Guide to Traditional Japanese Lighting

Guide to Traditional Japanese Lighting, Lamps, And Lanterns

05 June 2024Shopify API

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Have you ever walked into the shrines, temples, or parks in Japan and seen standard lamps and lanterns? If yes, I am sure that you have crossed and seen any type of their lighting, such as Andon, Bonbori, Chochin, and Toro. 

For years of my existence, I always believed that light could lift someone’s mood. Just how the scenery of Bonbori lining gives you nostalgic feelings and moments of a particular place when you can really call it peaceful yet vibrant.

For today's discovery, I will introduce the traditional Japanese lights, to which I am always willing to pay attention simply because they are very distinctive in brightening up any dull atmosphere. 

Guide to Traditional Japanese Lighting, Lamps, And Lanterns

Their distinctive lighting, like their well-known lamps and lanterns, is one of the answers to that query. Prior to the invention of gas and electricity, the Japanese relied primarily on oil-fueled fires and candles for lighting. 

Candles were mostly reserved for ceremonial uses by the time of the Meiji Restoration in 1868, and an intermittent lantern served as the primary source of light. Tokyo continued to use a lot of oil-powered lights during the first two and a half years of the Meiji period, but there were some minor modernization advancements.


During the Edo period, lighting like lamps and lanterns started to become traditional in Japan. One of them is a paper lamp with a bamboo, steel, or wood frame, and it's called "Andon."


The paper protected the flame from the wind. Oil was burned in metal, stone, or ceramic containers with a cotton or pith wick to create the light, creating a hexagonal or a cylindrical lamp from it.

Similar to what was previously mentioned, these customs were developed during the Edo period, when they became well-known for their easily-accessible light.

You will probably notice some hanging lamps in the traditional houses of Japan when exploring some of its historical sites. Because some Japanese households prefer to display decorations or embrace Japanese culture, which was the result of generations of cultural adaptation, those can be recognized as Andon.

Andon is typically used inside homes as a warm light source to illuminate the interior.

Andon stresses the first syllable of the capitalized word, pronouncing it as "AHN-don. Andon is derived from 行灯 or あんどん, either way is the possible translation of Andon into the Nihongo language. 

One of the best places to hike or take a nighttime stroll is Andons Hang in Mishima, Shizuoka. You will undoubtedly find the hanging lamps to be both romantic and calming. While at the Hanatouro festival in Kyoto, the cylindrical Andon is a constant display at the festival. 


Through my journey in Japan, I was surprised that they have this Bonbori lantern festival at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine in central Kamakura City. Whereas they celebrate it in the early august every year. 


The Kamakura Bonbori Festival first took place in 1939. Traditionally, Bonbori lanterns were portable and hexagonal in shape, with wood or metal frames covered in paper. For ease of transport, they usually have poles attached horizontally to the frame.

During the festival, about 400 Bonbori with calligraphy, poems, and hand-drawn images are displayed on the shrine's grounds, and moreover, some of those are submitted by professional artists. 

What I do like the most about this festival is that it not only embraces the traditional lamps and lanterns, but it also encourages Japanese artists to be more creative with any form of their art by presenting their works. 

You can find these artful Bonbori lining lanterns in the Sandō at a Bonbori festival, Yōkōkan Teien (養浩館庭園) in Fukui, Kangetsu-kai 観月会 at Ise Jingū, and the most visited is the Kake-bonbori 懸雪洞, The Mitama Matsuri festival at Yasukuni Jinja, a location where cultural and traditional events take place, and one of the big displays of Bonbori lanterns. 


We know that the Chōchin lantern is commonly seen in the world. What I mean by this is that this type of lantern was already seen by many people, especially on television in Disney cartoons, as well as in local businesses, shrines, and temples. 


Furthermore, a Chochin lantern used to be a flashlight and was carried with a candle inside, but nowadays they are used in daily life or for festivals. The lantern was manufactured for many years and became very famous in Japan to the point that people began to exhibit their creativity in ways like creating their own color and design of the Chochin lantern.

It is typically made with a bamboo frame covered in silk or paper and hung from a hook. The flame is shielded from the wind by paper or silk. It can be collapsed into the bottom basket thanks to the spiral structure.

In addition, the Chochin was used as a lantern in the early 16th century. Paper lanterns did not become popular until the Edo Period (1596-1868). 

Even when the same letter is used, the mood can change depending on the font because many of the characters on the lanterns are "Edo characters." 

When drawing characters on a lantern, you can either draw them all at once with a thick painting brush  or you can first sketch out the characters' general shapes with a pencil before outlining them with a sharp brush known as "mensou fude."


提灯お化け or the ghost of the paper lantern. The definitive demonology of 1784 made mention of a lantern-spook, a standard figure in the pantheon of ghosts.


Despite the fact that they are well-known yōkai, it is claimed that there are hardly any legends about them in any region. As a result, in yōkai-related literature, they are referred to as "yōkai that exists only in pictures, and made this story to entertain the children."

Chōchin Festival

Isn't it amusing that Japan has types of festivals where it mainly focuses on lamps and lanterns?

Just like the Chochin Festival in Mie, Japan, mainly in Kuwana City. In Mie Prefecture, there are over ten distinct types of the Chochin Festival.

During this massive yet ethereal summer festival at Tado Taisha Shrine, thousands of chochin lanterns are lit throughout the shrine. Numerous activities are held as well, including bingo games and shows featuring popular children's characters.


I have created a list of the places most likely to see the Chōchin lanterns

  1. Chōchin at Minatogawa Shrine in Kōbe
  •  One of the most gorgeous shrines to visit, especially how the lanterns highlight the shrine.
  1. Oversized chōchin at the Kaminarimon in Sensō-ji
  •   The Kaminarimon weighed 700 kg and has a length tall of 11.7 m.
  1. Yata-dera (矢田寺) Temple in Kyōto
  2. White chōchin decorated with tomoe
  3. Massive chōchin at Isshiki Manabi no Yakata museum 


In the days of Feudalism, the term tōrō was used to refer to a lamp of iron, stone, bronze, wood, or another heavy material, and it originated in China. 


The grounds of Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, Japanese gardens, and other places with traditional architecture are illuminated by these. 

Tsuri-dōrō (hanging lamp), which typically hangs from a roof's eaves, and dai-dōrō (platform lamp), which is used in gardens and along the path leading to a shrine or temple, are the two main types of tōrō.

The tōrō evolved into a sacred object for samurai warriors and other influential men in Japan as a symbol.

The Buddhist cosmology's five elements are symbolized by toro lanterns.

Earth (chi) is represented by the piece that is closest to the ground, and water is represented by the piece that is above it (sui). The lantern's light represents the fire in the area surrounding it (ka). The two upper, near-skyward sections stand for the elements of air (fu) and spirit (ku).

Stone Tōrō

Stone lanterns gained popularity during the Azuchi-Momoyama era (1568–1600) thanks to tea masters who used them as garden decorations. 

Types of Stone lanterns:

Pedestal Lanterns 

The most typical are pedestal lanterns, or Tachidōrō (立ち灯籠). The firebox is always present and has carvings of deer or peonies on it. There are more than 20 subtypes.

Picture of Kasuga-dōrō:


Buried LanternsIkekomi-dōrō (活け込み燈籠), also known as buried lanterns, are medium-sized lanterns that are typically used along paths or at stone basins in gardens. The posts of these lanterns are buried underground as opposed to resting on a base.

Picture of Oribe-dōrō:


Movable Lanterns:

Oki-dōrō (置き燈籠), also known as movable lanterns, get their name from the fact that they are completely unfixed and simply rest on the ground. 

This style most likely descended from lanterns that were left hanging and resting on the ground, which they frequently remarkably resemble.

Picture of zankō-dōrō:


Bronze Tōrō

Nara is home to the oldest bronze and stone lanterns.

Bronze Tōrō

Places you are most likely to see Bronze Tōrō lanterns: 

  • The Bronze and stone lanterns in Chi Lin Nunnery, Hongkong
  • The bronze lantern at Hōryū-ji
  • The 8th-century bronze lantern at Tōdai-ji
  • The Bronze lantern at Itsukushima Shrine

Wooden Tōrō

Wooden Tōrō

Compared to other varieties of Tōrō lanterns, wooden Tōrō lanterns are less prevalent. The only thing I am aware of is that it is visible in the wooden columns positioned between the stone columns at the Fukutokuinari shrine.

Types of Japanese Lanterns

There are several types of traditional Japanese lanterns, each with its own unique style and purpose. Here are some of the most common types:

  1. Chochin

Chochin lanterns are the most common type of Japanese lanterns. They are made of paper or silk stretched over a bamboo frame and come in various shapes and sizes.

  1. Andon

Andon lanterns are taller and more cylindrical than chochin lanterns. They were originally used as portable lighting sources and were carried by hand. Today, they are often used as decorative elements in traditional Japanese homes.

  1. Bonbori

Bonbori lanterns are typically used outdoors and are made of washi paper stretched over a bamboo frame. They are often found at the entrance of shrines and temples, or along garden paths.

  1. Tsuridoro

Tsuridoro lanterns are hanging lanterns that are suspended from a hook or pole. They are often used to decorate outdoor spaces, such as gardens or patios.

  1. Kasuga

Kasuga lanterns are typically found at Shinto shrines and are made of stone. They are tall and cylindrical, with intricate carvings on the sides.

  1. Yakko

Yakko lanterns are smaller and more decorative than other types of lanterns. They are often used as interior decor and feature intricate designs and patterns.

These are just a few examples of the many types of traditional Japanese lanterns. Each type has its own unique style and purpose, and they are all beautiful examples of Japanese craftsmanship and design.

Traditional Japanese Lightning: FAQs

What are those Japanese lamps called?

The traditional Japanese lamps are called "lanterns" in English, but in Japanese, they are referred to as "chouchin" (提灯) or "andon" (行灯), depending on the type of lamp. Chouchin is a general term for Japanese lanterns that come in various shapes and sizes, while andon specifically refers to tall, cylindrical lanterns that were originally used as portable lighting sources.

What is an Akari lamp?

An Akari lamp is a type of lamp designed by Isamu Noguchi, a Japanese-American artist and designer. They are made from handmade washi paper and bamboo ribbing, and emit a soft, diffused light that creates a warm and inviting atmosphere. Akari lamps are both functional and artistic, and have gained popularity worldwide since their creation in 1951.

What is a Kumiko lamp?

A Kumiko lamp is a lamp that incorporates the traditional Japanese woodworking technique of Kumiko. It typically has a wooden frame covered with Kumiko panels made of small wooden pieces arranged in a geometric pattern, creating different lighting effects.

Kumiko lamps are often handmade, intricate in design, and can add a touch of traditional Japanese craftsmanship to any space.

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