Hirokazu Tagawa/Warosoku artist
Can you tell the difference between Japanese candles and Western candles?
Japanese candles have roughly 3 characteristics.
- It has less smoke, for it is made of pure plant-based ingredients
- The wick is made from “rush” and “washi (Japanese paper)”, so it is thick and the flame does not get blown out easily.
- The flame is big and flickers slowly even if there is no wind, and has the unique atmosphere
Japanese candles originated long time ago; beeswax candles were introduced to Japan in the Nara period (1336-1573) along with Buddhism, and were utilized as the valuable light only available at the court or temples, or for the aristocratic class. After the Edo period (1603-1868), fruits of wax trees and sumac trees started to be used as the wax ingredient, and in the mid-Edo period (1651-1745) wax tree cultivation was encouraged nationwide for the utilization to be widespread. “Nakamura Rosoku” has created Japanese candles since its establishment in 1887 (Meiji 10). They have provided various Japanese candles and such to temples, shrines and homes. We interviewed the president Mr. Tagawa, the fourth generation in Fushimi-ku, Kyoto.
The present situation which most people do not know great things about Japanese candles
―What brought you, Mr. Tagawa, into the world of Japanese candles?
It wasn’t like I was originally interested, but “Nakamura Rosoku” was owned by my wife’s family. I was in the automobile industry, but when her father (the third generation) fell ill he asked me, “will you help the business?”. That was the beginning. I guess it was about 30 years ago…
―Tell us about the manufacturing process of Japanese candles.
First, wrap the contents of rush around Japanese paper to make a wick for a Japanese candle. Dip the tip of the wick in wax, and pierce the wick in the bamboo skewer.
Create a wooden pattern, and stick the bamboo skewer with the wick pierced into it. And pour melted wax into it. Take out the skewer, arrange the shape and a basic candle is completed.
Knead and whiten the wax to put on a candle, and paint it on a basic candle with the skewer in it, with your hands. (Seijo Kigake,)
Arrange the shape, cut out the wick on the tip, and a white Japanese candle is made.
As for vermillion, melt the vermilion pigment into melted wax and pour it on a candle with a ladle.
For e rosoku (painted candle), after the above procedure, painting is to be started. We provide painted candles handmade one by one with care by etsukeshi (painter) in Kyoto, and they come in a variety of patterns. Painted candles are called “hana rosoku (flower candle)” and originate in the cold region such as Tohoku where flowers don’t bloom. They used to paint the candles instead of offering flowers at a Buddhist altar, and that was the beginning of painted candles.
―Do you use specific ingredients as well?
We provide candles for the head temples, so basically we do not use animal-based oil or paraffin wax. Paraffin wax is the ingredient of normal candles. Paraffin wax is petroleum-based, so it is like sticky tar. A Japanese candle produces soot, for it is purely plant-based, but you only should wipe the soot away so it is very easy to clean up. The stains of Western candles stick, and it is more difficult to clean. Paraffin smoke is like stains in a microwave oven. For example, you know there are temples in Kyoto with a dragon painted on the ceiling, or painted with gold or silver lacquer, right? If these temples are using Western candles, they would need restoration in a few decades. And they would have to wash with a detergent to get the stains off, for the stains of Western candles would stick. And they would have to take off all the gold lacquers and lacquer painting once and redo it. It would cost them a few billion yen. However, for temples using Japanese candles, they would not need to repair inside the building almost at all. After wiping away the soot, the gold lacquer and lacquer painting remain as they are. Japanese candles are not exactly the instrument to protect the cultural assets, but they are valuable in many ways.
―So it means, when you are using a candle at home too, the stains would stick…
Yes. So, I always tell customers that if they would like to use candles at home, use the smaller ones which would go off instantly, and use gorgeous Japanese candles only when they worship the monthly death anniversary of loved ones. That way the Buddhist altar would be kept clean for a long time, and it would be easier to clean up. Recently, many foreigners purchase Japanese candles too. They have certain candle culture, so they use candles daily. Japanese candles burn at an extremely low temperature, so the color of orange is very thick. There are many people who purchase Japanese candles, favoring the color. The color of flame is completely from Western candles. Other than that, many decorate them as an interior decoration as well.
―Is there a way for us to tell Japanese candles and Western candles apart?
You can tell apart by looking at the yarn, this is the easiest way. If you look at the thickness of the wick, you can differentiate. You would not know if the wax inside is mixed with paraffin wax unless you light it, but if the tip is made of yarn, even if it looks like it, it is not a 100% Japanese candle.
―Tell us about the most attractive features of your products, and what you would like to communicate?
We are a candle manufacturer, so we would like our customers to light candles. You would notice how orange the flame of a Japanese candle is, once you light it.
For example, there are Maiko, Geiko and Kabuki. The reason that they paint their face white or red is because that way, when illuminated by the orange flames of Japanese candles, their face color would look normal. In Kabuki too, they have white and red faces. That is because when lit up by the flames of Japanese candles, the white would be the color of a normal skin, and the red would become a shade. So they would look like an angry face or a crying face. Which is why Maiko or Geikowould never paint her face white, when the sun is still shining.
I would like customers to know how to blow the candle out, too. If you blow out the candle with a fan or something, the smoke would come out a lot. And you would be left with the impression that your kimono got stained or that it stunk. But originally it is to be blown out with a snuffer. This way, there would be no smoke and you would not get a headache either. The wick is left for you to use next time as well, so you can re-use the candle again and again. However, if you blow out by a fan or with your hands, the pilot fire would be left and the wick would be burnt away. It would burn the wax too. It is a great candle when you use it properly, but regrettably most people don’t know how to use it.
Responsibility to work in the world where no one can do your work instead
―Tell us about what you felt after entering the world of Japanese candles.
Once you enter the world of traditional crafts, you cannot get out. It would affect other people in the world as well, if I leave. If a candle manufacturer does not make candles, the temples cannot use them. There are related manufacturers too, such as a wax manufacturer, a wick manufacturer and such. If I quit, these people might have to close their business as well. On the other hand, if they close the business, I would have to, too. It is not give-and-take, but the situation like that is completely made up. So if you are to enter the world of traditional crafts, you have to be responsible. You can just go “oh, I quit” like that.
―Did you feel that way since you began working?
Not at all. It made me feel that way as I continued working. Many things became visible, and since the third generation fell ill, the temples which were our customers started telling us not to quit the business. At first, I used to think “even if we quit, someone else would take the business”, but now I feel grateful that they count on us.
―Well, last but not the least, please tell us about your future visions.
I would like the people in the world to know about Japanese candles, including the charms and manners about usage. People do not know what we think is normal. I should not be just making candles. I would like people to know the charms of Japanese candles and to use them. For that, I am always thinking how to connect our products to people and to the next generations. We hold Japanese candle painting workshop and such as well, and would like people to touch Japanese candles to understand how it is. In workshops, customers can carve their names of anniversaries on the candles, and we are creative with designs as well; I hope younger generations would be interested in it, too.
Warosoku (Japanese candle) artisan／Hirokazu Tagawa
Born in 1963, in Kyoto. After working for 6-7 years in the automobile industry, he entered the world of Japanese candles approximately 30 years ago. At learning the reality of Japanese candles, such as decrease in demand and some people using fake Japanese candles look-alikes believing that these are the real ones, he felt at risk as an artisan of traditional crafts; he now creates Japanese candles by traditional methods, and conveys its charms.