A tōrō (灯籠 or 灯篭, 灯楼 light basket, light tower?)[note 1] is a Japanese lantern made of stone, wood, or metal traditional in the Far East. Of Chinese origin, because it was used in temples it was introduced to Japan via Korea around the 6th century together with Buddhism. In China however extant specimen are very rare, and in Korea too they are not as common as in Japan.[1] In Japan, tōrō were originally used only in Buddhist temples, where they lined and illuminated paths. Lit lanterns were then considered an offering to Buddha.[2] During the Heian period (794-1185), however, they started being used also in Shinto shrines and private homes.[3]

The oldest extant bronze and stone lanterns can be found in Nara. Taima-ji has a stone lantern built during the Nara period, while Kasuga-taisha has one of the following Heian period.[4] During the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1568–1600) stone lanterns were popularized by tea masters, who used them as a decoration in their gardens.[1] Soon they started to develop new types according to the need. In modern gardens they have a purely ornamental function and are laid along paths, near water o next to a building.[2]

Tōrō can be classified in two main types, the tsuri-dōrō (釣灯籠・掻灯・吊り灯籠 lit. hanging lamp?), which usually hang from the eaves of a roof, and the dai-dōrō (台灯籠 lit. platform lamp?) used in gardens and along the approach (sandō) of a shrine or temple.[3] The two most common types of dai-dōrō are the bronze lantern and the stone lantern, which look like hanging lanterns laid to rest on a pedestal.

In its complete, original form (some of its elements may be either missing or additions), like the gorintō and the pagoda the dai-dōrō represents the five elements of Buddhist cosmology.[5] The bottom-most piece, touching the ground, represents chi, the earth; the next section represents sui, or water; ka or fire, is represented by the section encasing the lantern's light or flame, while (air) and (void or spirit) are represented by the last two sections, top-most and pointing towards the sky. The segments express the idea that after death our physical bodies will go back to their original, elemental form.

Hanging lanterns

File:Tanzan jinja01s3200.jpg
Also called kaitomoshi (掻灯?), tsuri-dōrō hanging lanterns are small, four- or six-sided and made in metal, copper or wood. They were introduced from China via Korea during the Nara period and were initially used in Imperial palaces.[6]

Bronze lanterns

Bronze lanterns, or kondō-dōrō (金銅燈籠 gilt bronze lantern?) (see images in the gallery) have a long history in Japan, but are not as common or as diverse as the stone ones. In their classic form they are divided in sections that represent the five elements of Buddhist cosmology. For details on the structure of one of these lanterns, see the following section, Stone lanterns.

Many have been designated as Cultural Properties of Japan by the Japanese government. The one in front of Tōdai-ji's Daibutsuden for example has been declared a National Treasure.[7] Kōfuku-ji has in its museum one built in 816 and which is also a National Treasure.

Stone lanterns

A dai-dōrō is most often made of stone, and in that case it is called ishi-dōrō (石灯籠 lit. stone lantern?).

Structure of a stone lantern

File:Laterne japangarten.JPG
The components of a stone (or bronze) lantern are, from the top to the bottom:[3]
Hōju or hōshu (宝珠 lit. jewel?)
The onion-shaped part at the very top of the finial.
Ukebana (請花 lit. receiving flower?)
The lotus-shaped support of the hōshu.
Kasa ( lit. umbrella?)
A conical or pyramidal umbrella covering the fire box. The corners may curl upwards to form the so-called warabide (蕨手?).
Hibukuro (lit. fire sack?)
The fire box where the fire is lit.
Chūdai (中台 lit. central platform?)
The part on which rests the fire box.
Sao (竿 lit. post?)
The post, often missing or replaced by legs.
Kiso (基礎 lit. foundation?)
The base, usually rounded or hexagonal, and absent in an ikekomi-dōrō (see below)
Kidan (基壇 lit. base platform?)[6]
A variously shaped slab of rock sometimes present under the base.

As already mentioned, the lantern's structure is meant to symbolize the five elements of Buddhist cosmology. With the sole exception of the fire box, all parts may be absent. For example, an oki-dōrō, or movable lantern (see below) lacks a post, and rests directly on the ground. It also may lack an umbrella.

Types of stone lantern

Stone lanterns can be classified in five basic groups, each possessing numerous variants.

Pedestal lanterns

Tachidōrō (立ち灯籠?), or pedestal lanterns, are the most common. The base is always present and the fire box is decorated with carvings of deer or peonies (see photo in the gallery). More than 20 subtypes exist.[8] The following are among the most common.

  • Kasuga-dōrō (春日灯籠?)

Named after Kasuga-taisha, it is a very common at both temples and shrines. The umbrella is small and has either six or eight sides with warabite at the corners. The fire box is either hexagonal or square with carvings representing deers, the sun or the moon. Tall and thin, it is often found near the second torii of a shrine.[3]

  • Yūnoki-dōrō (柚ノ木灯篭?)

The second oldest stone lantern in Japan, found at Kasuga Shrine, is a yūnoki-dōrō or citron tree stone lantern.[9] This style goes back to at least as the Heian period. The post has rings carved at the bottom, middle and top, and the hexagonal base and middle platform are carved with lotuses. The umbrella in simple and has neither warabite nor an ukebana.[1] The yunoki seems to stem from a citron tree that used to stand near the lantern at Kasuga Shrine.[9] This type of lantern became popular in tea house gardens during the Edo Period.

Buried lanterns

Ikekomi-dōrō (活け込み燈籠?), or buried lanterns, are moderately sized lanterns whose post doesn't rest on a base, but goes directly into the ground (see photo in the gallery).[2] Because of their modest size, they are used along paths or at stone basins in gardens.[8] Follow some examples.

  • Oribe-dōrō (織部灯籠?)

This common type is named after Furuta Shigenari, a nobleman popularly known as Oribe, who designed it to be used in gardens.[10] The fire box is a cube with a window on each side: the front and rear are square, the right and left are shaped as a crescent moon and the full moon respectively. The umbrella is small and four-sided.

  • Kirishitan-dōrō (キリシタン灯籠?)

This is simply an oribe-dōrō with hidden Christian symbols. This style was born during the persecution of the Christian religion in Japan, when many continued to practice their faith in secret.[10] [note 2]

  • Mizubotaru-dōrō (水蛍燈籠?)

A typical ikekomi-dōrō, its fire box has square openings on two facing sides and double-triangle openings on the other two. This type of lantern is used at the Katsura Villa in Kyoto. The roof is square and rounded.[10]

Movable lanterns

Oki-dōrō (置き燈籠?) or movable lanterns owe their name to the fact that they just rest on the ground, and are not fixed in any way. This type probably derived from hanging lanterns, which they often strongly resemble, left to rest on the ground.[8] They are commonly used around house entrances and along paths. The following is one example.

  • Sankō-dōrō (三光灯籠?)

This lantern is just a small stone box with a low roof. Its name, "Three Lights Lantern" is due to its windows, shaped like the sun and the moon in the front and rear, and like a star at the ends.[10] This type of lanterns is usually placed near water. It can be found in the garden of the Katsura Villa.


Yukimi-dōrō (雪見燈籠?) or legged lanterns have as a base not a post but from one to six curved legs, and a wide umbrella with a finial either low or absent. Relatively low, they are used exclusively in gardens.[8] The traditional placement is near the water, and a three-legged lantern will often have two legs in the water, and one on land. The umbrella can be round or have from three to eight sides, while the fire box is usually hexagonal.

It was probably developed during the Momoyama period, but the oldest extant examples, found at the Katsura Villa in Kyoto, go back only to the early Edo period (seventeenth century).[8]


Nozura dōrō (野面灯籠?) are lanterns made with rough, unpolished stones (see photo in the gallery).[8]


Hanging lanterns

Bronze lanterns

Stone lanterns

Yukimi-dōrō variants

External links



  1. "灯篭" is just a simplified form of "灯籠".
  2. For details, see the article Kakure Kirishitan.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Script error
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 "Japanese Stone Lanterns" (PDF). The Huntington, Library, Art collections and Botanical Gardens. Retrieved 21 April 2010. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Iwanami Kōjien (広辞苑?) Japanese dictionary, 6th Edition (2008), DVD version
  4. Script error
  5. "Five Element Pagodas, Stupas, Steles, Gravestones". Onmark Productions. Retrieved 25 April 2010. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 "Tōrō". JAANUS. Retrieved 19 April 2010. 
  7. Script error
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 Script error
  9. 9.0 9.1 "Glossary". Japanese Gardens. Retrieved 22 April 2010. 
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 "Japanese Lanterns". Japanese gardening. Retrieved 20 April 2010. 

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