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TokyoTreat Japanese Snacks BlogThe Japanese Lantern: Why Is It So Special?

The Japanese Lantern: Why Is It So Special?

Thuy FangThuy Fang
Published Time
Posted on 
March 15, 2024
A Japanese lantern near a cherry blossom tree.

The Japanese lantern is unique, illuminating festivals and everyday life with its warm glow and incredible designs. You can see them at homes, temples, and events, adding a touch of elegance and tradition to any setting. Let’s explore the unique features and cultural significance of these beautiful illuminators!

What inspired the Japanese lantern?

Lanterns came from China to Japan many centuries ago. At that time, they were made of bamboo and washi (delicate Japanese paper), which were not foldable like the versions we see today. By the end of the Muromachi period (1336-1573), the clever Japanese crafted foldable lanterns, making them more portable and practical. They weren’t just for show; they also played roles in ceremonies, funerals, and battlefields.

A bunch of pink Japanese lanterns.
They are very common at festivals! Image via Shutterstock

During the Edo period, Japanese lanterns became everyday essentials. As candles got cheaper, they were used to light up the streets, helping people see in the dark before there were streetlights. But once streetlights became common, they were used mainly for matsuri (festivals).

Today, these lighting equipment make life in Japan feel extra special. They’re not just for light but also signs of happiness and fun. You’ll see them outside restaurants, inviting you in for tasty food. These illuminators have been around for ages, but they still bring happiness to our lives in many ways!

What kinds of different lanterns are there? 

Stone Toro 

Originally, stone toro were found only in Buddhist temples in Japan, lighting up paths. Then, during the Heian period, they started appearing in Shinto shrines and even became familiar in people’s homes.

A stone Japanese lantern in Japan.
There are stone lanterns throughout the city. Image via Shutterstock

Additionally, tea masters, who loved creating beautiful gardens, played a big part in making stone toro more popular. They used them as garden decorations, adding a touch of elegance, peace, and coziness. 

Over time, new styles of stone toro were invented to fit different needs. They’ve even made their way into modern places, adding tradition and charm. Instead of using oil or candles like in the old days, they shine bright with electric bulbs!

Chochin

Chochin has been around for a long time and might have come from China. Back then, they weren’t as portable as today’s, resembling circular bamboo baskets wrapped in paper or cloth. They were mainly used for special occasions like funerals and were considered a luxury for the upper class. 

A bunch of illumination chochin lanterns.
These lanterns use washi paper on bamboo hoops. Image via Shutterstock

But things changed during the mid-Edo period when they became popular among ordinary folks, thanks to the mass production of candles, making them more accessible. This lantern has come a long way since then, evolving into various shapes and materials. Nowadays, you’ll spot them at festivals and stores like pubs, adding a warm glow to the atmosphere.

Andon

Andon became widely loved during the Edo period (1603-1867). At first, people carried andon around, but soon they found spots on stands or hung on walls.

A decorative andon lantern.
This lantern became popular during the Edo-era (1603-1868). Image via Shutterstock

They were everywhere, from homes to shops, lighting the streets and bringing warmth to the night. They’re like little works of art, with their elegant designs and simple beauty. Inside most traditional Japanese houses, you’d find the okiandon, a box-shaped lantern with a stand inside for the light.

Some even had drawers at the bottom for easy refilling. There were also other types of andon, such as enshu andon known for its tube-like shape, and ariake andon, which is ideal for reading in bed.

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Can I use them in my home?

You can use them at home to decorate or light up your space, giving it a unique Japanese touch. However, to use and maintain them safely, you should also learn a bit about their usage.

Usually, to use a Japanese lantern, you just need to put a light bulb or candle inside and switch it on. After you use it, you can fold it into a bellows shape and store it away. When storing it, adding insect repellent to the box and the lantern is an excellent idea to help it stay in good condition for longer.

Which festivals use Japanese lanterns?

Many traditional Japanese festivals feature the presence of lanterns, and there are numerous lantern matsuri as well. Here are three of the most popular festivals:

Nagasaki Lantern Festival (Nagasaki)

This magical celebration lights up the city with more than 15 thousand lanterns, including Japanese ones, for 15 days during the Lunar New Year. At the festival, there are lots of fun things to do! You can watch extraordinary events like the Mazu Procession and the Emperor’s Parade, where people wear fancy Chinese clothes.

A display at the Nagasaki Lantern Festival.
The Nagasaki Lantern Festival is a sight to see! Image via Shutterstock

In addition, you’ll see amazing shows like the Dragon Dance and the Chinese Lion Dance. They come with lively traditional Chinese music and dazzling costumes. Also, attendees can savor delicious street foods like yakitori and takoyaki while exploring the lantern-lit streets of Chinatown.

Miwaka Isshiki Chochin Matsuri (Aichi)

The Miwaka Isshiki Chochin Matsuri, also known as the Dai-Chochin Matsuri, held annually on August 26-27, originates from bonfires lit centuries ago to protect against sea demons. This festival now features six pairs of gigantic chochin, each towering up to ten meters tall and six meters wide. They are all decorated with colorful pictures showing Japanese stories and light up Mikawa Isshiki Suwa Shrine.

A display at the Miwaka Isshiki Chochin Matsuri.
These lanterns are huge! Image via All About Japan

On the festival’s first day, the excitement begins with raising the giant chochin, followed by taiko drum performances and the enchanting lighting ceremony. Visitors even have the chance to climb into the lanterns and place one-meter candles inside each one.

Obon 

Obon is a wonderful time in Japan during August when families come together to honor and remember their ancestors. Families clean, decorate the graves of their ancestors and light the chochin. The paper lanterns used during Obon are a unique symbol of the festival. They’re hung outside houses and along riverbanks to help spirits find their way home. Furthermore, they are also used as offerings to honor the deceased and are placed in front of Buddhist altars.

A bunch of lanterns at Obon?
Image via Shutterstock

During Obon, there’s lots to see and do. People gather at temples and parks to dance, listen to music, and enjoy delicious Japanese food. One popular tradition is the Toro Nagashi, where Japanese lanterns are floated down rivers to guide the spirits of ancestors back to the afterlife. Another highlight is the Bon Odori dance, where people of all ages dance together in colorful kimonos.

Why should I use a Japanese lantern?

Having a Japanese lantern at home can add a unique sense of Japanese culture and coziness to your space. These lanterns have a rich history and come in various types. They’re not just for decoration; they also serve as symbols of happiness and tradition. What’s your favorite type of Japanese lantern? Let us know in the comments below!

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