Around 2,000 years ago Emperor Keiko and his followers were lost in the middle of the foggy mountains in Kumamoto Prefecture. Legend has it that the villagers of Yamaga helped the emperor by shining lit-up pine torches, guiding him on his way. This legend has given birth to the Yamaga Toro lantern-making tradition and the annual Yamaga Lantern Festival, held on the 15-17th of August each year. It’s a spectacular event, and the Thousand-Lantern Dance is a definite highlight. During this performance, hundreds of women dance elegantly through the night with beautifully handcrafted golden lanterns placed on their heads. These Yamaga Toro lanterns are dedicated to Shinto shrines and form a connection to the other world.
Historically, merchants in Yamaga would commision lanterns to be offered to temples and shrines. Those who offered more expensive and extravagant lanterns would get the fame of their name written along with their offering. Thus, wanting to outshine others, rich merchants would work to commission the most beautiful (and expensive) lanterns. Consequently, the lanterns became more and more extravagant, and this competition has spurred the development of the craft ever since.
In the present day, demand for Yamaga Toro sculptures has dwindled and there are only a few Yamaga Toro craftsmen left in Japan. Yamanote is one of the surviving workshops left in the city, and is owned by the youngest lantern maker in Japan’s history: Junya Nakamura. Nakamura first tried his hand at making Yamaga Toro in middle school, after which he developed a fascination for the art. He later went on to study under Masahiro Tokunaga, Japan’s leading expert in the lantern craft. After eight years of apprenticeship, Nakamura opened his own lantern-making practice and a shop, Yamanote, with his wife.
After eight years of apprenticeship, Nakamura started his own lantern-making practice and opened up a shop, Yamanote, with his wife. And at the age of 27, he became the youngest lantern maker in Japanese history
The lanterns are made of only two materials: washi (traditional Japanese paper) and glue; the process requires an exceptional eye for detail and a lot of patience. In addition to the golden Yamaga Toro lanterns, these craftspeople also make the most beautiful paper models of buildings, shrines and temples, which have an almost bizarre level of detail; the ceilings and floors of some models are perfect replicas of actual buildings, while the straw roofs of other models are made by rolling each washi-made straw one-by-one. These replicas are used as offerings inside local shrines in Kumamoto Prefecture.
With an awareness of declining demand for the lanterns and model buildings, Nakamura started innovating the craft for the modern market. He worked with the Kyushu-based designer Taro Misako and product designer Hidemi Nakaniwato to think of new products that could be made with the washi-folding craft. This collaboration gave rise to beautiful washi mobiles and aroma diffusers which can now be purchased from the Yamanote store.