A chouchin (ちょうちん) is a Japanese paper lantern often seen at Buddhist temples, outdoor festivals or restaurant and shop entrances. An inheritance from the Chinese that dates back to the 6th century and has become a cultural icon, still used today all over the country.
What is different about this lanterns is that they are decorated using a special type of writing: Edo Moji. This bold writing was invented to attract customers during the Edo period, and still does but is also what makes it almost impossible to read by foreigners – or should I say foreigners with beginner japanese skills like myself. Basically it consists in writing without the usual tilting of the brush at the end/beginning of each stroke as this is believed to look like lines/customers are ‘fading away’ instead of ‘lingering’.
I decided to write my name in Edo Moji style on my lantern, so the first step was to choose kanji characters to write my name in japanese. I didn’t realize there were so many ways of writing it and the challenge was to find characters that had a nice meaning together. We tried several combinations and ended up with this:
琉 – lu (ru)
衣 – i
紗 – sa
They mean to flow/grow up to a queen stage (琉), clothes (衣) and silk (紗) but my lovely and slightly more poetic friend says it means ” lady who has the class of a Queen and is infused with grace and elegance like the softness and sheen of silk cloth” well…bragging a little won’t hurt anybody right?
We wrote our names with pencil first and then painted the outlines, trying to do it as good as the Master showed us, actually as I learnt that day Oyakata (おやかた) is the right word to call a person like him.
Then we filled in the characters, it was a slow and delicate job as the pleats made it challenging but the whole experience was great. We spent a day surrounded by handmade chouchin at the Oyakata’s studio and we learnt a lot from him. We took our time painting, having green tea, listening to music and we even had a delicious lunch break in between!
A bit more about Chōchin
The Japanese adopted this lighting technique and made it collapsible, mostly because of functional and practical reasons. Through all this time they have been produced in a wide range of sizes, some of them big enough to inform passers by of the dishes offered at a restaurant, a play showing at the theatre a room vacancy and so on and some others small enough to be portable devices. In the past, some people would carry their chouchin inside, or hanging from their kimono just like this gorgeous antique Odawara chouchin made of metal with a family emblem in the lid.
They used to be made of wooden rings or spirals (now replaced by soft wire) and covered with paper, many types of paper are used but in the past it was common to see chouchin made of Mino (みの) paper or paper made out of dried leaves.
They also had strings inside to hold the spiral or rings together. The ones made out of rings are known to have a better quality because if you cut the string in between two rings, the structure will remain strong unlike the spiral lantern that will brake apart if the string is damaged.
Chouchin were lit with candles. During the Edo period candles were a precious commodity and only a few could afford them, but afterwards their popularity increased followed by their mass production. Currently the lanterns are often lit by light bulbs and even some of them are produced in plastic.