When we think of Japan, stone lanterns, ubiquitous in Japanese temples and shrines, come into our mind. But what makes them so special and do we really know about their significance? Let’s delve into the technicalities in this article.
Stone lanterns are called Tourou in Japanese and the characters literally represent “light” and “cage” respectively; it’s a very succinct way of expressing what a lantern is, and the purpose of which is to keep the flame of the candle from dying out. These days, candles have been replaced by oil lamps or electric lights, as a conscious effort to prevent fire accidents or to protect the environment. These lanterns have a very long history to them; they were first brought into Japan together with Buddhism during the Nara period where light were lit up as offerings for the spiritual higher beings. Hence, many of them could be found in the grounds of temples and cemeteries. With its aesthetics and practical uses, it has grown to be popular all over Japan where it could be found in shrines and gardens too. Of course, depending on its location and use, there’s a wide variety of stone lanterns and they can mainly be categorized based on their respective components. First of all, let’s delve into the parts of the most common Japanese stone lantern – the Kasuga lantern, which can be found in the vicinity of Kasuga Grand Shrine, the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Other than Kasuga stone lanterns, Tsukimi lanterns are extremely popular too. As seen below, the components are mostly the same, except for the fact that it has no pillars and it’s replaced by arched legs (Ashi) at the bottom.
Considering the religious origins of these lanterns, it’s no wonder why it emanates an otherworldly vibe which soothes the heart and enables one to refocus in this busy world, making it a popular garden monument. The world-famous artist Kawase Hasui has captured down the lanterns he was enamored with in his pieces as he travelled all across Japan. Here are the two famous pieces by him‐PACIFIC OCEAN, BOSHU (1925) and STARRY NIGHT AT MIYAJIMA SHRINE (1928).
In the PACIFIC OCEAN, BOSHU (1925), the stone lanterns were placed on the both sides of the Torii, the Shinto symbol, giving a symmetrical touch to this work piece. As explained earlier, the stone lanterns in this piece have all the basic parts which include the onion looking Houjyu on top and Kasa cover. However, unlike the Kasuga or Tsukimi stone lanterns, it has an elevated base which’s layered up with stone bricks. While the stone lanterns were not lit yet as the day was still bright, they were used as a navigation guide for fishermen who’s out in the sea at night in the past; in other words they function like lighthouses. This may explain why the stone lanterns were elevated so that they would be visible from a distance and the height also prevents them from being covered in water during a high tide. A lady could be seen sitting in front, piggybacking her child, as she’s occupied with something. It seems like she’s waiting for someone, perhaps her husband to finish work. The shadows give a clue that the sun’s setting soon. The swashes of the ocean give a dramatic feel and the boats on the bottom right suggest that perhaps her husband’s out in the sea. This fuels our imagination about the mysterious woman and her circumstances. Hopefully, her husband would be back soon.
Unlike PACIFIC OCEAN, BOSHU (1925), the stone lantern’s lit up in the STARRY NIGHT AT MIYAJIMA SHRINE (1928) by the same artist, Kawase Hasui. Here the stone lantern gives off a dim light in the middle of a quiet night. It is also relatively shorter, the relatively still water and the fact that it’s on a bank, indicates that there’s no need to elevate it. On the contrary, it’s probably meant to light up the ground so it’d be wiser to have a shorter base, to avoid cases of people falling into the water as they would be difficult to distinguish the edge of the bank in the middle of the night. On the left of which is the famous Torii gate of Miyajima Shrine, which stands in its glory. The stone lantern, while ubiquitous, does not lose out to the huge red gate, as its presence literally lit up the entire place. As no figures was captured in this work of Kawase Hasui, it comes off either as serene or creepy depending on one’s interpretation, as we could imagine it to be a truly quiet place, or a place teeming with spirits who are known to be boisterous after the sun sets. Either way, it’s an enchanting piece of art by Kawase Hasui.
This amazing article written by Yeong!