Once upon a time in Japan, we were on the hunt for a traditional, handmade paper lantern. We came across a little shop and within it, an old couple worked silently in harmonious synchronicity amid the gossamer web of dust that hung across the dim room. When they saw us peering in, they downed tools and shuffled towards us.
Hiro explained his obsession interest and respect for traditional Japanese lighting forms and asked if there was anyway that we might buy just one of these lanterns.
The couple were bemused. They explained that they are wholesalers and so don’t normally sell singular lanterns. They said how peculiar it is to hear a young man speak so passionately about these old forms of lighting before they agreed and very kindly modified it so that we can have it free-standing in our home.
We spoke about how the role of the lantern has changed in modern years. How flickering candles have been replaced with the flat light of LED lamps. How safer lighting is today but how the romance of the warm light is ever rarer in the big cities of Japan. How the lanterns serve a more decorative purpose rather than pragmatic one. How things change.
I will always remember their expressive mix of bewilderment and congeniality towards us. We left the shop with not only a beautiful lantern but handfuls of boiled sweets and a pair of strikingly retro mini umbrellas that they had made for their participation in an expo back in 1970!
Japanese paper lanterns are handmade with a bamboo skeleton upon which washi (Japanese handmade paper), is carefully sculpted over. Illuminated washi exudes a rich warm glow that reveals all the intricacies of the paper like art. The skills required to make one reach back hundreds of years are a million miles apart from the tawdry things you may pick up for a few pennies in IKEA.
Today our little lantern sits patiently in waiting for the evenings when we light it. But its story hasn’t finished yet! One day, we shall take our lantern back to Japan and seek out a particular lantern calligrapher that our friend the shoemaker told us about and we will ask him to set his brush to work upon it.