Lanterns have been legendary objects in Japanese decoration for over a millennium now. However, they are not limited to their decorative function. When they were imported from China during the Nara period (710-784) they had two very specific roles. The first was to light the paths that led to Buddhist temples, the second was to serve as an offering to Buddha himself. It was only afterwards that they became popular in Japan, making them distinguished decorative objects that were largely found in private gardens or near Shinto temples.
What do Japanese lanterns represent today?
Japanese lanterns, often called tōrō , are far from having become objects of the old days which fall into ruin in abandoned gardens. On the contrary, they have become popular in many places such as parks or public gardens. It is still very common to see them around Buddhist and Shinto temples as well as in the most distinguished Japanese gardens.
Although their religious vocation towards Buddhism has moderated, they have not lost their ability to represent the five elements of Buddhist cosmology, namely fire ( ka ), water ( sui ), earth ( chi ), air ( fū ) and spirit (kū). Furthermore, it is clear that multiple forms of lanterns have developed over the centuries and this is certainly a major factor in the cultural richness of these ornamental pieces.
Japanese lanterns have since become popular in our Western countries and are generally used to bring a “zen” touch to a garden, but also to a house in the case of interior lanterns. If a simple Japanese lantern can make all the difference between a rudimentary garden and a garden that has real personality, it is above all because they emanate an aura of peace and harmony that has never been equaled. Which is partly due to the historical past they have had, as we have just seen.
Indoor or outdoor lantern?
It is certain that the two are not intended to satisfy the same need. While Japanese outdoor lanterns are objects intended to illuminate, but above all to provide a calm atmosphere, promoting spiritual practices such as meditation. Japanese-style interior lanterns are much more modern pieces, in which we will find a wide variety of colors and patterns. Which is the opposite of outdoor lanterns which are mostly confined to being structures made of stone and bronze. Indoor lanterns are therefore generally open to a much wider audience due to their very varied style.
It is therefore difficult to choose for you. It is up to you to define where you want to bring Japanese culture, and then to make your choice as to the Japanese lantern that will transform your living space into a true haven of peace.