Wa-rōsoku Candles are an Enduring Beacon of Cultural Heritage

For the few remaining artisans who make wa-rōsoku, the candles represent an ephemeral luxury.

Article by Ute Junker

Wa-rōsoku_1Wa-rōsoku. Photography courtesy Kyoto Artisans Concierge.

Hirokazu Tagawa finds it difficult to watch samurai films, but it is not the violence that disturbs him. It’s the candles. “The filmmakers use Western candles instead of Japanese ones — you can tell by the shape and the colour of the flame,” he grumbles. “When they make a mistake in a subtitle everyone complains, but when they use Western candles in [a period film] no-one says a thing.”

Tagawa is one of just 10 artisans in Japan who still hand-make wa-rōsoku, a traditional Japanese candle crafted from plant oils and fats — in Tagawa’s case, the crushed seeds of the wax tree — as opposed to the usual beeswax or paraffin wax. For him, a candle is much more than a source of light; it is a carrier of culture, one that has shaped many of Japan’s signature art forms. “Four-hundred years ago, the candle was the only way to see in the dark. All Japanese artwork was designed for the light of the candle,” he says.

Hirokazu Tagawa’s Kyoto storefront. Photography courtesy Kyoto Artisans Concierge

Take, for instance, the distinctive white makeup, known as oshiroi, worn by geishas. It is designed to be seen in the orange glow of wa-rōsoku, which creates a natural effect when it falls on the white powder. The same applies to the painted masks of kabuki performers and even the carved white masks of Noh theatre. “When Noh actors change the angle of their head, the shadows of the candlelight would create different emotions on the mask,” says Tagawa. “The masks and the movements remain, but under electric light the effect is lost.”

Tagawa, who sits in a cosy room above his Kyoto shop, Nakamura Rousoku (kyorousoku.jp), which is tucked in a narrow alley in a quiet neighbourhood, reveals he is an accidental candlemaker. Having trained as a mechanic, he was working at Nissan when his wife’s father, a master candlemaker, passed away suddenly, leaving no successor. Unwilling to see the family business of 135 years disappear, Tagawa set about learning the craft, a challenge given that each business jealously guards its techniques. He knew little beyond the names of the raw materials.

The artisan prepares the wax. Photography courtesy Kyoto Artisans Concierge.

“I became a customer,” he says. He visited shopfront manufacturers and dawdled while buying candles, trying to see as much as he could of the candlemaking process. “I came home and experimented over and over again.”

Wa-rōsoku were originally used during Buddhist ceremonies and several temples in Kyoto still purchase candles at Nakamura Rousoku. However, Tagawa says even temples nowadays will often use cheaper, mass-produced petroleum-based substitutes. 

The artisan is lit by candlelight. Photography by Ute Junker.

Among tourists, however, interest in the city’s traditional crafts is growing. Kyoto Artisans Concierge (kyotoartisans.jp) organises visits to a range of makers including silk weavers, potters and lacquer workers, as well as Nakamura Rousoku. His plant-based candles are particularly popular as souvenirs, being both beautiful and practical: their thicker wicks give a larger flame, while their lower melting point means the candleholder can be cleaned simply by rinsing it with hot water.

For Tagawa, whose son has already been trained in the family business, preserving the ancient craft is about bolstering Japanese culture. “If we don’t start valuing this, it will go extinct soon,” he says, “and we won’t just lose a method of production — we will lose a cultural story.”