Japan from the inside out

The lightness of being in Kyoto

Posted by ampontan on Monday, March 23, 2009

ONE THING FOR CERTAIN about the Japanese is that they love a good light show, particularly those involving traditional lanterns. Some of them are spectacular in appearance, such as the Chinese Lantern Festival in Nagasaki in February and March and the Rokugatsudo in Kagoshima in July. Others are spectacular in performance, as you can see from these posts on as the Kanto Festival in Akita in August and the chochin fighting festival in Hyogo in October.


Yet there are others that eschew the spectacular for an elegant sense of refinement. One of those events is the Kyoto-Higashiyama Hanatoro (literally flower lantern road), which began on the evening of the 13th in Kyoto’s Higashiyama Ward and ended tonight. The idea is simple: 2,400 andon, which are really more lamp stand than lantern, are set up along both sides of the road from Shoren-in, a Buddhist temple (whose head priests years ago were members of the Imperial family), to Kiyomizu-dera, another temple 4.6 kilometers (2.85 miles) away, to create a lovely, atmospheric walking course. The andon are made from a variety of materials, including Kiyomizu ware, bamboo, cedar, stone, and metal. They’re lit after six to create the mood, which is evident from the photo, and they’re extinguished at about 9:30.

The course passes a total of eight temples or Shinto shrines, all of which are specially illuminated for the occasion. They also allow visits at night, which is normally not the case at the temples.

Those who want to commemorate their walk may do so by being one of the first 100 to arrive at the Yasaka Shinto shrine. The early evening birds get to have their picture taken with dancing girls (of the traditional sort, not the ones who dance on laps).

Considering the age of the city and its religious institutions, one might think the flower lantern road is a centuries-old tradition that was once enjoyed by the nobility. In fact, however, it is very recent: it was started in 2003 with the objective of attracting more people to the neighborhood after dark. Even the local organizers must have been surprised just how successful the event would become, and just how quickly that success would arrive. Five years later, an estimated one million people showed up just to take a stroll in the Kyoto evening by candlelight.

In a world that seems to grow coarser and more willfully Philistine by the day, it is reassuring to know that so many still respond to quiet, understated beauty when the opportunity is available.

2 Responses to “The lightness of being in Kyoto”

  1. mac said

    Mino City in Gifu has a tradition of paper making going back centuries and is home to at least one “living treasure” paper craftsperson working from a traditional workshop nearby.

    A very attractive little town with a few streets of intact Edo-period merchant houses, it has also had a street lantern festival for the last 8 years that attracts contemporary artists.

    If you prefer your scenes and sites far from the maddening crowds, try;

    There is also the 500 year old Owari Tsushima Tenno Festival on the 4th Saturday and Sunday of July in Tshushima, Aichi where huge lantern displays on boats hit the river amongst fireworks, drums and flute music.

  2. Aki said

    Owari Tsushima Tenno Festival that mac mentioned is a festival that I wish to see some day. Although I have not seen it yet, I have seen a pair of Edo-period folding screens depicting the festival in Guimet Museum in Paris. The scenes painted on the screens looked spectacular.

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