Yamaga lanterns

Yamaga lanterns Yamaga toro

Traditional paper craft from the Muromachi period
A mirage of light and golden traditional paper


What is Yamaga lanterns ?

Yamaga Toro are lanterns made of washi (traditional Japanese paper) produced in the area centering on Yamaga City, Kumamoto Prefecture. In the Yamaga Lantern Festival, a special summer attraction, we find them in the form of gold miniature garden lanterns gracefully adorning the heads of one thousand dancing women and complimenting their yukata (summer cotton kimono). There are also exquisitely made lanterns, which are detailed scale replicas of actual buildings usually at 1/20 to 1/30 reduction; they are modelled upon a shrine, a Japanese old-style house, or castle. Every year, at the time of the Yamaga Lantern Festival, such magnificent and delicate works made by lantern artisans are offered at the Omiya Shrine.
The characteristic feature of the stunning Yamaga Toro is they are made entirely of washi and glue with no clasps or fittings, and by using the bare minimum of tools such as a ruler, small knife, scissors, and flatiron. The classic architectural curves are made with no margins for gluing, and only using the paper thickness to make the joins; they are truly delicate and intricate works of art. These lanterns are made very accurately to scale, but the craftsmen have some unique tricks of perspective and visual illusion that make the viewer feel as though they are looking at the front of a real building in miniature. They appear to be so substantial and solid, it is hard to believe they are only made of paper. In 2013, Yamaga Toro was designated as a Japanese traditional craft.


There are a number of romantic legends concerning the history of Yamaga Toro. One of the most told stories dates back to the time of Emperor Keiko, the 12th emperor, who during an imperial tour of the Kyushu region, was caught with his entourage in a very thick fog around the Kikuchi River flowing through the Yamaga area. Villagers lit torches to guide and welcome the party to the Omiya Shrine, which still exists today.
Since then, torches had been offered to the Omiya Shrine every year until in the Muromachi period (1336-1573), they were replaced with paper gold lanterns. Historical records state that in the Edo period (1603-1868), wealthy merchants commissioned lantern artisans to make a particularly gorgeous style of lantern, which they did in the Japanese house or five-storied pagoda style still seen today.
Another reason for the development of Yamaga Toro is the beginnings of papermaking in the Yamaga area, which was a result of the Bunroku-Keicho War fought in Korea starting in 1592. Around this time, Lord Kato Kiyomasa, returning with his army to Japan, brought back two papermakers, Kyoshun and Dokyo. The two artisans were officially commissioned to spread washi (Japanese paper) making, and later, Kyoshun moved to present day Imo in Kahoku Town, Yamaga City, and introduced papermaking skills throughout Yamaga. The industry thrived and the area around Yamaga became an important paper producing center, greatly affecting the development of Yamaga Toro.

General Production Process

  1. 1. Backing Yamaga Toro must be made from handmade washi; even the gold and silver paper are backed with washi.
  2. 2. Pricking Out Using a bugami (paper pattern) with holes marking out the dimensions of each part, indicator points are pricked with a needle on the lantern paper, during which lines for folding or cutting are clearly distinguished. Even though each garden lantern is so small, they can contain as many as 200 or so parts.
  3. 3. Line Marking A hotarugai metal spatula is used to mark lines on the lantern paper to indicate links between the pricked points.
  4. 4. Cutting the Roof, Short Supports and Hexagon The parts for the roof, short supports, and hexagon of the garden lantern are cut out with a small knife.
  5. 5. Paper Pattern and Pencil Drawing Curves are marked using a pencil and paper pattern.
  6. 6. Cutting Other Parts Any remaining uncut parts are now cut out with a small knife. For the ornamental rooftop section, since there is no margin for gluing, washi edges are chamfered.
  7. 7. Gluing All individual section parts are glued in readiness for the full assembly.
  8. 8. Assembly of the Ornamental Rooftop The ornamental rooftop is made of six sections and the chambered edges are carefully assembled.
  9. 9. Entire Assembly Finally each assembled section is joined together to complete a magnificent golden Yamaga Toro.

Where to Buy & More Information

Kumamoto Perfectural Traditional Craft Center

Kumamoto Perfectural Traditional Craft Center Photo:Kumamoto Prefecture

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