Floating Lanterns

Candle-lit lanterns floating across a pond in the moonlight? Yes, please!

This Toro Nagashi lantern ceremony was at the Ueno temple that sits amid the nodding lotus heads of Shinobazu Pond, and it was lovely. What I didn’t know was that it signals the end of annual O-bon festivities, the three days in summer when the spirits of ancestors come back to check on the living (and to make sure the family graves are being kept up to snuff).

As twilight was just beginning, this procession of flute-playing priests (accompanied by the one with the bell) made their way to the temple…

…which was lit up with a festive wall of lanterns

After the sutra-chanting and a short Buddhist ceremony, the musicians and priests solemnly made their way toward the water

Soon, rafts of lanterns were drifting across the pond, sailed along by the evening breeze

The Toro Nagashi ceremony isn’t an ancient one – it started in 1946, after the war, as a way to send the spirits back to the afterlife when their annual three-day visit was over

Lanterns are felt to symbolize hope and peace, and although they are lit and launched to commemorate the departed, Toro Nagashi is a joyful ceremony, not a mournful one

The candles stayed lit just about the same amount of time it took them to cross the wide pond, winking out as they reached the far shore

There are many Toro Nagashi ceremonies around Japan in mid-August, so if you do a search for “toro nagashi” plus the place you’ll be, you’ll probably find one., This one at the Shinobazu Pond is the earliest one in Tokyo, but the biggest is in Asakusa on August 10th, where the lanterns are launched into the river from the Sumida River Park (on the Asakusa side , not the Skytree side). At the Asakusa Toro Nagashi, you can also buy your own for ¥1500 and launch it along with the others.

Tips for photo-taking at the Shinobazu pond event: Only ceremony participants can get close to the priests launching lanterns from the dock behind the temple, but lanterns are also launched from the left end of the pond (with the temple at your back), the side opposite the zoo. There is no best place to take photos, but they tend to drift across the pond toward the zoo in the prevailing breeze. If you don’t have a camera with a long lens, the best place to glimpse them up close is on the boardwalk spanning the zoo end of the pond, where you can take snaps as they approach. You can freely roam around the pond and take pictures as they go by, though – it’s not so crowded that you can’t get a clear shot near the railing if you’re patient.

When not chasing lanterns, Jonelle Patrick writes novels set in Tokyo

Nine years. Nine death anniversaries. Tomorrow will be the tenth. When Detective Kenji Nakamura’s phone rings with the news that his mother’s death wasn’t an accident, his life begins to unravel…read more