In the third installment of Japanese traditions, I’d like to introduce you to one of three forms of traditional lighting in Japan called “chochin” (提灯). It is perhaps the oldest form of lighting, with records dating back to 1085 and perhaps the most popular in terms of being used for matsuri and events. The traditional chochin is made from paper or silk stretched over a split bamboo frame that is wound in a spiral. The lamp is collapsible and is hung from a hook at the top. Its main purpose is outside illumination and you will find them strung together and hung outside Shinto shrines. You will also find chochin hung in front of restaurant buildings all over Japan. The akachochin (red lantern) typically signifies an izakaya (a traditional Japanese drinking establishment.) It was originally used in the Yoshiwara district (red light district) to light the way of visitors but today it has lost that association.
Another form of folding lantern called Odawara chochin appeared in Japan during the Edo Period (1600-1868) and was used by travelers to light their path during the night. Later, the Bura chochin, round in shape and resembling a tea container became popular among travelers. They were hung from the end of a short brass rod which the samurai used as a weapon for self-defense.
Today, you can find chochin made from plastic and illuminated by a light bulb sold in souvenir shops both in Japan and abroad. The chochin is recognized worldwide as an icon of Japan and has been elevated to a symbol of celebration in modern Japanese society. As a matter of fact, every year from October 4th-6th, Nihonmatsu in Fukushima Prefecture hosts the Nihonmatsu Chochin Matsuri (Festival). The festival dates back to over 360 years ago and consists of 3,000 chochin illuminated and paraded around the city on taiko drum floats.
The omamori, the noren and the chochin are all a part of the time-honored culture of Japan. We are very fortunate that these traditions still live on today in modern Japan, enabling visitors to experience its history and customs. Whether you are visiting Japan for the first time or if this is several of many visits to this magnificent country, now you are armed with the knowledge and information to help you understand and appreciate some of what you see during your travels.