It was a rainy autumn day in Tokyo, as my companions and I shuffled out of the Toei Chikatetsu metro line at Asakusa Station. Emerging onto the street level, we quickly opened and raised our large, red paper umbrellas, on loan from our escorts, and made our way down a few alleys to the Ohshimaya Onda Chochin Lantern Shop.


Here, we were greeted with bows by Mr. Shunji Onda himself, a fifth generation master of the Japanese paper lantern.


Mr. Onda’s business was founded 160 years ago by his great-great grandfather, when Kyoto was still the official capital of Japan and “Edo” was ruled by the powerful Tokugawa shogunate. Onda-san both custom makes and hand paints the lanterns.



He uses patterns, designs, letters, characters, and family crests from the Edo period as well as some more modern designs upon request.


We sat down on folding chairs in his crowded shop. He showed us enormous round, crimson lanterns with black writing commissioned by restaurants and smaller oval and cylindrical, white lanterns with colorful floral designs, pictures of geisha, and even a black-and-white portrait of himself on a lantern – for home, office and personal use.


There were also small lanterns shaped like the Japanese cartoon characters Doraemon, a blue time-traveling robotic cat from the future and Pikachu, the yellow, mouse-like Pokémon with a lightning bolt tail.


Some lanterns were fitted with electrical cords, others just had drop-in battery operated tea lights. The lanterns collapse for easy storage and transport. 


Bamboo ribs or metal wires formed into the spiral shape are used as frames, which are then covered with Japanese paper. In the old days, personal lanterns, fitted with a lighted candle, were carried around at night and used in the way we might use flashlights. Different sizes and styles reflected rank and status, which is why many were marked with the family crest or name.

After this short introduction, the fun began. We were each given a clear, plastic rain poncho


and directed out the back door and up a metal staircase that resembled a fire escape then into another room that is Onda-san’s workshop/classroom.  Here, Onda-san’s staff had prepared our lantern-painting lesson.  Each of us was asked what Japanese kanji character we wanted to paint – love, happiness, travel, family, Japan?  Since the lanterns reminded me of something I might see in a spa, and since I’m usually stressed out, I wanted to paint the character for “Relax”.  One of the assistants drew this character for me on a piece of paper.


I tried to copy it onto my lantern using the special crayon-like pencil they gave us, but I was useless.  You don’t realize how difficult this project is until you try it. In fact, drawing the character around the curves of the lantern was more difficult than filling in the drawing with the black ink.  Thankfully, after futile attempts, Onda-san himself drew me a perfect character design!


Now, I just had to fill in the outlines with the India ink and then dry my “masterpiece” with a blow-dryer. 


When finished and dried, Mr. Onda gave us each a special gift box, and showed us how to fold-up the lantern and place the body and the stand inside.  Voilà, the perfect omiyage (gift) to bring home.


Ohshimaya-Onda is located at:  2-6-6 Komagata Taito-ward, Tokyo, Japan.  Tel : +81-3-3841-2691, The 60 minute paper lantern painting course costs 3,000 yen per person for 3 to 6 people. Reservations are required and payment is only in cash, no credit cards. You must come with a Japanese speaker/translator.

You need to be a member of Tripatini to add comments!

Join Tripatini