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Keeper of the Flame
Candle Maker Takenori Isobe

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Traditional Japanese candles are distinguished by the materials that go into making them. The wick is crafted of rush, and the wax is produced from the nut of the sumac tree. Perhaps because all the materials come from plants, the flame of these candles is soft and gentle. In In Praise of Shadows, novelist Jun'ichiro Tanizaki noted that the Japanese have a unique love for the subtle play of light and shade; the delicate flicker of the handcrafted candle may thus be the perfect complement to the dimly lit traditional Japanese home.

Takenori Isobe is one of the few remaining people in Japan who insists on applying centuries-old techniques to create candles that glow with tranquil brilliance. The 68-year-old resident of Okazaki, central Aichi, is heir to a candle-making family tradition that goes back over 300 years.

Candle making by hand is a painstaking process of kneading layer upon layer of wax around the wick. It is excruciatingly time consuming, since the wax must be dried before each fresh layer is applied.

"The way the wax sticks changes slightly from one day to the next," Isobe explains. "This is caused by fluctuations in temperature and humidity as well as human, personal factors. The best candles are those whose wax rides smoothly and evenly. I've been at this for nearly half a century, but never have I been able to produce two identical candles. That may be why," he adds with a grin, "I've been able to keep at it for so long."

Sadly, the kind of candles that Isobe crafts is rarely used in Japanese homes these days. But it is still common at Buddhist services and the tea ceremony. Candles imbue these events with a richness and depth that incandescent lamps could never lend.

People are beginning to use traditional candles in a broader range of settings, moreover. Gatherings that have been held by candlelight include those to view the full autumn moon, enjoy traditional meals, and appreciate calligraphic and sumi-e (ink painting) works of art. Japan's candle-making industry, which had been in decline, now appears headed for a more radiant future.

Isobe can rest assured that his craft will endure, as his 34-year-old son Ryoji has been studying the family craft since deciding 10 years ago to follow in his father's footsteps. Despite being blown about by the winds of change, traditional candle making is certain to endure for generations to come.

(Hisashi Kondo)