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

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

by Maki Mitsumata and Nami Murakami

What is Bamboo?

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove 1 Bamboo is found in regions with a warm climate. It exists from the north of Hokkaido through to Northern Australia, and west to India and the Himalayas. It also exists in central Africa. It is not so common in North Africa, Europe, or North America. Bamboo is one of the fastest-growing plants in the world. Some species can grow up to 100 cm in a day! The number of species differs according to various sources. It is said that there are approximately 600 to 1,200 species in the world, while in Japan there are between 150 and 600 species. Dry bamboo is hard and flexible, and is used in various ways. For example, paper is made from bamboo fiber. It is also used to make vinegar and charcoal, as well as for building and industrial arts materials.

The Most Famous Bamboo Grove in Kyoto

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove 2 There are many bamboo forests in and around Kyoto. The most famous bamboo grove in Kyoto is in Sagano, near the famous Arashiyama region on the west side of the city. This bamboo grove has a road that runs through it for about 100 meters, from Nonomiya Shrine to Okochi Cottage. If you walk slowly down this path, you can smell the scent of bamboo and feel the rays of sunshine that come from down through the foliage above. You can forget how time flies while walking through the bamboo grove, or you can just walk there without thinking about anything in particular. The path through the bamboo grove is flooded with many tourists on holidays. Therefore, you should go there on weekdays so that you can walk slowly and in peace. If you plan to go on holidays or weekends, an early time would be best.

In addition to the lovely sights, the rustle when the wind goes through the bamboo grove is a very pleasant sound to Japanese people. In fact, the Japanese Environmental Agency chose this as part of its list of 100 selections of Japanese sound scenes to be saved. Therefore, the bamboo grove is one of the most poignant symbols of Japanese sensibility. You can listen to this pleasant sound in the following video:

Currently, this famous bamboo grove is maintained and supported by a managing group of people who own property there. Kyoto city also helps to manage it.

Hanatoro

Arashiyama Bamboo

by Chee Hian

The Kyoto-Arashiyama Hanatoro Festival is held in mid-December around Sagano and Arashiyama. In this festival, about 2,500 oriental lamps are lit and people enjoy the night walk. This is a sightseeing event on the theme of ‘light’ that started in December of 2005. It had over a million visitors in 2011. Many temples and shrines are lit up, as is the bamboo grove road running between Nonomiya Shrine and Okochi Cottage. These nighttime lights create a fantastic scene.

If you go there in person, you can see experience much greater beauty than these photos represent. Moreover, you can sample delicious Japanese cuisine nearby. If you are interested in bamboo forests, why don’t you go with your family, friends, or special someone?