Stone Craft in Kyoto Part I: Toro

July 21, 2015

by Manami Otahara & Miki Sawai

Stone craft is one of among many traditional arts in Kyoto. Stone is used throughout Japanese culture to make many things. Among the crafts that use stone are toro (stone lanterns), sekibutsu (stone Buddhist images, sekito (stone pagodas), historical markers and gravestones. “Seki” means “stone.” In Kyoto, there are so many crafts, so we can see many examples of stone crafts everywhere within the city.

History of Stone Arts

A long time ago, the the capital of Japan was relocated to the Kyoto basin and named Heian-kyo. At this time it was necessary to make the Heian Imperial Palace. In ancient times, something made of stone was connected to religion and carried great importance. After much time, people became very skillful in making excellent tools through a rapidly developing forging technology. The tools allowed them to work with stone better and faster. Craftsmen could create stone Buddhas, stone pagodas, and stone lanterns.

In the Kamakura period, the center of politics moved north to Kamakura, but Kyoto remained the cultural capital of Japan. Although stone craft spread to various locations throughout Japan, it remained one of the prominent arts in Kyoto. In the Azuchi-Momoyama period, sado (tea ceremony) spread in Japan. Many teahouses were built in private gardens and also in the sub-temples of many of the large Buddhist complexes in Kyoto. These gardens required stone work, such as stones for stone paths, water basins used in the tea ceremonies and stone lanterns. Therefore the crafts of Kyoto have much flavor.

Stone Lanterns 

Granite is used to make stone lanterns because it is softer than other stones and so easier to sculpt. However, stone lanterns are still difficult to create. They require high stone-working skills. In the photograph above, you can see a lantern called the Kasuga-shaped lantern; we can see it in temples and shrines. One main characteristic of the this style lantern is its beautifully shaped “roof,” which resembles a flower.  In the next photograph (below) is  a lantern that has a snow-viewing shape; it is shorter than the Kasuga lantern, but has a larger roof. This enables it to shed water and create a area of light at our feet.

A snow-viewing shaped stone lantern

There are many beautiful lanterns in Kyoto, including several famous ones. One  is at Kita-no-tenmangu shrine—its shape is so big. A stone lantern at Koto-in Temple is the focal point of its main garden. It is famous for the chip in its roof stone. It is considered beautiful because it is not perfect.

Types of stone lanterns

There are many kinds of stone lanterns. The stone lantern which is the largest in Kyoto is in Nijo-en and it is called “Azumayafu-toro.” The stone lantern is 13 meters high. It is the largest in Japan. Another, the  “Bake-toro”  is a combination of natural stones that match its surroundings. It was made by Suminokura Ryoui 400 years ago. A festival is held at Fushimi Inari in July called Motomiya Matsuri. You can see special scenery because all of the stone lanterns in Fushimi Inari Shrine are lit at night. You will experience a  mysterious scene that it is very beautiful.  It will be a highlight of any trip to Kyoto.

Stone Charms

Stone lanterns are never a main element in a  Japanese garden, but they always lend the garden some charm. Each lantern is created by a lantern craftsman. They consider where the latter will be placed in the garden, its position and size and shape. knot is thus a good place to observe stone lantern. There are also  traditional good luck charms that are made of stone. You can enjoy looking for the many ways stone craft is employed in Kyoto.

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