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Toro nagashi refers to the Japanese river lantern festivals held in summer where participants release candle-lit lanterns into the river together with their prayers for peace. We introduce the background of this ceremony, as well as places where you can see and take part in toro nagashi ceremonies.
In summer, river lantern festivals (toro nagashi) are held all around Japan to commemorate the departed and pray for peace.
A toro is a traditional Japanese outdoor candle-lit lantern. To prevent the candle from being blown out by the wind, the lanterns have a frame made of bamboo, wood, stone, or metal covered with paper or fabric. The gentle light from these lanterns creates a dreamy atmosphere.
The tall lanterns that look like street lamps found in temples and shrines are also called toro. However, the lanterns used in toro nagashi ceremonies are small and beautiful, with a simple design, and are meant to float on water. Many of them are made so that participants can draw or write messages on the paper or fabric surface.
In Japan, it is traditional to revere one's ancestors, a principle known as sorei shinko ("reverence toward one's ancestors").
Around mid-August (mid-July in some regions), there is a holiday dedicated to the ancestors called Obon. During this time, families visit the graves of their ancestors and give special offerings to welcome their spirits, as it is believed that the ancestors' spirits return to their homes during Obon.
At the end of the Obon season, families send off the spirits of their ancestors using lights called the okuribi. The toro nagashi is a type of okuribi. It is a tradition where families thank their ancestors for visiting and protecting them by sending lanterns down the rivers or out to sea with offerings.
In some regions of Japan, the same practice is called shoro nagashi.
Nowadays, toro nagashi ceremonies are also an occasion for people to pray for peace. They are often held as requiems or memorials.
Formerly, the lanterns would have been left in rivers and the seas, but lately, considering the effects on the environment, after a certain time, the lanterns are being collected by ceremony staff a few hours after that have been released.
Toro nagashi ceremonies are held all around Japan, but let us introduce some very popular ones that are easy to access and take part in.
Photo by Pixta
The toro nagashi ceremony held at Togetsukyo Bridge in Kyoto is particularly famous. The closest station is Arashiyama Station on the Hankyu Arashiyama Line or the Hankyu Electric Railway. The venue is along the river, about five minutes away on foot from the station.
This ceremony is held yearly on August 16th. It originally began in 1949 to remember the spirits of those who died during the war.
On the same day, another impressive summer event in Kyoto is the Gozan no Okuribi. The okuribi fires extending to the mountains are visible from the area where the toro nagashi is held. You'll be able to witness the massive 大 (meaning "large") character written with fire on the mountainside, as well as the dreamy lights from the lanterns drifting down the waters leading up to the torii gates of the shrines.
If you're in Kyoto at that time, you can take part in the ceremony by purchasing a lantern on site. Take this chance to send your own lantern off into the river.
The river lantern festival of Hiroshima is called The Peace Memorial Ceremony and is held every year on the evening of August 6 in commemoration of the victims of the atomic bombing. The closest station to the venue is Genbaku Dome Mae Station on the Hiroshima tram line.
The lanterns used here are made with colorful paper, and many people from all over the world write their prayers for peace and thoughts for their loved departed ones.
Lanterns can be purchased on-site, so if you are visiting Hiroshima during this time, how about taking part in this ceremony? It will become a dear memory of your time in Hiroshima, as well as a chance to think of the importance of life and peace while watching the beautiful lights and the illuminated A-Bomb Dome on the opposite side of the river.
Tokyo has its own beautiful river lantern festivals. The Asakusa Paper Lantern Festival held by Sumida River in early August is particularly famous. The venue is close to the Azumabashi Bridge near Asakusa Station.
The highlight of this festival is watching the lanterns floating on the river among occasional cruise boats with Tokyo Skytree in the background.
Toro nagashi ceremonies are not only very beautiful but are also an important tradition in Japan. Originally dedicated to the spirits of the ancestors, these ceremonies are now a chance to think about the meaning of peace.
Many places in Japan hold toro nagashi in August, so take this chance to enjoy a slightly different type of summer experience in Japan by taking part in these festivals.