Japanese Life Revealed by Lights
My hobby of collecting lighting equipment
Some ten years ago I was attracted to lamps without realizing it and at almost the same time began to haunt antique shops searching for them.
When I began, 1 had no idea of the appropriate balance between quality and price, so the lights I purchased and the money I laid out are not worth mentioning. However, I was greatly blessed in meeting people with experience in the field who offered me their advice and encouragement; I was given lots of helpful leads which helped enrich my collection.
It is quite troublesome when collectors become maniacs. If an enthusiasm for collecting grows stronger, collectors use up time and money. They may be able to control their desire but they are apt to have a feeling that they suffer from an incurable disease and an oppressive atmosphere surrounds them. In this case a cloud hangs over the collection they have spent a long time gathering; collecting something ends up being only half fun - and half hardship. Besides, the items in my field - andon lamps and candle stands - tend to get rather dirty so a shadow lingers even over my ambition to collect them.
I collect these articles, and think it is better not to show them off to others. Naturally my attitude becomes very passive, taking delight in collecting them quietly and I cannot help feeling a touch of loneliness.
However, editors of books and magazines have picked up the scent of my collection. Since photographers took flattering pictures of the lighting equipment I have collected, I came to think better of my collection; it has its own charm.
This time Hayashi Mitsunori asked me to write an article arousing me out of a light sleep, so my collection will be exposed to the public again. I take out my beloved lights from an attic, dust and light up each one. While helping with the photography, I become aware that I am more than ever devoted to the collection.
Reason for starting collection
I am often asked: "what induced you to begin collecting lamps?" My answer is always vague, because I do not have a clear motive. If forced to explain, I would say that I am the chief priest at a temple, so lighting tapers is part of my daily work.
To light one, we keep a sacred flame flickering at the tip of a wick which is soaked in rapeseed oil for several hours, as required. So we have to clean various kinds of stands to prepare the votive lights and light them. But why did I jump from this daily activity to collecting lighting equipment? Though there are many priests, I have seldom met a priest like myself: I have to admit that my hobby is strange.
I have collected lighting equipment for a long time without my interest flagging. These days deciding which are my favourites is difficult and the prices are high, so the number of lamps I can collect has dropped a lot. But my attachment to them has deepened.
Compared to the time when I was really enthusiastic about collecting them, my appreciation of the tools has heightened. When I was busy looking for them I could not afford the time to really appreciate the collection. The qualities associated with collecting things passionately remind me of a greedy person, so I must have lacked taste. When looking carefully at the lamps, I realize that the light they shed is tasteful and I learn much from it.
Charm of lamps
Lights such as andon lamps, candle stands and oil-lamp stands arre often elegant. When they are lit, they look much better. Though their light is dim, a mysterious beauty suffuses the air. I think that it would be marvellous if we could incorporate the lamps into our own age. I place them in a dark corner, but unfortunately we cannot help feeling that we are in a quite different age when we see them.
This dim light was alive in the old days: as it got dark, each household began to prepare a meal, trusting in the light. The family had dinner, a bath and the pleasures of a happy home before bedtime using little lights.
People in those days felt the fear and inconvenience of a dark night with their own body. So even if it was small, the light was their only trusted and encouraging friend.
Ordinary people soaked one or two wicks in a small amount of oil and made a light not much bigger than a speck in a fire grate. Extending the area of lighted space with a paper cover, as on andon lamps, or by using candles, was a luxury and only those who lived in affluent circumstances were able to purchase these lights.
Magic of moonlight
So we can imagine how happy and heartwarmed ordinary people were on a moonlit night, especially a night with a full moon.
Both moonlight and small lamps from a wick were indispensable to nights in olden days. People's feeling of gratitude to light seems to have been born naturally in their daily longing for it. Their feeling of enjoying the moon was directly connected with that of treasuring small lamps. A feeling of considerateness for others is linked to any lighting equipment.
In addition, it seems to me that lamps convey people's life honestly. I call to mind those who lived by the sweat of their brow and feel human warmth in the lights used by poor families. Moderate beauty is hidden in those made for a frugal way of life. We can guess from the lights used by well-to-do families with their goldlacquered or mother-of-pearl how they competed with each other in showing off their gorgeous lighting.
Lighting equipment in the Edo period
Practicality and display
2002 - 2013 by Timothy Mertel all rights reserved