Yamanote

Meet the Makers

Yamaga, Kumamoto Prefecture

Yamanote

Explore the craft of Yamaga Toro, a traditional lantern-making practice used to create the most beautiful and detailed paper temples, houses and golden lanterns. These exceptional skills are now reshaped to create new handicrafts with the aura of historic Japan.

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.

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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.

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Yamanote’s shop owner, Tomita Nakamura, and her husband, lantern craftsman Junya Nakamura, continue to share Yamaga’s craft traditions with visitors

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

Crafting Yamaga Toro is an exceptionally intricate process; the sculptures possess an almost bizarre level of detail

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.

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Nakamura has innovated the Yamaga craft for the modern market, creating a new type of sculpture with contemporary relevance
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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.

Photography

Koichiro Fujimoto

Meet the Makers

The Kyushu Crafts Club presents the stories and products of fourteen innovative makers living and working on the island of Kyushu.

Exhibition Programme

The Kyushu Crafts Club is taking place 10—16 December 2020 at Club Shop in Amsterdam.