Chochin: Traditional Japanese Paper Lanterns

May 7, 2016

by Narumi Kitagawa and Akane Kitakido

If you walk down a Kyoto street at night, you will almost certainly see some paper lanterns hanging in front of an Izakaya which is Japanese-style bar or ramen restaurant. And at festivals in Japan, you will also see a lot of lanterns hanging in a row. These are all traditional Japanese lanterns, also called chouchin. ‘Chou’ means to hang, and ‘chin’ stands for a light. Originally chouchin were used to shine light at people’s feet when they walked on dark street at night. Now, chouchin are used in not only this way, but also other ways. In this article, we will explore the history and cultural significance of chouchin.

History of Couchin

Looking at the history of Japanese paper lanterns allows us to rediscover how the Japanese way of life has changed. The first appearance of paper lanterns was during the Muromachi era (from 1336 to 1573). At that time, paper lanterns came from China and looked like baskets made with bamboos. They were quite different from today’s Japanese lanterns, so clearly people were trying to develop the lanterns in Japanese ways over the years. After a few decades, original folding lanterns based on the Chinese design were created. These folding lanterns were used in funerals. The new lanterns also became necessary for soldiers to use during war, so they became more and more popular in Edo period (from 1603 to 1868). Due to such development, not only people of high rank in society, but also normal everyday people were able to use Japanese paper lanterns easily in their daily lives. Also, more and more people were able to travel around Japan and go out at night because of the expanding merchant economy. The lanterns helped guide their way and suit their new lifestyle.

How to Make a Japanese Paper Lantern

Paper lanterns are actually quite easy to make. A thin strip of bamboo is used as a framework of body. A circle is then made with the bamboo strip, and on which is attached washi, or Japanese handmade paper. The bamboo circles are set to a model and connected with thread. This work affects whether the paper lantern will be a good one or not, so it needs a skilled hand to do well. After this, glue is put on the bamboo frame and it is all washi. After drying, the bamboo frame is removed from the model. Originally, a candle was placed inside to provide light. Thanks to the protection of the washi cover, the candles seldom went out. But these days, electric lights are used in most paper lanterns.

How Chouchin Are Used Today

Nowadays, Japanese paper lanterns are used in many ways and in many places. The most traditional use is when families hang them outside of their homes during Obon, a special time of the year during the first few weeks of August. These lanterns are called bon chochin, and it is believed that they welcome home the spirits of each family’s ancestors.

The most popular chochin these days are the ones that decorate restaurants and festivals. The lanterns outside restaurants can attract much more attention for passengers than other signs because of the attractive effect of one bright lantern at night. In festivals, we often see chochin hanging in a line over our heads, and that creates a traditional and festive atmosphere. Moreover, some people use Japanese lanterns as a fashionable lamp in their homes. As you can see, Japanese paper lanterns are loved by all generations and are used in various ways.

Chouchin

Kojima Paper Lantern Shop

One of the best places that you can get your very own chochin is Kojima-shoten, a well known paper lantern shop in Kyoto. This shop started to make cochin from the middle of the Edo period. The 9th successive owner is currently running this shop. Recently, Kojima-shoten was featured on television, and they are promoting their products and skills widely.

The most attractive point is that craftsmen in Kojima-shoten create paper lanterns in in the traditional way: by hand. It takes much more time to make them one by one than mass-produced versions made in factories. Craftsmen cut the bamboo thin and wind it around with a stick of bamboo to design the distinctive shape of the lanterns. This way of creating the lanterns is called the ‘Jibari style’, and only in Kyoto can we see it. In addition, all the materials of lanterns in Kojima-shoten are of excellent quality, as they are made of bamboo and washi, all natural, plant-based materials. In contrast, most other shops create lanterns with plastic in order to sell them cheaply.

Even better, at Kojima-shoten you can experience making chochin by yourself. The process is simply and enjoyable. You start by watching a video about how to make chochin. After that, the owner will teach you the process in person. You can choose two types of lanterns to make. One is a small chochin lantern, which is popular among students. Another one is a chochin that you can also paint on. Not only adults, but also children can participate. You can also observe artists making chochin on site.

As you can see, it is worth a visit to Kojima-shoten in order to discover the real attraction of Japanese paper lanterns.

Access

To Kojima Paper Lantern Shop, you can use train or bus. You will get there by 5 minutes walk from Tofukuji station of Keihan line or Imagumano bus stop.

Adress:605-0971 Kyoto Prefecture, Kyoto, Higashiyama Ward, Imagumano Naginomoricho,11

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