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The magic of handmade Japanese paper

The Japanese have been making handmade washi - one of the finest papers in the world in terms of quality and durability - for more than 1,000 years.

Washi is suitable to the humid Japanese climate as it easily absorbs moisture from the air. It also interacts with light in a unique way. The Japanese used and still use washi for all kinds of things. In Buddhism and Shinto it is used to make special robes and in a wide range of ritual and decorative accessories. It is important for all kinds of arts including woodblock printing and calligraphy.

In a traditional Japanese building washi is used to make sliding paper screens (shoji) and doors (fusuma), and to cover lanterns. It is used as wrapping paper to keep kimono dry. Washi can also be used to wrap candy and has even been used to print money.

Today, washi is also being increasingly used in modern interior design and decoration. Not least important, washi paper made of natural fibers is an ideal material for those seeking a harmonious relation with the natural environment. Washi is easily affixed to surfaces with a simple paste made of flour and water thus avoiding chemical sprays or glues. Although a traditional Japanese craft and product, it is finding increasing use in Western-style interiors.

The History of Washi
Papermaking was introduced to Japan nearly 1,400 years ago. The Chronicles of Japan or Nihon Shoki, written in the year 720, states that the Chinese methods of making ink and paper were introduced to Japan by the Korean Buddhist priest, Doncho, in 610. The imperial prince, Shotoku found the Chinese style paper too fragile and encouraged the domestic production of paper made with robust kozo (mulberry bark) and hemp fibers, which were already being cultivated for making textiles.

The techniques for making Japanese paper quickly spread throughout the country under the patronage of the noble class. These skills, passed down from generation to generation, produced a paper that was not only functional but reflected the soul and spirit of the maker. This close relationship between paper maker and paper user has made washi an integral part of the Japanese culture.

During the Meiji period (1868-1912) the demand for paper greatly increased. Unfortunately, this was the beginning of the shift from washi to western paper and from handmade to machine-made paper. In spite of this change, strong yet flexible washi is remains the paper of choice for traditional Japanese needs.

Today Japanese paper makers are adapting washi to the changing needs of society. As new applications are developed for washi, this traditional material continues to find a place in the daily lives of people, not only in Japan but in countries around the world. Through international exhibitions, demonstrations, and workshops, handmade Japanese paper is being rediscovered for its versatility, beauty, and power as an expressive medium appealing to the visual, tactile, and emotional senses.

Making Washi
Washi is made much the same way as ordinary paper, but fewer chemicals are used. Washi paper making is a long and complex process that is usually undertaken in winter, as pure, cold running water is essential to make good paper. Cold prevents bacteria from breaking down the fibers. Cold also contracts the fibers contract, giving the paper is unique crisp texture. Handmade washi paper, as opposed to modern factory production, was traditionally the winter work of farmers as a way to make extra money.

The first step in making washi paper is to boil the bark or plants with lye to remove any starch, fat or tannin. Then the lye is washed out with running water. In the next step, the fibers are bleached (naturally or with chemicals) and any remaining impurities are picked out by hand. After this, the fibers are beaten into a pulp. The pulp is then mixed with some water in a vat (a binding material called neri is added to produce thinner types of paper) and then shaken out on a screen to form sheets.

Main Washi Fiber Sources
Kozo, mitsumata and gampi are used to make most traditional Japanese paper. Of the three plants, the most widely used is kozo (mulberry bark). Hemp, bamboo, and various other fibers are used to make special-purpose washi (for example for high quality calligraphy paper).

1) Kozo
Kozo or the mulberry bush is indigenous to the islands of Shikoku and Kyushu islands. Kozo fiber makes very strong paper (it can even be use to weave textiles). Kozo washi is especially strong when it has been specially treated for water resistance.

2) Mitsumata
Native to China, the mitsumata bush has been used since the 17th century in the production of some of the highest qualities of washi paper. Mitsumata paper is ivory colored and very fine. It is especially favored for use in traditional Japanese calligraphy and for printing on.

3) Gampi
Native to mountainous areas of Japan, the gampi bush is called the 'king of washi'. It is almost impossible to cultivate and as a result the most expensive source of paper fiber. Gampi paper has a natural reddish cream color and a smooth, shiny surface. It is commonly used to make paper for high quality books and in special art and craft forms.

Kamiji Kakimoto
One of Kyoto's oldest Japanese paper shops

Teramachi Street, home to many Japanese antique shops and tea ceremony accessory shops, is home to one of Kyoto's washi sellers: Kamiji Kakimoto. Kakimoto started out dealing in bamboo during the Edo period (1600-1868). The first generation owner started a business in 1845 as a wholesaler of washi. The business is now in its 5th generation and has a high reputation throughout Japan and also overseas.

Kakimoto's large shop stocks more than 1,000 different kinds of washi paper from all over Japan made from all kinds of materials ranging from types that are almost see through to very strong thick sheets. They sell paper of every imaginable color and for every possible use. Many products are perfect as souvenirs including postcards, calendars, envelopes and writing paper. .

The Brazilian architect, Flavia Bueno, visited Kakimono for the first time and fell in love with Kakimoto's selection of washi. ''I could not believe there was such an incredible world of paper! As an architect, I am always interested in new materials. I love washi for its beauty, warmth and it can be used in so many different ways.''

Whatever you are looking for, Kakimoto is sure to have it. Some of their staff members speak English and will help you find what you need.

Kamiji Kakimoto: on the east side of Teramachi, north of Nijo; Tel: 075-211-3431; http://www.kakimoto1845.com

Yamazaki Shoten
Provider of paper for classic Japanese rooms

Yamazaki Shoten produces washi for classic traditional Japanese rooms. This includes paper for folding screens, sliding doors, wall paper, and hanging scrolls.

Yamazaki Shoten also specializes in kara-kami. Kara-kami is a kind of washi on which traditional patterns have been hand printed using wood blocks and various kinds of ink. The washi and ink print pattern color combinations of kara-kami are almost unlimited. Depending on the situation or preference of the client, they can produce almost any combination: everything from subtle and delicate to vivid red washi covered with gorgeous gold patterns. Yamazaki Shoten has about 100 different woodblock print patterns.

Products using Yamazaki Shoten's washi paper is sold at Morita Washi (on the east side of Higashinotoin, north of Bukkoji; Open: 9:30-17:30, until 16:30 on Sat.; closed Sun. & national holidays; Tel: 075-341-1419; www.wagami.jp/)

Yamazaki Shoten: on the east side of Muromachi, south of Demizu; Tel: 075-451-8223; English spoken; http://www.kyotowashi.com

Kurodani Handmade Washi Paper
An 800-year-old paper making tradition

Washi production is largely carried out in rural areas, where the bushes and plants used to make paper are found in abundance. Producing paper also depends on large amounts of clean water. Kurodani, near the town of Ayabe in central Kyoto Prefecture, is world famous for its exceptionally fine washi. The tradition dates back to a member of the famous Taira clan who started paper making in this village nearly 800 years ago.

Kurodani is worth the trip: the surrounding countryside is stunning and the craft making process fascinating. If your Japanese is not fluent, asking a Japanese friend to accompany you is strongly recommended.

Information on washi, paper making workshops, tours of the paper workshops is available at the Kurodani Washi Kogei no Sato. Open on Fri., Sat., Sun.; 9:00-17:00; Tel: 0773-45-1056; Entry: 300 yen.

Access to Ayabe City: Take a limited express train on Sanin Line from JR Kyoto Stn. and get off at Ayabe Stn. (about 1 hour). Then take a local bus and get off at Tokura; Ayabe City Webpage: http://www.ayabe-kankou.net/

Eriko Horiki
Incredibly transient washi for modern world

Paper goes far beyond the definition of paper. To say very simple, that is probably most right to described washi created by a washi designer and artist, Eriko Horiki. Eriko is a washi designer and artist who produces washi works in many interior and architecture fields. However, according to herself, it happened as an accident to get into a world of washi. She used to work in a company which sells traditional hand-made washi, but she was just an office worker and didn't have nothing to do with production.


However, after a few years, a turning point of her life came; her company closed down. At that time, a strong feeling struck her; ''We can't dismiss precious works of artisans!'' No one helped her idea and she finally decided to bring out her mission by herself. At the time, she had no knowledge or experience in a traditional industry or design. Everyone tried to made her stop because they believed she couldn't make it.

Photo coutesy MEDITA

Today, washi works by Eriko, her staffs and artisans are highly respected and are used in many interiors and architectural structures in Japan and overseas. Some examples in public spaces are: the arrival lobby of Terminal 1 in Narita Airport, Cafe Cube in the Hosomi Museum, the Kamishichiken Kaburenjo Theatre, and Campus Plaza Kyoto. Her creation is widely spreading into residential spaces and public facilities.

One of the reasons why Eriko's washi has come to a recognition is its size. Surprisingly, the minimum size of washi Eriko produce is 2.7 meters by 2.1 meters. It is incredibly large. She came up with this size after considering how to apply washi in the Japanese modern architecture and houses where one can rarely come across the scene with traditional paper screens and sliding doors.

Lighted from the front Lighted from the back

Hand-made washi can remain durable nearly forever. Indeed, the luster and textural depth of washi improves with time. Eriko was inspired to apply washi as a part of interior and architecture, where its applications would last for 10 years, 50 years or even longer. ''Whether her inspiration was right'' speaks by itself when you look at what she does now.

Lighted from the front Lighted from the back

A large washi by Eriko reveals unbelievable changes as the brightness and angle of light striking it varies. Its appearance thus is limitless. The shades, colors and patterns on her washi works can be so different that it is hard to believe that it is the same surface.

''The most appealing element of washi is that it 'changes.' You can see the transience of time through one piece of multi-layered washi, and I believe there is an ambience which is directly associated with Japanese aesthetics,'' Eriko says. ''Also it is very appealing to me while making a washi work that it is a dynamic work of nature. When we make a large sheet of washi, 10 of us, including me, my staffs and local artisans, work on one sheet together. In the process of making, something beyond our comprehension accidentally happens. In terms of how colors turn out, how fibers settle down, and how patterns come out, I can't tell until the last minute if it becomes a failure or a success. But I think that is where authentic beauty arises.''

''I want people to feel a certain Japanese sentiment, enjoy a play of light and shadow through washi, and recognize the beauty of washi much more deeply. Then I hope to spread traditional Japanese crafts to the world.'' Eriko's creation began from her strong commitment to a precious Japanese craftsmanship and never stops.

Eriko Horiki & Associates: A 3-min. walk from subway Uzumasa Tenjingawa Stn.; Tel: 075-863-6330; http://www.eriko-horiki.com/ ; showroom visits are by appointment only.