Translated by Jasmine Nishino
Japanese Encyclopedia: Tōrō Nagashi ("Lanterns On The River")
Written by ニコ
Tōrō nagashi - releasing candle-lit lanterns into the river - is one of the highlights of the Japanese summer. Let us introduce what tōrō nagashi is, why it is done, and places where you can see the tōrō nagashi.
What is Tōrō Nagashi?
A tōrō is a traditional Japanese outdoor candle-lit lantern. Tōrō is written in Japanese with the characters for tō (灯, light) and rō (籠, basket).
To prevent the candle from being blown out by the wind, a barrier is created with a frame made of bamboo, wood, stone, or metal that is covered with paper or fabric. The mild light emitting from the lanterns creates a dreamy atmosphere. Tall lanterns like street lamps in temples and shrines are also called tōrō, but the lanterns used for tōrō nagashi are small and beautiful, with a simple design and are meant to float on water. Many of them are made so you can draw or write messages on the paper or fabric surface.
What is the Purpose of the Tōrō Nagashi?
In Japan, it is traditional to worship or revere one's ancestors, a principle known as sorei shinkō ("reverence toward one's ancestors").
During mid-August (mid-July in some regions), a holiday created by the ancient practices of Buddhist and sorei shinkō beliefs called Obon takes place. 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's spirit 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 tōrō 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 different regions of Japan, the same practice is called the shōrō nagashi.
Due to the belief of sending prayers to those that have died, the tōrō nagashi not only is used to worship one's ancestors, but also has become a common event to pray for peace or as a requiem or memorial.
Formerly, the lanterns would have been left in rivers and the seas, but lately, considering the effects on the environment, after a certain time, people begin to collect the lanterns that are left floating on the water or gathering lanterns downstream from where they entered the water.
Let's Go See the Tōrō Nagashi!
Tōrō nagashi is held all over Japan, but now we will take a look at some famous tōrō nagashi spots that are popular among tourists.
First is the tōrō nagashi held at the Togetsukyō at Arashiyama in Kyoto. The closest station is Arashiyama Station on the Hankyū Arashiyama line or the Hankyū Electric Railway. It is about a five minute walk from the station.
The tōrō nagashi is held yearly on August 16th and began in 1949 to remember the spirits of those that died during the war. On the same day, another must-go event during the summer in Kyotois the Gozan no Okuribi. From the area where the the tōrō nagashi is held, you will be able to see the okuribi extending to the mountains. Experience the Japanese Obon season, by witnessing the massive dai (大, meaning "large") character written with fire on the mountains, and seeing the dreamy lights from the lanterns drifting down the waters leading up to the torii gates of the shrines.
You will be able to purchase a lantern on site, so take this great opportunity to send one of your own lanterns off into the river.
Another featured tōrō nagashi is the one in Hiroshima. The closest station is Genbaku Dome Mae Station on the Hiroshima railway. Every year on the evening of August 6th, the day when the atomic bomb was dropped, an event is held during the Heiwa Kinen Shikiten ("Ceremony to Pray for Peace") to mourn for those that died from the bombing and to pray for eternal peace in the world.
The lanterns used here are made with colorful paper, and many people from all over the world write messages of prayer for peace and to those that have died. Lanterns are purchasable on site here too, so if you are visiting Hiroshima during this time, this is a great time to try yourself. This will be an unforgettable experience to understand the importance of life and peace through the beautiful lights of the lanterns along with the illuminated Atomic Bomb Dome on the opposite side of the river.
Not only is it pretty, but tōrō nagashi is an important tradition for the Japanese to appreciate their ancestors along with understanding the meaning of peace. Many other places in Japan hold tōrō nagashi aside from Kyotoand Hiroshima, so please enjoy a slightly different summer in Japan by watching the tōrō nagashi.