Traditional Japanese stone lanterns, known as tōrō, came to Japan from China as part of Buddhist temple architecture, most likely during or shortly before the Nara Period (8th century A.D.).
Like many elements of Chinese culture adopted by Japan, the tōrō quickly took on a uniquely Japanese character. By the Heian Period (794-1185) tōrō had moved beyond the temples, becoming a popular feature of Japanese homes and streets, and also adorning Shinto shrines.
Kasuga Taisha, in Nara, has over ten thousand tōrō on and around the grounds of the shrine, including some of the oldest examples of tōrō in Japan.
Many bear inscriptions of poetry or donors’ names:
Tōrō come in two primary varieties, the freestanding dai-dōrō, which may be made of metal or wood, but are commonly carved from stone (in which case, they’re technically called ishi-dōrō):
and the hanging form, tsuri-dōrō, most commonly displayed on eaves.
In their most traditional form, ishi-dōrō have five pieces, each of which corresponds to one of the natural elements.
The base or platform beneath the base is customarily square or rectangular (sometimes hexagonal, but generally with at least some straight edges), and represents the solid earth.
Above the base, the post that supports the fire box (normally cylindrical, but sometimes carved with legs or in other geometric shapes) represents the element of water.
Not surprisingly, the fire box (commonly square, but in rare cases octagonal or hexagonal) represents fire.
The “hood” or “roof” above the fire box represents wind, and is normally either rounded, sloped or half-moon shaped, sometimes with sloping or rising corners that echo the traditional shape of Japanese roof architecture.
At the very top, the round, oblong, or onion-shaped finial represents the element of the void (sometimes referred to as “space”).
Not all tōrō possess all of these elements; lanterns which serve a primarily decorative (as opposed to religious) function may omit one or more of the standard parts, though most do contain a base, a post, and a fire box with a sloping or decorative roof.
Today, some tōrō still burn with traditional flames, while others have been outfitted with electric or battery-powered lights.
Regardless of the method used, their light gives a soft illumination to paths, temples, and shrines, and makes it easy to imagine Japan in the days when traditional lanterns provided a primary mode of lighting.
I love traditional tōrō, and use them often in my novels–not only as modes of illumination but also, in at least one case, as a hiding place for explosives. I have to admit, I felt a little guilty blowing up a traditional lantern…but I consoled myself slightly with the knowledge that it was an ugly tōrō to begin with.
What do you think about Japanese tōrō? Have you ever seen one lit at night?