First held in 1946, Toro Nagashi (literally, “flowing lanterns”) is a Japanese ceremony in which participants float glowing paper lanterns down a river to commemorate the souls of the dead. Typically observed during Obon, a three-day Buddhist festival held in honor of one’s ancestors, Toro Nagashi is meant to be more of a joyful celebration than a time of mourning. We take a closer look at the origin and customs of this fascinating tradition.
The first Toro Nagashi festival took place in Tokyo in 1946, when most of the city was still in economic ruin after World War II. At that time, the event was called “The Festival of Recovery”. Around 3,000 lanterns were released along the Sumida river. The event would go on to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors – both Japanese and foreign – each year.
The event was put on hold for 40 years when flood walls were installed on the riverbank in 1965, but resumed in 2005 when a terrace and walking path were constructed along the river.
Beliefs and customs
During Obon, families visit and clean the graves of their ancestors. Traditionally, it was believed that the spirits of their ancestors return to their family’s household altar during this time. Taking place at the end of Obon, the ritual of releasing lanterns downriver symbolizes the return of the spirits to the afterlife. Outside of Obon, Toro Nagashi festivals are also held in memoriam of tragic events such as the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Today, lantern festivals are held all over the country.
Where and when to see Toro Nagashi
The sight of 3,000 glowing lanterns floating downriver at night is truly one to behold. The original Toro Nagashi is held on August 16th, the last day of Obon. All are welcome to view the event, and for 1,500 yen (about $13), visitors can even light and release their own lantern down the Sumida river.