The Japanese Craftsman

The Japanese Craftsman-Fusing Traditional Artisan Techniques with Cutting-Edge Technologies-

Based on an interview with Kiyoshi Tanji,
Japanese candle artisan of the Tanji Renshodo candle shop

The history of the Japanese candles of Kyoto stretches back for a thousand years. With their unique ability to gently illuminate Buddhist statues and altars in a way that Western candles cannot, the demand for traditional Japanese candles has been constant and unceasing.

Handcrafted every step of the way, the Japanese candle making process utilizes the distinctive properties of mokuro vegetable wax, which has a low melting point and solidifies at ordinary temperatures. From the preliminary working of the wax to the final shaping stage, Japanese candles are individually fashioned by the bare hands of artisans in a laborious process that requires painstaking attention to detail.

Made using traditional production methods that have been passed down uninterrupted since the days of old, Japanese candles manage to achieve an exquisite balance in the form of the candle, the shape of the flame, and the manner in which the candles flicker and burn. We asked Kiyoshi Tanji of Tanji Renshodo, a candle shop which has been engaged in traditional candle making for four generations, to tell us about the techniques that have been passed down through the thousand-year history of the Japanese candle.

The Japanese Candle - All Handcrafted, All Natural, a World of Finely-Honed Techniques Evocative of the Ancient Heian Era

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%.

Mokuro wax, obtained from the fruit of the haze wax tree

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.

The kigake method of making straight candles

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.

A final coat of wax to finish the ikari candle

Using Mokuro Wax Obtained From the Fruit of the Haze Tree and Wicks Composed of Japanese Paper and Rushes, the Japanese Candle is Made of All-Natural Materials Native to Japan

Made with Materials and Techniques Used Since the Days of Old, Japanese Candles Feature an Ingenious Burning Mechanism

Another major difference between Japanese and Western candles can be found in the form and function of the wick. A candle wick is centered inside the candle wax, and when the end is lit, melted wax is absorbed into the wick by capillary action, where it vaporizes and combusts to keep the candle alight. Centered within Western candles are wicks made of material such as cotton string, and the melted wax is drawn into and along these strings. The holes which can be found on the bottom of Western candles are for placement on candlesticks.

The wick of the Japanese candle, on the other hand, consists of Japanese paper that has been rolled up into a cylinder and wrapped with the pith of rushes. The hollow Japanese wick is needed to accommodate the thin bamboo sticks used during candle production. One may ask why the wicks of Japanese candles are made of Japanese paper and rushes rather than string, for string was not unavailable in ancient Japan. Why then did Japanese candlemakers elect to make a more costly version of a wick?

The 19th century English scientist Michael Faraday (1791-1867) offers one explanation for this in The Chemical History of a Candle, a compilation of lectures given by Faraday at the Royal Institute in London in 1861. In this historic and world-renowned science book, Faraday praises traditional Japanese candle-making techniques from his perspective as a scientist.

During his lecture, he takes two Japanese candles in his hands and notes that there is a "remarkable peculiarity" about them, which he goes on to define as their hollow wicks. The cylinder of Japanese paper used in Japanese candles results in a hollow wick that extends from the top to the bottom of the candle. This hollow cavity acts as a vent which draws air to the center of the candle flame. In 19th century England, the role of oxygen in aiding combustion had only just been recognized, while Japanese candles had utilized this phenomenon since the days of old.

The presence of a vent allows the wax to burn well, and the movement of air also causes the flame to flicker in a shape that is constantly evolving, with the result that the form of the flame differs depending on whether the candle has just been lit, or 30 minutes or an hour have passed. Faraday was amazed that Japanese artisans had been able to devise this ingenious mechanism through the course of their candle-making experience.

Techniques Born of the Wisdom and Devotion of Past Generations and Passed Down from Father to Son over a Thousand Years

Japanese candle-making techniques have been passed down for a thousand years, and continue to be conveyed from parent to child. Founded in 1935, the Tanji Renshodo candle shop was established by the first-generation Tanji family candlemaker, who went into business for himself after beginning his apprenticeship in candle making at age 9. His son, who was taught the family candle-making skills at age 16, succeeded in bringing the candle shop through the turbulent years of WWII and postwar Japan. Kiyoshi Tanji, the current Tanji Renshodo proprietor, took up candle making under his father's instruction at age 18 and is presently in the process of passing down his own skills to his son and successor, who will be the fourth-generation Tanji family candlemaker.

Traditional artisanal techniques can only be passed down through a process of learning by observation and imitation, which necessitates a training period of some years. Put another way, those who desire to cultivate traditional artisanal skills must be able to overcome the difficulties of living for a time with no source of income, a major challenge that helps to explain why Japanese candle-making skills are passed down from father to son, rather than through an apprentice system. While it would be possible to introduce machinery and change production techniques to easily facilitate the mass-production of Japanese candles, Japanese artisans have not availed themselves of this option. Instead, they continue to make candles in the same conscientious, painstaking manner, using the production methods of old and refusing to compromise their standards or convictions.

Although Japanese candle-production methods might appear inefficient, behind these methods is the wisdom of past generations, and their insight and devotion are worthy of our deep respect.

The wick of the Japanese candle

The wicks of Japanese candles are made of traditional Japanese paper and rushes. The rush plant grows in marshy areas and shallow water, and is used to make goza and tatami mats. To make candle wicks, cylinders of Japanese paper are wrapped with the pith of rushes. The paper-rush wicks of Japanese candles stand in stark contrast to the string wicks of Western candles.

The wick of the Japanese candle