(Updated Aug. 2022.) Many years ago, writing for the The Japan Times, I wrote a column about the differences between Japanese and Western candles. As I explained in that article, which is now behind a paywall (but accessible if you register for a free account that lets you view a limited number of articles), Japanese candles are not made from beeswax or paraffin, but from a handcrafted vegetable wax called mokurō 木蝋 (literally, “tree wax” and “Japan wax” in English). The best comes from a plant called haze ハゼ (Toxicodendron succedaneum) which, as you can see from the photo below, is similar to a sumac tree.
The tree was brought to Japan during the Edo Period from the Ryukyu Kingdom (which encompassed what is now Okinawa), but is native to some parts of Asia. It was once exported to Australia and New Zealand as an ornamental, but because the leaves contain a toxin that can cause severe dermatitis, it is now listed in those countries as a “noxious weed.” Here’s a close up of the berries:
Ｈere, schoolchildren in Tabuse, Yamaguchi Prefecture process haze as part of a lesson in local history.
Here’s a photo of old-fashioned mokurō processing. The wax is shipped in cakes, and is even exported in small quantities:
I found this topic fascinating. Just last month, in July 2022, I made an extended trip to Kyushu to learn more about haze production. I expect to produce some articles early next year sharing what I learned.
Many thanks to Kyoto photographer Jeffrey Friedl for providing the candle “beauty shots” for this blog post and the paper. If you’re interested in photography, or even if you’re not, please take a look at his blog post to learn how he took these shots. It’s fascinating to see all he went through to bring out the special beauty of these candles.