On the topic of Japanese light and lanterns…
“We do not dislike everything that shines, but we do prefer a pensive lustre to a shallow brilliance, a murky light that, whether in a stone or an artifact, bespeaks a sheen of antiquity” ― Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, [In Praise of Shadows]
If you have ever enjoyed the serene night scenes of Kyoto, the warm glow of paper lanterns outside Izakaya or felt bewitched by paintings of Japanese spirits in procession, you likely understand the point Tanizaki makes in his essay. Japanese lanterns hold a beguiling quality, be they stone or paper, beckoning or purifying.
Let’s discover the many kinds of lanterns unique to Japan, their purpose, history and how to enjoy them!
Types of Japanese Lanterns
1. General Term for Outdoor lanterns: ‘Light Basket’ Toro
The term Toro is used when we want to talk generally about Japanese lanterns for any purpose or shape. However, Toro really refers to the sturdy outdoor lanterns that decorate and illuminate temples, shrines, homes, and gardens.
Toro may hang from the eaves of a building, as in Nara’s ancient bronze tsuri-toro. Or, they may stand solid along a path or among landscaping, as with ishi-toro stone lanterns. At many shrines, staircases are lined with skinny wooden toro painted to match the auspicious red torii gates. In places like Nara, lanterns may be donated by wealthy members of the shrine.
2. Indoor Lantern: ‘Ocurring Light” Andon
Tanizaki expresses his appreciation for the way Japanese homes invite and relish in low light and shadow. The andon, petite wood and paper lamps that protect a candle within were a way to invite human-made illumination into these spaces. The andon is a charming little decoration, easy to move, and bright enough to write by with its white, paper-diffused light. They are even safe enough to keep by your pillow at night.
3. Paper/Bucket Lantern: ‘Carried Light” Chouchin
Typically easy to fold up and tuck away, these bucket-shaped paper or (in modern-day) nylon lanterns adorn the storefronts of izakaya, matsuri stalls, and Japanese eateries. It is not uncommon to see chouchin written with the restaurant’s name, words like “delicious”, “open for business!”, or the type of food served.
The iconic red chouchin outside of restaurants are sometimes called ‘aka-chouchin’ after their color. Originally, these lanterns served as travel illumination, carried like flashlights if one had to venture out into the dark. Now, their shape has become ubiquitous and they are often used as festive decorations.
Bonbori are similar but used as a festival decoration or celebratory light around temples.
What do Japanese Lanterns Symbolize?
The first stone and metal lanterns were connected to Buddhism. They were said to represent the way Buddha’s teachings dispelled the darkness of ignorance and helped purify the mind and body with light. Originally, they were used as part of Buddhist temples but later expanded to Shinto shrines and decorative gardens.
The structure of these lanterns was also symbolic, representing key elements of Buddhist philosophy. The base represented the ground, the pedestal water, of course, the body containing the candle and windows was fire,. A roof-shaped cap expressed the sky, and a topper decoration (called “the treasure” in Japanese) represented ‘ki’/’chi’, the “spirit”.
The Chouchin lanterns, on the other hand, were designed for function. They are made of three main components, the outer paper, called “hibukuro”, the core of the lantern, called “hone”, (meaning bones) and the top and bottom caps, called “gawa”. Chouchin made in Kyoto are said to be prepared so carefully that even paper lanterns can last 60 or 70 years.
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What is the history of Japanese Lanterns?
The first Japanese lanterns came with Buddhist teachings in the 700s during the Nara period. The oldest lanterns in Japan are still visible here, at Kasuga Taisha shrine. At this time, they were placed in temples and used to light paths for parishioners and monks. As sado culture grew, the auspicious symbols were incorporated around tea houses, which also emphasized purity and grace in their practice, and Japanese gardens.
During the Heian period, the use of Japanese lanterns expanded indoors and led to the development of Torodai, unmoving interior lanterns, and andon, which were much smaller and could feature unique decorative designs. Chouchin also developed to provide moveable illumination for merchants or travelers.
Places to Enjoy Japanese Lanterns
If you are a fan of Japanese lanterns, we will list below 4 great places in Japan you should visit!
1. Kasuga Taisha Shrine – Nara
Nara is the old, old capital of Japan. During the Nara period, lanterns were first introduced in this area by Buddhist priests coming to spread their religion from China. The area has 3000 stone lanterns, said to represent the number of offshoot shrines. It is also home to the oldest lanterns in Japan. During Setsubun at the end of winter, visitors can enjoy a stunning illumination event here.
2. Kenroku-en Garden – Kanazawa
One of Japan’s three great gardens, images from Kenrokuen have often been featured in postcards and travel materials promoting Japan because of their unique beauty and antique style.Not only is this garden home to the oldest fountain in Japan, it features stone lanterns shaped unlike those found anywhere else.
Kenroku-en is especially lovely during winter when the trees are coated with thick snow and in spring when cherry blossoms and ume bloom.
3. Nebuta Museum – Aomori
Although you can only enjoy the Nebuta lantern procession and its sister festival, the Neputa festival, once a year, the Nebuta Museum is open year-round. Inside, guests can learn about these massive lanterns and how they’re made, plus the festival’s history.
4. Sensoji Temple – Asakusa
Two giant Chouchin mark the gates of a long line of shops and snack vendors that leads to Sensoji Temple in Asakusa. The spot is popular with tourists from Japan and abroad, but few people take the time to look from below and see the stunning patterns on the underside. It’s one of the must-see tourist spots in Tokyo.
The Best Japanese Lantern Events
Obon and summer festivals
Summer is the best time to see one of Japan’s spectacular lantern events. Obon festivals throughout the country have invented a number of ways to enjoy this cultural event with lanterns lighting up the night. In order to send safe passage to spirits, Toro Nagashi festivals see participants decorating and lighting paper lanterns to send down river.
Asakusa hosts one annually, which crowds with families and tourists. Kaga, a famous onsen area in Ishikawa prefecture, also holds its own version. Anime and art often depict spirits during obon or around Tanabata carrying lanterns or lantern fruits, a symbol that has become famous in Japan.
For a similar event with less gravity, visit Odaiba for ocean day and see the designs painted along its beaches by hundreds of paper lanterns. Before sundown, you can help set up and take beautiful pictures at the waterside.
All three of Tohoku’s great summer festivals feature lanterns. In one, performers balance hundred-pound poles of Chouchin. This is Akita’s Kanto Festival. Towering 3-D lantern sculptures parade during Nebuta. It’s an excellent time to visit, and sometimes the train companies even offer deals on tickets to encourage visitors to come from Tokyo!
Tsunan Yuki Matsuri and Hirosaki Castle Yuki-Doro Matsuri are two excellent lantern-themed festivals to enjoy during Japan’s snowy winters. The Tsunan matsuri only recently introduced a sky-lantern event. But, it immediately became a huge hit and drew guests from all over. The Jozankei Onsen Snow Lantern Festival features tons of toro made from the snow, with tiny candles placed inside.
Discover some of the best Japanese festivals here.
Japanese lanterns come in many forms and functions. They evolved from their first implementation in Nara’s impressive shrines in the 700s. Now, you can enjoy modern Japanese lanterns at the beloved sky lantern experience at the Tsunan Yuki Matsuri.
If you, too are charmed by Japanese lanterns, all it takes a stroll down one of Tokyo’s yokocho or shrine staircases to transport you to another world. Read about more of Japan’s best sightseeing and cultural events on Sugoii Japan.