Made with Materials and Techniques Used Since the Days of Old, Japanese Candles Feature an Ingenious Burning Mechanism
Another major difference between Japanese and Western candles can be found in the form and function of the wick. A candle wick is centered inside the candle wax, and when the end is lit, melted wax is absorbed into the wick by capillary action, where it vaporizes and combusts to keep the candle alight. Centered within Western candles are wicks made of material such as cotton string, and the melted wax is drawn into and along these strings. The holes which can be found on the bottom of Western candles are for placement on candlesticks.
The wick of the Japanese candle, on the other hand, consists of Japanese paper that has been rolled up into a cylinder and wrapped with the pith of rushes. The hollow Japanese wick is needed to accommodate the thin bamboo sticks used during candle production. One may ask why the wicks of Japanese candles are made of Japanese paper and rushes rather than string, for string was not unavailable in ancient Japan. Why then did Japanese candlemakers elect to make a more costly version of a wick?
The 19th century English scientist Michael Faraday (1791-1867) offers one explanation for this in The Chemical History of a Candle, a compilation of lectures given by Faraday at the Royal Institute in London in 1861. In this historic and world-renowned science book, Faraday praises traditional Japanese candle-making techniques from his perspective as a scientist.
During his lecture, he takes two Japanese candles in his hands and notes that there is a "remarkable peculiarity" about them, which he goes on to define as their hollow wicks. The cylinder of Japanese paper used in Japanese candles results in a hollow wick that extends from the top to the bottom of the candle. This hollow cavity acts as a vent which draws air to the center of the candle flame. In 19th century England, the role of oxygen in aiding combustion had only just been recognized, while Japanese candles had utilized this phenomenon since the days of old.
The presence of a vent allows the wax to burn well, and the movement of air also causes the flame to flicker in a shape that is constantly evolving, with the result that the form of the flame differs depending on whether the candle has just been lit, or 30 minutes or an hour have passed. Faraday was amazed that Japanese artisans had been able to devise this ingenious mechanism through the course of their candle-making experience.
Techniques Born of the Wisdom and Devotion of Past Generations and Passed Down from Father to Son over a Thousand Years
Japanese candle-making techniques have been passed down for a thousand years, and continue to be conveyed from parent to child. Founded in 1935, the Tanji Renshodo candle shop was established by the first-generation Tanji family candlemaker, who went into business for himself after beginning his apprenticeship in candle making at age 9. His son, who was taught the family candle-making skills at age 16, succeeded in bringing the candle shop through the turbulent years of WWII and postwar Japan. Kiyoshi Tanji, the current Tanji Renshodo proprietor, took up candle making under his father's instruction at age 18 and is presently in the process of passing down his own skills to his son and successor, who will be the fourth-generation Tanji family candlemaker.
Traditional artisanal techniques can only be passed down through a process of learning by observation and imitation, which necessitates a training period of some years. Put another way, those who desire to cultivate traditional artisanal skills must be able to overcome the difficulties of living for a time with no source of income, a major challenge that helps to explain why Japanese candle-making skills are passed down from father to son, rather than through an apprentice system. While it would be possible to introduce machinery and change production techniques to easily facilitate the mass-production of Japanese candles, Japanese artisans have not availed themselves of this option. Instead, they continue to make candles in the same conscientious, painstaking manner, using the production methods of old and refusing to compromise their standards or convictions.
Although Japanese candle-production methods might appear inefficient, behind these methods is the wisdom of past generations, and their insight and devotion are worthy of our deep respect.
The wick of the Japanese candle
The wicks of Japanese candles are made of traditional Japanese paper and rushes. The rush plant grows in marshy areas and shallow water, and is used to make goza and tatami mats. To make candle wicks, cylinders of Japanese paper are wrapped with the pith of rushes. The paper-rush wicks of Japanese candles stand in stark contrast to the string wicks of Western candles.
The Japanese Craftsman