Fashioning Mokuro Wax with a 52°C Melting Point into Candles Crafted Painstakingly by Hand
Candles have existed in Japan since the ancient days of the Heian era, and the candles of Kyoto are said to have a history of a thousand years. Japanese candles use mokuro wax obtained from the fruit of the haze tree, a Japanese wax tree belonging to the sumac family, while the candle wicks are made from traditional Japanese paper and the pith of rushes, materials that were available, one and all, in the Japan of a thousand years ago. Japanese candles are made with artisanal techniques of old, use all-natural materials native to Japan, and have been crafted by hand for a thousand years.
The haze fruit used to make Japanese candles is cultivated mainly in areas of western Japan such as Nagasaki, Ehime and Wakayama prefectures. There are many species of haze wax trees, and factors including temperature differences between eastern and western Japan can create subtle differences in the properties of the wax extracted from the haze fruit. For this reason, the type of haze fruit selected for use in Japanese candles will differ according to the candle type and its place of use. Once the haze fruit has been gathered, it is first aged for a period of three years. The outer shell and the seeds are then removed, and the remaining flesh yields the mokuro wax. Haze cultivation is a laborious process, and with less people who possess the skills to extract wax from the fruit, mokuro wax has become a valuable and expensive commodity.
Mokuro wax solidifies at ordinary temperatures and has a melting point of approximately 52°C, making it workable by hand. Japanese candles may be made in one of two ways: by using the kigake method, or by pouring wax into ikari molds. In the kigake method, thin bamboo sticks are inserted into hollow candle wicks, and while the artisan holds and rotates a number of these sticks in his right hand, he uses his left hand to scoop and apply melted wax, layer by layer, to the candle cores. The alternative method of pouring wax into an ikari mold is primarily utilized for candles used by temples belonging to the Jodo Shinshu school of Buddhism. In this method, melted wax is gently worked as it is cooled, and when the desirable consistency has been achieved, the wax is poured into wooden molds and shaped into the ikari form, which is wider at the top and narrower at the bottom.
After the candles are removed from the molds, the final smoothing and shaping is done by hand. Regardless of which method is used, the Japanese candle-making process takes approximately ten days to complete.
A Valuable Material That Produces Only Light Soot, Mokuro Wax is Not Allowed to Go to Waste
The first difference between Japanese and Western candles is the material from which they are made. In contrast to the Western candle, which uses petroleum-based materials, the Japanese candle uses only plant-based materials. For this reason, Japanese candles produce only light soot, without generating the thick black soot of petroleum-based candles. For temples housing wooden Buddhist statues and altars ornamented with gold leaf, this thick black soot is to be avoided at all costs, for its oily residue will seep into the wood and stain the gold leaf, which will have to be replaced. Although a single Japanese candle may seem to command a high price, maintenance issues demonstrate the essential role of these candles at Japanese temples.
Japanese candles used at temples are never burned completely, for the new candles lit for the reciting of sutras at a Buddhist service will have burned only about halfway down by the end of the sutra reading, whereupon they are replaced with new candles. Used candles are collected for about five years and then returned to the candlemaker, for the valuable material from which they are made can be melted down and used again. In the candle-production process, not a single stray drop of mokuro wax is allowed to go to waste, which shows what a valuable substance this wax has become in present-day Japan.
One problem that can emerge in the recycling of candles is the presence of other waxes, for if mokuro wax is mixed with differing types of wax, its melting point will change, which will create difficulties in the candle-production process. In addition, regional differences and original mokuro wax blends have given rise to a variety of separate and distinct mokuro types, and the blending of mokuro waxes from different regions is said to result in subtle variances in the candle flame.
Mokuro wax, obtained from the fruit of the haze wax tree
The haze tree, a Japanese wax tree which belongs to the sumac family and reaches a height of 7-10 meters, grows naturally in the mountains and woods of Japan. These trees, which have compound leaves that are imparipinnate in form, are known for their beautiful autumn foliage. The haze fruit resembles soybeans, and is aged for three years in preparation for mokuro wax extraction. Haze fruit has a total wax content of about 20%.
The kigake method of making straight candles
Japanese candles intended for general use are made using the kigake method. In this method, thin bamboo sticks are inserted into hollow candle wicks, and the artisan holds and rotates a number of these sticks in his right hand while using his left hand to apply wax. The finished candle has a white, straight and even appearance, and candles made for use in tea ceremony are made in this manner. Since many layers of wax are applied to these candles, their cross sections resemble the growth rings of trees.
A final coat of wax to finish the ikari candle
The ikari candle, which is wider at the top and narrower at the bottom, is made through the process of molding. At Tanji Renshodo, molds which have been passed down for generations are utilized, giving the ikari candles a distinctive curve. The candles undergo a final smoothing and shaping by hand, and then a finishing coat of wax is applied to the surface. This wax is prepared by mixing mokuro wax for about an hour with a bamboo stick, incorporating air until the wax gains a whipped consistency and turns a whitish color. This wax is applied to the surface by hand, giving the finished candles a white appearance, and a heated knife is then used to cut the top and bottom of the candles. If desired, the candles may be colored red, or given an application of gold leaf.