Ethnic Exchange

Japanese Stone Lanterns

The stone lanterns of the Japanese gardens and temples were introduced to Japan from China via Korea during the 6th century as part of the arriving Buddhist tradition, with the light held in the lamp representing the teachings of the Buddha that help overcome the darkness of ignorance. Some of the earliest stone lanterns were carved with Buddhist images on the firebox and usually had compartments for an oil lamp or candle.

Originally, lanterns were used to line entrances to temples and pagodas. The temples and shrines of Japan used lanterns made in bronze, iron, and stone to hold votive candles as a decorative, spiritual, and symbolic element in these sacred spaces. Their significance as a votive offering was transferred into Japan's native Shintoism and they began to appear at shrines too. They were eventually adopted not just as votive lights, but also as more practical lanterns to light the precincts of shrines and temples.

The traditional lanterns weren't intended for functional light for pathways, but from the 16th century onwards, the value of such lanterns was recognized by the secular community, and they were adopted by masters of the Japanese way of tea, who included them in tea gardens to light the way, and by the wealthy owners of private residences.

During this period designs specially made for gardens began to appear, and granite lanterns are now a fixed feature of the Japanese garden. Some of the earliest votive stone lanterns still exist, with the oldest, at Taima-ji, in Nara, dating back some 1,300 years to the Asuka Period, and more than a hundred from the Kamakura Era (13th century) survive, mostly in the region of Kyoto.

Anatomy of a stone lantern

Dai-doro represents the five elements of Buddhist cosmology. The bottom-most piece, touching the ground, represents chi, the earth; the next section represents sui, or water; the section encasing the lantern's light or flame represents ka or fire, while fu (air) and ku (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.


Japanese lanterns come in different styles. Those on a vertical post are called pedestal lanterns (tachi-doro) such as the Kasuga lanterns, other lanterns have multiple supports and are called legged lanterns (ashitsuki-doro). A buried lantern (ikekomi-doro) has its base sunk directly into the soil. Oki-doro are small often portable lanterns, and yukimi-doro are renown as "water reflection" lanterns.

Names for specific lantern styles often originate from near by landmarks or natural functions. The Kasuga lantern is fashioned after the ancient lanterns found in Shino shrines of Nara, Japan and some date back to 700 AD. Kasugas typically have a cylindrical column in the form of a bird (crane's) leg according to some authorities, surmounted by a small ring. Above this is the firebox, generally hexagonal in shape, which is topped with a lotus flower rooftop. Kasuga lanterns are frequently seen at entrances to Japanese tea gardens and as a focal point to modern day gardens. Water reflection or snow viewing lanterns Yukimi-doro are squat and broad roofed and date back to the early Edo period (16th century) and are probably so named because of the attractive capture of snowfall on their broad roof. They comprise a roof, firebox, and base components of various styles. Oki-gata, small portable lanterns are among the rarest of all because few were created and fewer still survived the ravages of time.

Lanterns of Nara, Japan