Weaving a bridge between cultures with new fabric

Micaela Metri finds unique bond between ancient Japan, Italy

by Stefania Viti

Love of art and a desire for understanding different cultures — so as to find a way to build a bridge among them — have been important aspects of Micaela Metri’s life since her youth, when she was a student on a full scholarship at the L.B. Pearson College of the Pacific in Canada.

She arrived in Japan in 1999 because of her husband’s new position in Tokyo. Today, the Italian-born art expert, with particular attention to craft, is the mother of two boys and the CEO of Godai Group Srl, an Italian company trying to interweave Italian and Japanese culture “through the washi paper thread.”

Her latest challenge is the creation of a revolutionary textile called “wabi sabi collection” that is made in Italy using the unique organic fiber contained in washi — a plant-based traditional Japanese paper — mixed with silk, wool, cashmere or cotton.

“This project arrives at the end of a long period spent in Japan and I see it as a fulfillment of all the experiences I was able to make here. This new fabric is inspired by the ‘wabi sabi’ concept and by the elegance of the Japanese art. I called my company GoDai because it is a word which is the union of ‘five,’ a lucky number, and ‘dai’ which means ‘big.’ Together the word means ‘the five great,’ which are the elemental forces of the traditional Japanese philosophy: Earth, Fire, Wind, Water and — as for the Japanese manner in which the most important element is at the end — the Void.”

The result of four years of research by Metri’s team was the discovery of a next-generation product that combines the essence of Italian design with the much-sought-after elegance of its Japanese counterpart.

The textile, which uses a newly developed thread made from washi paper recently tested in space by astronaut Naoko Yamazaki, is touted as having an incomparable weave that makes it soft and lightweight, still washable and durable, and versatile — which the company calls a perfect choice for use in interiors, furnishings and fashion.

The new fabric will be launched in Japan through an exhibition titled “East and the West . . . linked by a washi paper thread,” May 14 to 26 at the Italian Cultural Institute with support from the Italian Embassy and Italian Trade Commission, where 14 international artists, including fashion designers and architects, will put on display their artworks using the new textile.

In November the exhibition will move to the Villa Necchi museum in Milan, one of the most exclusive and beautiful places in town and owned by FAI, the National Trust of Italy.

“To be invited by FAI to hold our event at Villa Necchi in Milan is really a great honor,” Metri said. “I had a passion for art since I was a child.” She studied art at the Accademia delle Arti Ornamentali S. Giacomo in Rome, the most ancient academy in town, and then owned an art gallery in Rome.

“My background of knowledge was based on Western art, the one that comes from Renaissance, Baroque where perspective and composition are important elements of an artwork — a range of values that I couldn’t find in Japanese art,” she said. “For all these reasons it was difficult for me to understand the relation between the high prices of Japanese craft and art and their ‘apparent’ simplicity. This is the big question mark which is behind my personal research.”

Trying to understand the world around her, Metri started studying Japanese art history. But being unable to read Japanese, she couldn’t find enough material to satisfy her appetite for learning.

She started studying on her own the history of Japanese religion and mythology to understand the evolution of art and the influence of religion on society, but she soon realized that even through her personal efforts, she couldn’t catch the secret beauty of Japanese art.

The turning point of her personal research was meeting Guji (chief priest) Shigeho Yoshida of Tsurugaoka Hachimangu in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture. Thanks to Yoshida, Metri started to study the world of kata — the manners and rituals that are at the base of Japanese religion, art and life.

Through Yoshida, she was introduced to Konishi Bijutsu Kogeisha, a company with more than 450 years of experience preserving and restoring ancient buildings. The Honden (main hall) of the Nikko Toshogu Shrine in Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture, was the first building commissioned to the Konishi family company in 1636.

As an expert on Western pictorial techniques, Metri was invited to learn the ancient Japanese techniques of urushi (Japanese lacquer sap) and in doing so she became the first foreigner to take part in the restoration of a Japanese Shinto shrine.

But restoring a building is very different from restoring an object. To help Metri complete her training to fully understand Japanese spirit and art, the president of Konishi Bijutsu Kogeisha offered to let her continue her study of urushi at the urushi conservation room in the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno, under Hajime Iwamoto.

“Thanks to Guji Yoshida, I started to understand this new way of seeing and making things,” she said. “I was so fascinated that I decided to shift from theory to practice and I expressed my deep wish to take part in the group that was going to restore his shrine. It was 2006.

“It was a hard work, but it was the most touching experience of my life. At the beginning, it was not easy to fit into the team and to be accepted by them. I was an outsider stepping into a very traditional world. At first my work mate probably thought that I could be satisfied by watching, but I was dying to put my hands on work. Only after having proved my real interest in their job did they allow me to help while learning,” she said.

“We worked in summer, during the rainy season, because urushi needs a high concentration of humidity. Working with a Japanese conservation team is a unique experience: the way the tools are made, the special support for the urushi, the way of working and also the way of taking a rest is very different from what one could experience working on a site in a Western country,” she said.

“While working, the most absolute silence and concentration is kept. During a period of two hours the only noise one can hear is the sound of nature. I could feel the energy of these minds in full concentration flowing around me. To me it was a mystic experience.”

That wasn’t an easy period in Metri’s personal life. She was still mourning the loss of her father and had just lost a dear friend.

“I offered this experience as karma for these beloved people. I believe my father’s soul is happy and serene in this wonderful spot of Japan so dear to me. He could never see it when he was alive. As for my friend Hiroyuki, a classmate from high school in Canada, I met Japan for the first time through his fantastic stories about the misty scenery, the culture and traditions of his far away country . . . I like to think he is there, too, now.

“The funny thing was that the first place I actually saw at my arrival in Tokyo was Hachiko crossing (in Shibuya) and the little streets around Dogenzaka, something completely different from what I had in mind, dreaming about Japan through Hiroyuki’s words.”

Metri’s story is that of a woman with a heart that embraces two ancient cultures, the Italian and the Japanese. She deeply believes in the importance of preserving antique craft techniques, art and culture of the past.

For this reason she is planning to write a book in Italian on urushi techniques. Nevertheless, time changes the needs of society, and to be able to preserve ancient traditions and techniques it is important to develop new applications. This, she explained, is how the washi fabric project has begun putting together two different antique cultures while looking to the future.