Along with Buddhism, China introduced stone lanterns to Japan around the year 538. Originally used in temples and shrines to present a sacred fire to the Buddha, they were also placed in gardens during the Warring States period. It’s said that it was the great tea master Sen no Rikyū who invented the custom of decorating gardens with old stone lanterns.

Many of the stone lanterns that tea masters of the Edo period used were made during the Kamakura period. This "Hannyajii-style stone lantern" is one of the 10 popular lantern styles of the era," of which many imitations have been made since. Naturally, it was thought that the stone lanterns at the Hannya-ji Temple in Nara City were the oldest of their kind, but that theory was debunked by a study conducted in 1978. Dr. Masataro Kawakatsu, the authority on stone art research, found that the stone lanterns in Chinzanso garden are actually the oldest models of "Hannyaji-type stone lanterns."

The stone lanterns at Hannya-ji Temple and Chinzanso Garden have almost the same exact design. But if you look closely, you can see the differences and tell which one is an original and which one is an imitation. A research professor explains that the original has a sense of fluidity and movement, while an imitation might feel more forced and rigid. For example, the peacock carved in the Chinzanso lantern has one leg that extends freely beyond the frame line, while the peacock leg in the Hannya-ji lantern fits forcibly within the frame. The stone lanterns at Chinzanso were made in the latter half of the Kamakura era, and the lanterns at Hannya-ji Temple are considered to be imitations made in the early Edo period, over 300 years later.

By the way, did you know there’s a specific meaning in the placement of stone lanterns in tea ceremonies? Lanterns would be placed underneath and surrounded by bushy trees and peeking out while remaining partially hidden. This positioning evokes a scene of a small hermitage shrouded deep in a mountain, where you can sense the grandness of nature, even within this limited space. Something as simple as the placement of a stone lantern can whisk us away into a mysterious world.

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