August 19, 2017

Summer’s Toro Nagashi

This haunting tradition of floating lanterns down the river was originally held as a summertime means of ushering spirits on to the next world.

The state of Tokyo following the fire bombings of World War II gave rise to the Toro Nagashi at the Sumida River

Today’s post is going to be a little bit weird. Rather than a singular event, we’re going to be taking a look at what’s collectively called Toro Nagashi (meaning “lantern cruises”). Typically these celebrations are held during the summer Obon period. Participants release candle-lit lanterns into rivers as a way to help guide spirits to the other world. The resulting procession of floating lights creates an otherworldly atmosphere that will send a chill up your spine.

Every year across the country there are several Toro Nagashi events during the months of July and August. Which one you should consider attending therefore depends on your travel plans. The midsummer Sumidagawa River Toro Nagashi in Tokyo is likely the most convenient for travelers. Nevertheless, the ease of access coupled with its location near one of Tokyo’s most popular attractions means you’ll need to expect crowds.

For the those interested in the history, Tokyo’s Toro Nagashi has roots dating back to right after World War II. First held in 1946, it was original called the “Festival of Recovery” and was used to kick-off Japan’s rebirth. Over time the event became popular around the world but it was put on hold for some years hold after the Sumida River was encased in concrete in 1965. The celebration was then only recently revived in 2005 for all to enjoy.

Should you not find yourself in Tokyo, Kyoto’s famous Arashiyama district also runs its own annual event. Likewise, Kanazawa (as seen in the video above) and many other cities also have Toro Nagashi but the dates are subject to change every year. Be sure to check for the latest info; Google is your friend here. Do some digging to see which matches your schedule!

Getting to Tokyo’s Sumida River

A passengers on a train zip through central Tokyo en route to a Toro Nagashi celebration

While your journey will ultimately depend on which Toro Nagashi you choose to attend, both Arashiyama and Asakusa’s events are easy to get to. Each of the rivers in these two major areas are easily identifiable landmarks. Honestly though, you can likely just follow the crowds. Toro Nagashi are very popular with both locals and tourists alike so there should be significant foot traffic and/or others who you can ask.

As always, be sure to hit up Hyperdia or a similar service before departing to calculate your best route.

What to Expect from the Toro Nagashi

A bunch of lit lanterns float down the river in a Toro Nagashi celebration

I shouldn’t need to say this but try not to be a jerk. Traditionally Toro Nagashi are a ritual sending off of spirits to the other world. Therefore, in your efforts to get a good shot with your camera, try to avoid pushing and shoving. When I was at the Asakusa Toro Nagashi I saw far too many tourists completely disrespecting the rules in a vain attempt to snap a pic.

Please don’t be THAT guy or girl…

The above warning aside, if you do decide to participate, here’s what you should expect. First you’ll be given a paper lantern and a pen to write with. Historically people would mark their floats wishes for the safe passage of loved ones to the afterlife but you can write any desire you may have.

Next you’ll need to line up and wait for someone to light the candle in the lantern. With the flame ablaze, you’ll be then instructed to launch the your wish-bearing float into the water. Just be careful not to knock the candle over and set your lantern ablaze!

All of this this might sound a bit confusing. Luckily there will be others there with you so just pay attention to people in front of you and do what they do. It’s a lot easier than it sounds in writing once you see it with your own eyes!

If you’re in Japan during the summer months, I highly suggest you add a Toro Nagashi event to the itinerary. I’ve seen a lot of amazing sights in Japan over the years and few things live up to its haunting beauty!