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Enchanting Edo: Tokyo traditional paper lantern shop hopes to paint life into dark times

TOKYO -- Several hundred years ago during the Edo period (1603-1867), towns bustling during the day were suddenly enveloped in pitch darkness at nightfall. At a time when electricity was still not in use, moonlight or flames were the only source of light that offered a faint glow at night.

    Osamu Onda is seen holding a hand-drawn chochin lantern in Tokyo's Taito Ward on May 26, 2021. (Mainichi/Yuki Miyatake)

    "Andon" and "chochin" are traditional lighting enclosed with Japanese "washi" paper ensuring that the flames from candles or oil containers will not go out. In particular, "chochin" are handy paper lanterns that can be folded compactly and became widely used during the Edo period.

    The body of chochin lanterns, called "hibukuro" (literally means "flame bag"), consists of washi paper attached to a rounded framework of bamboo hoops fastened with string, with wooden rings used for the upper and lower ends of the lantern. The lantern apparently has roots in a basket-like object created during the Muromachi period (1336-1573), which was covered with paper and had a handle. Chochin lanterns are convenient to use as they can be stretched and contracted like an accordion or slinky toy. This form -- unique to Japanese lanterns -- was developed during the Azuchi-Momoyama period spanning from the late 16th century to the beginning of the 17th century. This was before paper lanterns became widespread during the Edo period.

    Osamu Onda is seen painting characters based on a sketched outline on washi paper stretched over a framework of thin bamboo strips in Tokyo's Taito Ward on May 26, 2021. The craftsman makes sure to thoroughly paint in the areas that are bumpy due to the bamboo framework. (Mainichi/Yuki Miyatake)

    Ohshimaya-Onda, near Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, one of Tokyo's most iconic tourist spots, is a hand-drawn chochin lantern shop which has been in business for nearly 170 years. The business only draws the letters onto lanterns that are already made, and doesn't make the body of the paper lanterns themselves. Sixth-generation head Osamu Onda, 43, demonstrated drawing and painting unique "chochin letters" onto the paper lanterns.

    Ohshimaya-Onda specializes in drawing letters and traditional "kamon" family crests onto washi paper while it is already stretched out on the bamboo frame in its lantern form.

    Chochin letters are part of the group of "Edo letters," which also includes letters that appeared on signs and posters used in rakugo comic storytelling theaters, kabuki plays, and sumo wrestling. While letters used for chochin lanterns may appear to be a boldface version of the regular "kaisho" block style of Japanese calligraphy, the letters are actually not written in this way. Calligraphy values the smooth flow of brushstrokes following the predetermined writing order of kanji characters without stopping the brush midway. On the other hand, chochin letters are a form of "kago lettering" for which the outlines of the thick letters are first drawn before painting the insides. They are painted so that the characters' "hane" (upward brushstroke or hook), "tome" (stop), and "harai" (sweep) are emphasized.

    "The essence of local Edo people is 'iki' (an aesthetic ideal of spontaneous and straightforward chic), and so naturally their letters were also full of vigor," said Onda. "I think they are letters that give you energy while containing wishes to bring bustle to festivals and success to businesses."

    Osamu Onda is seen drawing chochin letters onto the "hibukuro" (flame bag) of a chochin lantern in Tokyo's Taito Ward on May 26, 2021. Water is sprayed onto the surface of the hibukuro, and a stick is placed inside to make the washi paper taut when drawing the letters. (Mainichi/Yuki Miyatake)

    The letters and traditional "kamon" family crests, which are all drawn onto the paper lanterns one by one, have a distinctive character unique to each craftsman. "In the beginning, you have to imitate the technique of earlier masters and acquire that. It took me five years to get to a place where I felt that I had my own style of drawing characters," said Onda. His wife Satomi, 42, helps out with painting the outlined letters so that they can increase their output. This is resonant with the division of labor that took place in the past when there was mass consumption of these lanterns as everyday items.

    Onda said, "Chochin lanterns' greatest feature is that they can be folded. They're light, so they're handy items that are easy to carry and store away. At a time when locals relied on moonlight to navigate the streets of Edo at night, the range of their movement must have grown remarkably larger with just one chochin lantern."

    A round chochin lantern is seen at Ohshimaya-Onda in Tokyo's Taito Ward on May 26, 2021. (Mainichi/Yuki Miyatake)

    Festivals across Japan have been canceled following the outbreak of the coronavirus last year, and orders for chochin lanterns which light up night skies during such events have seen a dramatic decrease. The Sanja Matsuri, a festival held in the shop's Asakusa neighborhood, which boasts a history of 700 years, has also been scaled back, and the consequences are severe.

    "But I think that there may be a role that chochin lanterns can play precisely because it's such a time as this," said Onda. The light seen through washi paper has soft warmth, and even a mysterious power that draws people to it, he said.

    The traditional lanterns have also apparently played a role as protective charms since ancient times. According to Onda, "the lanterns are also said to absorb evil spirits."

    "When viewing the light of chochin lanterns, you'll surely receive energy," said Onda. Bold black letters that pop up against washi paper. With a small but everlasting glow, Edo chochin lanterns will elegantly light up the darkness in any age.

    (Japanese original by Tadahiko Mori, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

    * * *

    A word of wisdom: 'Do we 'write' these letters, or 'create' them?'

    Before my visit to Ohshimaya-Onda, I had never given particular attention to traditional chochin lanterns in my daily surroundings, but after the interview, I began to see them quite often -- such as cylindrical ones hung from a pole in front of a sushi restaurant near home, and a bulkier one indicating "udon" in large curvy letters peeking out of the glass window of a noodle shop.

    A long cylindrical lantern is seen at Ohshimaya-Onda in Tokyo's Taito Ward on May 26, 2021. (Mainichi/Yuki Miyatake)

    The sushi restaurant lantern indicates the eatery's name in powerful red and black strokes, with the last letter having an exaggerated curl that seems to add balance and style to the body of letters while also standing out even when viewed from afar. The udon restaurant one has a charming contrast of curvy black letters against a warm orange background.

    During our interview at the traditional lantern shop, sixth-generation head Onda mentioned that chochin lanterns had a significantly different role in the lives of people in an age without electricity. Edo locals viewed the paper lanterns as something absolutely indispensable for going out at night. Frankly, their lives depended on it. Meanwhile, chochin lanterns used today have the primary role of attracting customers, and rather than carried by individuals, they are placed in front of establishments for decorative purposes.

    Onda said that although there is an established category of "chochin letters," they are not well known as there are no records documenting them. Due to the paper lanterns' nature as items that are used then thrown away, the lanterns themselves also do not remain today. Nonetheless, Onda wishes that chochin lanterns could continue to be items whose presence is felt in our everyday lives. The shop has recently created a new "square-type chochin" that has evolved from the concept that chochin have to be round. Onda envisions the square lantern to be hung from ceilings as a piece of furniture.

    A square lantern is seen at Ohshimaya-Onda in Tokyo's Taito Ward on May 26, 2021. (Mainichi/Yuki Miyatake)

    While the shop maintains a style of chochin letters that has been passed down by earlier generations, each craftsman also adds their own taste and spontaneity. Between questions, Onda murmured as if to himself, "There's the question of do we 'write' these letters, or 'create' them?"

    What took me aback was when the head of a shop that calls itself a maker of hand-drawn lanterns went so far as to say, "Maybe we don't even have to fixate on drawing letters on them." Before me was a chochin shop seeking new forms befitting modern lifestyles precisely because it longs to protect tradition.

    (By Chinami Takeichi, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

    * * *

    Chochin types

    An Odawara-type lantern is seen at Ohshimaya-Onda in Tokyo's Taito Ward on May 26, 2021. (Mainichi/Yuki Miyatake)
    A yumihari lantern is seen at Ohshimaya-Onda in Tokyo's Taito Ward on May 26, 2021. (Mainichi/Yuki Miyatake)

    At the shop Ohshimaya-Onda, there are various types of chochin lanterns, including round-type lanterns, long cylindrical-type lanterns, and "Odawara-type lanterns" that have a more rectangular shape.

    There are also yumihari lanterns with bow-shaped handles that can be carried and placed on the floor, as well as "goyo chochin" and "kato chochin" which were used to help catch criminals in the old days.

    Traditional Japanese candles used to be the light source for chochin lanterns, which were placed on candle holders attached to the bottom of chochin lanterns. There are currently also battery-type lanterns as well as those that use light bulbs to ensure safety.

    * * *

    Ohshimaya-Onda is located at 2-6-6 Komagata in Tokyo's Taito Ward near Asakusa Station.

    First-generation head Otojiro Onda opened the chochin lantern shop located near Sensoji Temple in 1854 toward the end of the Edo period. The Mito Kaido road stretches before the storefront, connecting the shop with Mito in Ibaraki Prefecture, northeast of Tokyo. The Mito area has been a major producer of washi paper since the Edo period, as well as a core spot for creating chochin lanterns in east Japan. Chochin made in Mito are brought to Tokyo, where the shop draws letters and family crests on them to create finished products.

    The shop also began to hold workshops around 15 years ago, out of the wish of fifth-generation head Shunji Onda, 72, who wants to have many people experience the hand-drawing techniques used to create chochin lanterns. Although classrooms are currently closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the shop sells kits for designing your own lanterns, and opened online workshops which accept applications by groups of 10 people or more.

    Both physical classrooms and online workshops are held in Japanese as a general rule.

    The store's official website can be accessed at https://www.chochin-ya.com/

    Edo hand-drawn chochin lantern shop Ohshimaya-Onda is seen in Tokyo's Taito Ward on May 26, 2021. (Mainichi/Yuki Miyatake)

    * * *

    Enchanting Edo

    The "Enchanting Edo" series puts a spotlight on traditions, crafts, artisan's techniques and culture that date back several hundred years. Stories offer a glimpse into old shops in Japan's capital, which are all searching for ways to protect long-established skills and talent, while also keeping them alive in the modern day.

    The original Japanese versions of these articles, which can be reached via the link located at the top right below the headline, include "furigana" phonetic characters to assist in reading all kanji characters that appear in the text. The family-friendly text primarily targets grade school kids in Japan, but can also be used by non-Japanese readers learning intermediate-level Japanese. We encourage any readers interested in Japanese culture, language, or both to make full use of our series.

    "Enchanting Edo" will be published every other Tuesday.

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