Rogier Uitenboogaart, who has been charmed by the world of washi (traditional Japanese paper) for the past three decades — especially its deep relationship with nature and people’s everyday lives — is trying to help preserve both nature and the traditional craft in this country.
“I’m enchanted by the abundance of nature in this country and the power that art and crafts have in keeping this abundant nature alive,” he said.
Uitenboogaart lives deep inside the forests of Yusuhara, near the Shimanto River, in Kochi Prefecture. There, he grows his own plants, and makes washi by using them and spring water taken from the river.
He grows five different types of kozo (paper mulberry) and mitsumata (oriental paper bush) — all without pesticides or fertilizer — to make washi.
He runs a guesthouse where visitor rooms are surrounded by washi-covered walls and fusuma (sliding doors covered with paper) and guests can experience the process of traditional paper-making at his studio. He also makes and sells crafts made from washi, such as lamp shades, scarves and stationery items.
Born and raised in The Hague, Uitenboogaart said he did not have a particular interest in Japanese culture until the late 1970s, when he saw a Japanese pottery exhibition in Amsterdam for the first time. He said he also had a chance to taste Japanese food, including umeboshi (pickled plum) and udon (noodles).
His first encounter with washi was when he came across a sample at his workplace — a bookbinding company in Amsterdam where he worked for two years. At that time, in the evenings after work, he was also studying modern art at an art university.
“I was just enchanted by the beauty of it,” he said, adding he was also intrigued by its uniqueness.
“Japanese washi is very special. In Europe, paper is used only for artwork and for printing purposes. It is only in Japan that paper is used in everyday life — such as in architecture and the interior, for example, shoji. The Japanese have lived with washi for hundreds of years,” he added.
He said he wanted to know more about washi, but could not get hold of any details in the Netherlands, except for a book written by Dard Hunter on the history of paper from all over the world.
“I got the information from the book that best quality paper is made in Japan. So I decided to just come to Japan,” he said, adding that he may not have chosen to come to Japan if it had been today, when he can easily find out a wealth of information via the Internet.
After arriving here in 1980, Uitenboogaart traveled extensively around the country, visiting more than 10 paper production areas in various parts of the country, including Okinawa, Fukui and Kochi.
During his trip, he met a Japanese woman who was later to become his wife. They decided to settle down in Kochi — the part of Japan where plants used to make traditional paper are grown.
Kochi has a history of washi-making that dates back 1,000 years or more, and the prefecture is well known for the wide variety and high quality of washi produced there.
Fukui was another place that had an abundance of washi-making plants, but he said he chose Kochi mainly because of its warm climate.
For the first six years he lived in Kochi, his family — including two children — led a self-sufficient lifestyle by growing vegetables for their own consumption, and Uitenboogaart slowly learned how to make washi.
It took a few years for the plants to grow big enough to harvest, so during that time, he learned about washi-making, he said.
Although he did not have a particular teacher from whom he learned washi-making, “the area was my teacher,” he said.
“When I visited the craftsmen all over the country in the first 12 years of my stay in Japan, I stayed with some of them for a few days, looked at how they made washi, helped them a little, and asked them questions. In that way, I found out some tips of making washi paper,” he said.
“A craftsman I met in Okinawa told me to grow my own plants to make washi if I really wanted to get to know about washi,” Uitenboogaart said.
“Now when I think of the Japanese tradition, it makes sense. It’s difficult for a foreigner to make good washi without knowing anything about Japanese culture. What the craftsman was trying to tell me was that I should grow my own plants, become familiar with the area where the plants are grown, understand Japanese culture, and then I can make good washi.”
Uitenboogaart built a washi-making studio in 1992, and opened the guesthouse in 2006. At his studio, he now produces Tosa (Kochi) washi using traditional techniques, plus cotton paper using the traditional method of his home country, the Netherlands, and original washi combining ingredients of both traditional washi and cotton paper. “By rediscovering the paper-making tradition of the Netherlands, I realized the beauty of the washi-making even more,” he said.
Lamenting the declining number of people who cultivate the plants in traditional growing areas, as well as the craftsmen who make washi, Uitenboogaart has spread his washi-making classes outside of his studio in the hope that the younger generation will take more interest in washi.
The washi-making class Uitenboogaart started at a local elementary school in Yusahara is now in its 20th year.
Students of all grades experience some of the steps in the washi-making process each year. For example, second-year students plant the seeds, fifth-year students simmer and tap the plants, and sixth-year students make washi that is later used to make their graduation certificates.
“The students learn not only about washi, but also about the environment that surrounds them in total — the water, and the forests,” he said. “I think it’s important for them to know that the origins of washi still remain in Japan’s countryside.”
In recent years, he has also collaborated with people in Tokyo to grow the trees needed for washi-making.
Uitenboogaart has helped to grow kozo and mitsumata on rooftop gardens of Eco Plaza in Hamamatsucho, an institution in Tokyo’s Minato Ward that mainly offers seminars on issues related to the environment, as well as the Matsuya department store and a gallery in Ginza.
He said he essentially wants to create a satoyama — an area where residents coexist harmoniously with their natural surroundings — on those rooftops.
“I have a strong expectation that we can spread washi-making not only in the mountains, but also in the cities,” he said. To this end, Uitenboogaart has been holding washi-making workshops at Eco Plaza four times a year since 2008 — with support from the nonprofit organization More Trees, cofounded by former Yellow Magic Orchestra musician Ryuichi Sakamoto.
At the seminars, participants can learn the process of washi-making step by step — from gathering the leaves and flowers to go into the washi and pressing the ingredients, to filtering and pressing the paper.
“Washi was popular until right after World War II, which was about 60 years ago. Washi existed in everyday lives of people. Japanese are so familiar with washi that the idea of washi culture will easily come back to them — even if they have briefly forgotten about it,” he said.
For more information about Uitenboogaart’s washi studio, visit kamikoya-washi.com.