Lanterns: the Japanese ancestors of electric lamps

30 Jun 2016 in So Design

Japanese lanterns are the forebears of electric lamps. Some places even still use them instead of electricity....

Design lanterns in Japan

Travelers lit their way with lanterns during the Edo period (1603-1867) in Japan. The ancestors of electric lamps, lanterns became decorative objects over time, though they are also still used today in rituals and a part of folklore. Lanterns continue to immediately conjure an image of Japan, a symbol of the land of the rising sun.

Handcrafted lantern design

Lanterns can mainly be categorized in four types: the word Tōrō is a general name covering all lanterns made of stone, bronze, iron, wood or any other kind of material. These are used to light temples, sanctuaries and gardens. The wooden, bamboo or metallic skeletons of Andon lanterns are covered in paper which protects the flame from gusts of wind; they are lit by a cotton wick in oil. The hexagonal Bonbori paper lanterns may be suspended by a string or set atop a post. The most emblematic of all are Chōchin lanterns, easily-recognisable by their spiralling bamboo structures and the calligraphy that often decorates them. They can conveniently be folded up into the small basket at the bottom. They can be suspended by the hook on top, often at the entrance of temples. Red lanterns, “akachōchin”, are suspended in front of sake bars (isakaya) in Japanese cities.

Japanese paper lanterns

Paper lanterns in Japanse Hotel garden

Chōchin lanterns light up the castle of Odawara in the Kanagawa Prefecture, near Tokyo, every year during a folk festival. Hoshino Resorts KAI Hakone honours this ancestral tradition by illuminating its gardens all summer long with lanterns made by Isamu Yamazaki, one of the few local craftsmen who continue to practice this art. He also is the creator of the giant lantern hanging at Odawara train station which you may spot when you arrive in the area.

Swimming pool lanterns

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