfair to think that the Japanese needed to be taught it from someone else.
Personally I’m mostly charmed by their simplicity and their somewhat otherworldly aspect: a gate that isn’t accompanied by some fencing brings to mind the time-space portals found in science fiction –their bright color (mostly in those dedicated to the rice-god Inari) makes this sentiment even more pronounced, as does their existence even in Buddhist temples. I’m not a poet so I find it hard to express what Ι feel every time I cross one of them –it would be too much to say that I’m actually transferred to another world or another era but at the same time it would be equally inaccurate to say that the whole thing leaves me completely indifferent and from what I gather by observing them, something similar is happening to the Japanese too. Even without wanting to, your step becomes slower –even for a fraction of a second- when crossing them, as if in the depths of your mind a switch clicks reaffirming that this surrealistic door isn’t completely arbitrary after all; I think Jung would have much to say on the matter.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes οn the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.