Discover The Light Of Japan

"We may simply have lost our appreciation​ for​ handmade goods." Igarashi san has been making chochin​ paper lanterns in​ his small shop for​ his whole life. His father too, and​ his grandfatherand​ great grandfather and​ even great, great grandfather. The tools & equipment that surround him today, in​ fact, have outlasted his ancestors, their wooden surfaces worn smooth with age. Since the start of​ the Meiji era (1868 - 1912) Kanazawa citizens have been buying Igarashi chochin​ from the store, in​ the heart of​ old Kanazawa's merchant district, near the back of​ the castle. The shelves are stacked high with beautifully decorated lanterns - vibrant bursts of​ colour peppering the dusty confines of​ the little workshop.

Chochin​ lanterns have a​ fairly long history in​ Japan - there is​ evidence of​ them being used in​ temples in​ the 10th century - and​ were used primarily as​ a​ portable means of​ lighting. Only occasionally used inside, they customarily hung outside a​ house, temple or​ business or​ else in​ the entrance, ready to​ be suspended on​ a​ pole and​ carried before anyone going out at​ night. Igarashi-san reckons that at​ one time they were so widely used there would have been around 40 or​ 50 chochin​ shops just in​ Kanazawa. Nowadays there remain​ only himself and​ one other local craftsman in​ the trade and​ the other fellow (Matsuda-san) has long since diversified, making traditional umbrellas his mainstay.

Making a​ chochin​ is​ a​ fiddly, fairly delicate procedure despite the attractively simple appearance of​ the end product. And, when asked what are the most important qualities in​ his profession​ Igarashi-san replies, his bright eyes dead serious, "patience and​ concentration." The average sized lantern according to​ Igarashi-san, at​ about 30 cm across, can be produced at​ a​ rate of​ about two a​ day by one man including most of​ the painting. However some truly huge ones have left the Igarashi shop over the years - his biggest was a​ matsuri monster measuring 5 shaku (1 shaku = 30.3cm in​ the old Japanese measuring system) in​ diameter with an​ intricate year of​ the rabbit design on​ it. The old lantern maker is​ realistic about the fact that people want cheaper, mass-produced, plastic covered lanterns these days - he even sells them himself - but he is​ confident in​ the knowledge that a​ well-made paper lantern is​ a​ lovely thing, superior in​ many ways to​ these garish modern impostors.

"you​ can repair a​ good chochin," he tells us, "you​ can replace one rib or​ fix a​ hole in​ the paper no problem." "Plastic lanterns have no internal frame and​ can't be patched." a​ paper lantern no matter how well made lasts only about a​ year (natural beauty is​ always fleeting) whereas a​ plastic one might last twice that and​ cost half as​ much. on​ top of​ that, we as​ a​ society may have simply lost our appreciation​ for​ handmade goods. Price has become our main​ motivation​ as​ customers. We do not care to​ know how things were made nowadays, or​ who made them, or​ else Igarashisan would be the prosperous head of​ a​ chain​ of​ shops.

The walls of​ the Igarashi Chochinya and​ his ready-to-hand​ scrapbook sport innumerable monochrome pictures and​ press clippings showing a​ proud, broad-shouldered young man with strong, thick arms and​ a​ fetching grin​ showing off elegant paper spheres with matsuri lights glimmering in​ the background. Humbly showing us them, his warm, friendly smile only slips slightly as​ he tells us that he will be the last of​ his family line making lanterns here.

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