Traditional Japanese lanterns – Tourou, Chouchin, Andon

The first lightning technologies in Japan arrived from China during the 6th century. The commerce and exchange of technologies with China during that time was very intense. The first kind of lanterns that arrived from China were made of stone and they started being used in Buddhist temples to honor Buddha. This kind of lanterns can still be seen today in many different places in Japan, they are called “ishidouru” 石灯籠 (Stone lantern):

Japanese lantern

1.- Tourou, 灯籠(とうろう)

Tourou, 灯籠(とうろう): generic term for traditional Japanese lanterns. The main types are:

  • Ishidourou 石灯籠 : traditional stone lantern. They were the first to be introduced in Japan.
  • Tsuridourou 釣灯篭: traditional hanging lantern.

Little by little the use of lanterns became also commonplace in Shintoist temples, and in gardens and houses of wealthy people as well. Their aesthetics started to evolve, thus starting to look different from the first designs that arrived from China.

Ishidourou structure
Detailed structure of an ishidourou. Source:

Ishidourou that are used in temples differ significantly from the ones used in gardens. The garden ones are usually smaller and wider; while the temple ones are tall and stylized. They are usually made of granite; nowadays they are only used as decoration and they are lighted up only in special celebrations. In the garden in Kill Bill and in the first scene of the movie Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi) some ishidourou can be seen.

Japanese traditional lantern

Japanese traditional lantern

Japanese traditional lantern in a garden
Ishidourou in a traditional Japanese garden.

Tsuridourou 釣灯篭 (Hanging lanterns), evolved from ishidourou. The shape of the space where you put the oil to start the fire is similar but instead of being attached to the ground with a granite column they hang from the ceiling; usually they are only seen in temples.

Tsuridourou. Hanging lanterns
Tsuridourou 釣灯篭 (Hanging lanterns).

If we take the column out and also the cable, then we have a plain lantern, a tourou 灯籠. One of the Summer traditions in many places in Japan consists on making many tourou 灯籠 using paper, lightning them up and leaving them floating on rivers. This tradition is known as tourou nagashi 灯籠流し.

Lanterns ready to be left floating on a river.

Tourou nagashi video.

2.- Chouchin, 提灯(ちょうちん)

Chouchin are another kind of lanterns, much simpler, that also originated in China. They are commonly seen at the entrance of Buddhist temples, in traditional festivals and at the entrance of bars and restaurants. On the contrary to tourou, chouchin are used daily, not only in special celebrations, but instead of oil like the tourou light bulbs are used.

Nikon 50mm f/1.2 Nikkor AI-S
Chouchin at the entrance of a yakitori restaurant.



Shinjuku Park Hyatt


This photo of hundreds of Chouchin made it to the front cover of my second book “Momentos”.



3.- Andon 行灯 / 行燈(あんどん)

Finally, andon 行灯 lanterns. They are the most modern, they can usually be seen in interiors in hotels, restaurants and sometimes in small gardens. They usually have a tetrahedron, cylinder or cubic shape and are placed on the ground.



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