In case no one told you, it’s obon this week in Japan! For many people this means a well-deserved long vacation and a trip home. It also means lots of fun cultural events. As you may know, obon is a Buddhist holiday all about the spirits of deceased ancestors coming back for a short visit. Tourou nagashi, literally “lanterns flowing,” is a special ceremony where, as the name implies, lanterns are set afloat, usually down a river. It’s a fun way to spend your evening and an incredible sight as well! This week, we headed to Azuma Bridge in Asakusa, Tokyo to check out the ceremony!
Asakusa is high on any tourist’s list of places to visit in Tokyo. In addition to the Asakusa Temple and its Kaminari (“lightning”) Gate, there’s no shortage of traditional buildings, food, and souvenirs to be found. Azuma Bridge, which crosses over Sumida River, also provides an excellent view of Skytree and the famous Asahi buildings, as you can see in the picture below.
Skytree is on the left and the Asahi Beer Tower is the tall building on to the right of Skytree. To the right of the Asahi Beer Tower is the Super Dry Hall. The Asahi Beer Tower is designed in the shape of a beer mug and the Super Dry Hall is meant to resemble a beer glass. The golden object on top of the Super Dry Hall is supposed to be a flame, though many believe it resembles something slightly…different.
▼ Azuma Bridage, one of Asakusa’s more lovely tourist spots. Click for a larger image.
Tourou nagashi is most often performed at the end of obon, though different areas may have different interpretations of, or customs for, the Buddhist ceremony. Generally, it is performed on August 15 or 16, symbolic of the spirits return to the other world, and is also sometimes done on the ocean instead of on a river. The actual objects sent onto the water are paper lanterns, with calligraphy on the sides, set upon small “boats.” The ceremony is said to have a connection with other Buddhist rituals memorializing those who have drowned or died at sea, though now it has broader significance.
▼ Monks chant as the lanterns are slid onto the river.
Image via e-asakusa
Tourou nagashi was first performed in Asakusa in 1946, though in a slightly different format, and since then, about 3,000 lanterns have been set afloat each year. The ceremony was temporarily suspended for a few years, however, after the banks were built up on either side of Sumida River to prevent flooding, but was resumed after terraces were added.
▼ Participants set the paper lanterns onto chutes that carry them to the river.
Image via e-asakusa
With our sightseeing done, we walked away from the bridge downriver a bit to find a good viewing spot. The sun was just starting to set, and the twilight colors were perfect for a ceremony dedicated to traveling spirits!
The festivities began promptly at 6:45, while the sky was still relatively bright, but the lanterns glowed clearly and looked great on the river. The crowd was easily in the hundreds as well, so if you plan to attend next year, we recommend getting there early.
▼ Here they come!
▼ The light from the lanterns on the dark waters was perfectly ethereal.
▼ Being the environmentally conscious people we are, we wondered if the lanterns were going to float out to sea. Nope! Boats were there to capture them before they got too far.
We also captured some videos of the floating lanterns bobbing lazily on the river waters.
▼ Aw, it looks lonely!
▼ Not so lonely anymore. The flood lamps set up on the banks added to the eerie atmosphere.
As the night went on and the sky grew darker, we crossed over to the other bank to get a wider view of the proceedings. From a distance, the lanterns still glowed brightly, and we couldn’t help being reminded of fireflies!
▼ It’s easy to understand why this ceremony is so popular, isn’t it?
▼ Good night, floating spirits. We hope you have a good journey home!
Occasionally, the paper lanterns would catch fire. Though we’re pretty sure it wasn’t intentional, it did look amazing! If the other lanterns were fireflies, those aflame were bonfires.
What a great event! It was a truly beautiful ceremony, and a little humbling as it reminds one of the impermanence of life. Like all great rituals, whether you’re not a devotee or not, there is something to be gained from the experience–even if it’s just a simple reminder that no one lives forever!
Here’s one more video for your viewing pleasure!
Details for next year’s tourou nagashi haven’t been released yet, but you’ll definitely want to catch it if you’re in Tokyo over obon. Of course, tourou nagashi ceremonies are performed all over Japan, so check your local event calendar.