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Crafts meet art in Nihonbashi

by Kit Nagamura

Perhaps all writers love paper — it’s in our fiber, so to speak — and when it comes to paper, Japanese washi rules. So, off I head to Ozu Washi store in central Tokyo’s Chuo Ward to take a class in how to make it.

At JR Sobu Line’s Shin-Nihonbashi Station, I take the East Exit and spy Ozu across busy Showa-dori avenue. Threading the tunnel underpass, I note cardboard boxes reserving sleeping space for the homeless, and reflect on the oxymoronic quality of paper: its fragile strength.

Early for the class, I decide to explore the neighborhood, and just around the corner from Ozu I discover a monument to the well used by a 17th-century household maid named Otake. The legend goes that priests traveling from the far northern mountains of Yamagata in 1640 came to Edo (the old name for Tokyo) to search for an incarnation of Buddha. When they saw Otake at the well, collecting stray grains of the rice that had been washed there, and learned that she often gave her own food to small animals and wasted nothing, they pronounced her the Buddha they had sought, Otake Dainichi Nyorai.

The image of stray rice grains nudges me into thoughts of lunch, and with the long paper-making class to come, I grab a bite at Sarashina Soba shop, whose huge portions of soba come with a dish of tempura bits flavored with the heavy sesame oil favored in shitamachi (downtown).

Kodenmacho and Odenmacho, both a stone’s throw from where I sit, once stabled horses working for Edo’s version of the Pony Express during the 1600s. A businesswoman at my table adds that this very street hosts one of Tokyo’s oldest annual fairs, the Bettara Ichi (Oct. 19-20), featuring hundreds of vendors hawking varieties of pickled daikon.

Sated, I make my way to Ozu Washi store. Still early for my class, I follow Curator Setsuya Matsuura, 72-years-old, to Ozu’s second-floor museum, where a woodcut print by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) depicting Ozu’s store in the same location as it is today helps me visualize the area’s history. The Ozu store, in business since 1653, includes a gallery space featuring washi art, and paper artistry classrooms. Matsuura explains that Ozu sells handmade paper from more than 300 sources countrywide, and describes how integral washi is to the Japanese lifestyle. “We use it for kimono, lanterns, boxes, shoji, etcetera,” he tells me. When I ask about changing lifestyles, Matsuura nods. “We’ve got our eye on the future. We make a recyclable product, and as long as Japan exists, we will too.”

Heading to my class, I pass gorgeous displays of paper for sale on Ozu’s first floor before meeting master papermaker Hitoshi Sato in his workshop near the store’s entrance. He takes my ¥1,000 fee and proffers his handmade name card, creamy to the touch and deckle-edged. Sato’s co-craftsman, Keiko Hirasawa, dresses me in a purple waterproof apron and we file outside the store to view a mini plantation of plants employed in the papermaking process, including the one we’re about to use, kozo (paper mulberry).

Back inside, I’m encouraged to pinch piles of pulp, comparing flimsy ordinary paper contents with the fibrous tenacity of kozo. I also learn the laborious cutting, steaming, peeling, washing, boiling, purifying and mashing processes that have led up to this glorious moment, the climax of papermaking: kamisuki. I feel slightly guilty, but dip my sugeta (bamboo sieve) into the mucilaginous slurry of kozo fibers and tororo-aoi (viscous hibiscus-root extract used to increase suspension of the fibers). Sato has the ripped forearms of a weightlifter, and he helps me keep the frame parallel to the water surface as I slosh the gloop back and forth, intertwining the fibers. Several dips later, the first layer of paper is ready to be disengaged from the sieve and vacuumed free of excess water.

Bits of thread and colored confetti are then fixed under a second, thinner sheet of washi. Finally, the paper is brushed onto a heated steel panel to speed up the drying process traditionally achieved on wooden boards. Sato takes a regular household iron to the completed work, flattening it and then displaying the result as proudly as though it were his own child’s creation. I’m hooked and I want to make more paper, but afternoon light slides through the windows and I need to move on.

Just around the corner from Ozu, I find Edo-ya, a brush shop with an equally impressive history, dating from 1718. Katsutoshi Hamada, 67, is the genial 12th-generation owner of Edo-ya, housed in a 1926 building with graceful Art Deco indicators of its era. “I grew up in this shop, just upstairs,” Hamada tells me, relaxing in his office with master brushmaker Saburo Tanaka. “My father was killed in the war, but my grandmother ran the shop, and I knew from age 6 that I wanted to do it too.”

Some of Edo-ya’s more than 3,000 varieties of brushes hang from the ceilings, while others, some quite valuable, nestle in glass cases. I gaze at the chiseled perfection of pitch-black human-hair brushes used for lacquering. Because the hair runs the length of the long, slim, boxed handle, it can be adjusted and trimmed repeatedly. “That brush should last about 20 years,” Hamada remarks, “but we can’t find untreated pin-straight hair in Japan anymore, so we have to source it from rural China.” I marvel at white goathair makeup brushes and paddle-shaped brushes of soft deer fur, used for textile dying. “The hollow shaft of deer fur insulates the animal during winter,” Hamada says, “and it absorbs large amounts of dye.”

I am struck by Hamada’s pivotal position between natural resources and artisans. “A healthy environment for animals and materials is crucial for good brushes,” he says, “and when artisans value their tools, they value ecology as well.”

As we talk, Tanaka starts assembling a clothes brush in the so-called uekomi style. He pinches a precise quantity of pig bristles and, using a hiki-sen (a wire looped through one of the 100-odd holes in the brush head), folds the bristles in half and secures them by pulling gently on the wire. What happens if a breeze blows the hairs around, I ask. Tanaka tosses a handful into the air. “Like this?” he asks. I’m aghast. “I’ve done this for 50 years,” he says, his fingers flying over the hairs, assembling them almost magically. “Obviously we don’t use fans in the summer, and to keep my hands dry, I coat them with ash of rice bran.”

I could watch Tanaka all day, but Hamada reveals that he is the head of the neighborhood’s Bettara Ichi preservation group, and he wants to show me the Takarada Ebisu Shrine around which the festival occurs. “Have you ever been inside a shrine?” he asks me, and it occurs me to me that I didn’t know there was an inside.

The shrine Hamada shows me is huddled between two desolate parking lots, which partly explains why a preservation group might be necessary here. Unlocking a back door, he lets me into the dark interior, full of festival lanterns. Clearing vases off the alter, he unlocks and pries open a pair of wooden doors, and lifts back a brocade curtain on an ebony sculpture of Ebisu, god of the ocean, fishermen and good fortune. “He seems to be laughing today,” Hamada remarks, “because you’re visiting him.” I laugh, too, nervous and overwhelmed by the richness of the day. I am not sure how to thank Hamada, but he brushes off my gratitude, assuring me we’ll meet again.

I head toward the Hibiya subway line’s Kodenmacho Station, but stop in at Dalia, a cute shop of worldwide handicrafts and cafe fare. Ensconced like a pasha in Dalia’s cozy carpeted loft, I order a ginger ale, which arrives more pureed root than ale, and it gives me a solid kick. Re-energized, I check out the spiffy interior of 3K-Kawashima. Interior decorator Hiroko Niitsu explains that Kawashima was Tokyo’s first purveyor of paper for fusuma (sliding doors). In business since 1673, it still sells traditional fusuma paper, but now specializes in modern “Neo JapanesQ” washi paper products for interiors. Today’s paper, I think, is tomorrow’s treasure.