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Goin’ Japanesque!

Symbology in Traditional Japanese Gardens – Stone Lanterns (Toro)

There’s nothing quite like strolling along a plover path to a hidden wisteria arbor, or across a yatsuhashi (8 plank bridge) in the middle of a purple iris marsh.  A Japanese Garden is both an oasis of beauty and a place filled with ancient symbology.  It’s there in the branches of the black pines trimmed in bonsai style, in the clacking of the Deer Scarer Fountain (Shishi Odoshi), or in the silent monuments of its lanterns.


History of Stone Lanterns

Stone lanterns, or ishidoro, date back to the 7th or 8th century and were imported along with Buddhism into Japan.  They were used initially in temples and later in shrines as votive lights, and they were not designed with the intention of providing light for seeing at night.  About the 16th century stone lanterns were adopted for and designed for placement in gardens of tea houses and private residences, and designs of the stone garden lantern evolved, incorporating tea masters’ desire to seek elements for the environment of tea ceremony in connection with “chado/sado” and “wabi-sabi”.

Writer’s Sketch


Structure & Symbology

Pedestal lanterns, or Tachi-gata, are usually large, the show stoppers so to speak of the lantern world.
Buried lanterns or Ikekomi-gata, lack a base and are buried directly into the earth.
Snow viewing or Yukimi-gata, sit on legs and are round or hexagonal in shape.

Stone lanterns are usually carved from granite and incorporate up to 8 pieces –

Hōju or hōshu – jewel like flower bud on top
Ukebana – the lotus-shaped support of the hōshu
Kasa – roof or umbrella
Hibukuro – fire box
Chūdai/Nakadai – The platform for the fire box
Sao – the pedestal, post or legs
Kiso – The base
Kidan – A slab of rock sometimes present under the base.

Buddhism recognizes 5 parts of the lantern connecting to the 5 elements of the world –

Chi – Earth – The Kiso and Kidan touching the ground
Sui – Water – The Sao
Ka – Fire – the Nakadai and Hibukuro
Fuu – Air – the Ukebana
Kuu – Spirit – the Hoshu top most and pointing to the sky

Writer’s Photograph


Popular Lanterns

1. Nuresagi (Wet Heron)

The Nuresagi lantern dates back to the Edo Period (1603-1868) and is modeled after a heron standing on one leg.  The fire box may have a carving that depicts a wet heron, or crane, the symbol of long life.  The umbrella with the falling folded lotus leaves represents Buddha, and it is also described as looking like the folded wings of the heron at rest.

Writer’s Photograph

2. Kasuga

Kasuga are the favorite of all the lanterns in Japan.  There are several types, but they all have their origins in and around the Kasuga Shrine and the deer parks of Nara.  They can have deer or cranes carved into their fire box, or have zodiac symbols carved in their platform.  Deer are seen as messengers of the god of Mount Kasuga (commonly known as Mount Mikasa) – ever since a Fujiwara lord claimed to have seen the goddess of the Mountain riding a white deer in a dream telling him to build a shrine there.  Their kasa umbrella curls up rather than folds down.

Writer’s Photograph

3. Yukimi

Yukimi doro, or snow viewing lantern, don’t have a post but one to six curved legs.  The traditional spot to place it is near the water.  The legs are wide, and a three-legged lantern will often have 2 legs in the water and only one on land.  The umbrella is low and wide to help project the light out on the water.  The original kanji character for “yukimi” was related to “uku” which meant “floating light”.


There are many more types of lanterns for a Japanese Garden, over a dozen.  What style have you seen in your travels?


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