Torii gate at a shrine in Hakone National Park

Photo: Vincent St. Thomas/Shutterstock

Japan is dotted with bold archways that stand apart from the regular landscape. Some are more elaborate than others, but the basics remain: two pillars adjoined by one or two beams. Called torii, these gateways aren't mere decoration. In the Shinto religion, they symbolize the transition from the mundane to the sacred. They mark the entrance into a shrine.

Many are a bright vermilion color, others more subtle in color — made of stone or wood — and still others are made of copper or stainless steel. No matter the color or material, the shape is striking and recognizable.

Torii have been around for centuries, though their true origin is shrouded in mystery. The word itself derives from phrases that mean "pass through and enter" and "bird perch" (in Japan, birds have a symbolic connection with death). The earliest toriis that still stand today were built as far back as the 12th century, but the structure's history stretches back to the Heian period in the 900s. Though torii archways were historically meant to distinguish Shinto shrines from Buddhist shrines, Buddhist temples have also used torii gates (for example, the oldest state-built Buddhist temple c. 593 has its own torii).

However they came to be — whether by influence from other Asian cultures that have similar gate-like structures near holy sites or from sheer Japanese architectural ingenuity – torii add a sense of wonder to the Japanese landscape. Scroll through to enjoy these beautiful examples:

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Torii gate on the shore of Lake Ashi near Mount Fuji

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On Lake Ashi near Mount Fuji, a giant red-orange torii marks the entrance to the sacred ground surrounding Hakone Shrine (this is also the torii featured in the beginning of this post).

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Miyajima Torii

Photo: Filip Fuxa/Shutterstock

One of the most iconic torii gates is the "Floating Gate" on the Japan's island of Itsukushima (also known as Miyajima). The raised complex, which appears to float only when the tide is in, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Notice the additional legs surrounding each pillar – this is the mark of Ryōbu Shinto style, associated with Shingon Buddhism, though the shrine today is Shinto.

It is one of Japan's most impressive torii, and for good reason: the island is considered sacred, so pure that no deaths or births have been allowed here since 1878. All terminally ill people and late-term pregnant women are sent back to the mainland to maintain the trend.

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Kashuga Taisha Shrine

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The contrast of red and green around the entrance to the Kasuga Shrine in the Japan's Nara Prefecture is striking. Moss-covered stone lanterns lead to the shrine's entrance. The pathway goes through Deer Park, where deer are viewed as messengers of the local Shinto gods.

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Hiei Temple

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An example of a torii at a Buddhist temple is this beautiful frozen landscape near Enryaku-ji monastery on Mount Hiei near Kyoto. The Japanese Mahayana Buddhist (or Tendai) temple is also the headquarters of the religious sect, and protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Torii gate on the Kumano Kodo Sacred Trail

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A towering torii marks the Kumano Kodo sacred trail in Wakayama, Japan. The trails lead to the Three Grand Shrines of Kumano, a pilgrimage site in the Shinto religion.

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Ibaragi Shrine

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On a rocky outcrop into the sea, the Oarai Isozaki Jinja shrine appears to rise out of the mist in Oarai, Japan. This picturesque torii gate has become a major tourist attraction. 

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Fushimi Inari path

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Torii gates by the thousands line the path to the Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine in Kyoto. The shrine is dedicated to the kami Inari, long seen as the patron of business. Each torii has been donated by a business.  

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Torii gate in Osaka

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Bright red torii gates in Osaka complement the changing trees of autumn.

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'Married Couple' rocks

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The "Married Couple" rocks in Nagasaki, Japan are a sacred outcrop of rocks near the Futami Okitama Shrine. The torii rests on the husband rock, and a rope weighing more than a ton connects the two rocks. In Shinto, the rocks represent the union of the male and female creators of kami. The rocks therefore symbolize the sacred union of marriage.

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Kazahinominomiya temple

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The torii leading to the Ise Grand Shrine in Ise, Mie, Japan can be found in this tranquil forest setting. The Ise Grand Shrine is a complex of several holy Shinto shrines, and public access is limited.

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Fushimi Inari'

Photo: Lodimup/Shutterstock

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Anna Norris is an associate editor at Mother Nature Network. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.

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