Buried in winter snow, Echizen, the renowned paper-making village of central Japan, awaited five western visitors last February with as much anticipation as we were feeling for it as part of a homestay experience of the International Paper Conference. The papermaking families of Yamaguchi and Umeda agreed to host westerners in their homes and to welcome them to work in their mills. TV cameramen, translators, members of the Echizen paper collective and other interested hosts were on hand to greet us and to document our observations and participation.
It is apparent that the papermaking industry is a long-serving, prosperous and welcome activity in Echizen. Our first morning visit to the trade union office afforded us a look at the sample books of washi and acquainted us with the large variety of papers produced in this village. These include fine printing papers (torinoko, hosho, mokuhanshi), binding paper (hikkakimoyogami and momugami), decorative papers for shoji screens and sliding doors (fusuma), as well as machine produced papers for business cards and origami.
The success of the village has been due to the influence of machine production. The use of chemicals and hollander beaters in the treatment of papermaking materials has brought boiling, bleaching and beating into stages towards perfect quantity production. We did not witness steaming of bark nor hand beating in our host's hone, although this does still exist in such neighbors' studios as Ichibei Iwano 9th, where traditional methods are faithfully adhered to.
Our first day was devoted to production of large sheets of gampi (90% gampi, 10% kozo) which we made on a su covered with a synthetic sha. We labored over tororo-aoi and learned a great deal about the different stages required to strain a pure fresh formation aid for the superior suspension of fibers. At Mr. Yamaguchi's mill, abaca is also mixed with tororo-aoi to create a smooth metal-dried sheet useful in printing. By watermarking a smaller sheet size inside the outer dimensions of the su, one is assured of a clean deckle edge every time. The excess margin fiber is recycled--a handy and sensible solution for paper production that is not used in the West as far as I know.
Our sheets of gampi were interlaid with large cotton sheets to aid in paper separation after pressing. This killed the idea of seeing tororo-aoi make paper separation easier, but brought home the essential concern that increased ease of paper production is a priority. By the end of the day we were cleaning chemically bleached kozo to learn the process for kinkasi, which uses kozo fibers coagulated by alum under and over a base sheet of bleached kozo to make a sandwiched white sheet decorated on both sides by long groups of floating fibers. I hold doubts about the endurance of this etching paper, much sought after in Europe, but was interested in the process artistically. Seemingly this paper could be made in a slower production with unbleached natural fibers and varying degrees of tororo-aoi without the addition of alum.
That night ten inches of snow fell and we awoke to large flakes of snow continuing to fall just the way that you have seen them in ukiyoe prints. We spent a brief sojourn in the paper mill to dry our sheets made the day before and to watch the wonderful women gracefully maintain their posts (along with Mrs. Yamaguchi and grandmother, who help with paper transfer). We then returned to home next door to the studio, to learn how to hand carve hera, bamboo tools which are used to remove paper from the drying boards. Also Mr. Yamaguchi guided us in crumpling large blue sheets of 50% gampi and 50% mitsumata into the soft textured sheets that are traditionally used for binding. The night before, we had learned a simple Japanese hand binding for a book of Mr. Umeda's papers. This night we drank tea and listened to papermaking songs being sung by grandmother until everyone retired to tatami mats and electric blankets over futons weighted down with three extra blankets to keep the westerners warm.
The morning of our departure, Sally, Julienne, and I walked up the small snowy roads to say goodbye to Fukui Prefecture. Coming back we met Mr. Ichibei Iwano, considered a national treasure by the Japanese government, who bade us into his studio to give us fine hand-beaten kozo sheets, every fiber cleaned with "nansui" (pure mountain water) "which is essential for washi." We truly felt the blessing of Echizen village in the presence of Mr. Iwano, in his personal studio where he daily creates paper of kozo mixed with hakudo (terra alba, a fine white clay) from Akita Prefecture. He washes all his fibers in pure running water and beats them with a square oak stick, remarking: "There is nothing better than doing it by hand. Machinery can never bring out the beauty and strength of handmade paper."
A contrasting experience was our visit to our young and kind translator's large paper factory. This factory has designed and produced machine-stencilled wood pulp and mitsumata paper for origami and announcement cards. The same elaborate metal stencils which are used by hand in Mr. Umeda's studio are machine driven here. Basically a small copper design is soldered in repeated grill fashion to create a large metal relief like a cookie cutter, which is dipped into mitsumata and transferred to base sheets of kozo or wood pulp, covered with gold powder to make an elaborate decorative paper, whether by hand or by machine. We were beginning to understand that the difference between the decorative hand and machine-made papers becomes very blurred in these instances. Members of the paper union declare that they cannot identify one from the other anymore. To witness this blurring of categories seemed to be a prime reason for my visit. I know how truly important it is to continue the research of paper fibers and to present hand papermaking as a materials course in the West.
Everything of both sides was given to us in this trip--the old and the new--the ancient paper goddess in the Fukui hills and the superior one-man workshops as well as the new paper successors, the paper machines and the factories, Though paper production has gone from hand to machine, Echizen manages to maintain its forms of finely crafted papers. I feel appreciative of the full education of Echizen and fully thankful to my gracious hosts.
Timestamp: Sunday, 03-Mar-2013 21:34:04 PST
Retrieved: Monday, 19-Feb-2018 00:12:33 GMT