At a little roadside store in rural Nagano, a foreign tourist is miming a rice bowl with her cupped left hand. Firm in the belief that Japanese washi (paper — wa meaning Japanese and shi meaning paper) was made from rice, she waves her flattened right hand across the “bowl,” miming her desire for “sheets” of paper. Baffled by her gesture myself, I was at least able to communicate with her in English and ask what on Earth she was trying to buy. The local shopkeeper on the other hand was utterly perplexed; this bizarre customer seemed to be repeatedly miming that she didn’t want a bowl of rice! But, of course she didn’t, that was obvious.

We were, after all, not in a restaurant, but a souvenir shop in the small town of Obuse, Nagano Prefecture, a town famous for its Hokusai Museum, commemorating the life and works of the great artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). Unlike our miming friend, Hokusai knew a thing or two about paper — it was, after all, one of his essential materials. And if he were here, he would have made it clear from the very outset that washi had nothing at all to do with rice. Well, that’s not entirely true. In the past, paper was primarily made by rural farming families — typically in mountainous areas where water was cold and pure — giving them something that they could produce during the cold winter months for a supplementary income and many of those farmers were also growing rice, so arguably there is a link, albeit a tenuous one.

One such region, renowned for both farming and papermaking, is Gokayama, an area that has been granted UNESCO World Heritage status, set amidst the beautiful montane scenery of Gifu and Toyama prefectures. Although most famous for the delightfully intricate farming landscape and the enormous thatched-roof gassho (praying hands) farmhouses of nearby Shirakawa Village, a famed World Heritage Site, Gokayama is worth a visit, for the remnants of its 1,200-year-old paper industry. Visitors can even try their hands at this craft in Washi Taiken Kan, a combined workshop, gallery and retail outlet. But Gokayama is by no means the only rural paper-manufacturing region in Japan.

Another important area is Yakumo in Shimane Prefecture, western Honshu. Once a small and unassuming village, it has now been incorporated into the nearby city of Matsue, though it still retains a pleasantly rural atmosphere. Here the ancient tradition of washi is being maintained, and it makes for another great excursion if you’re visiting Japan’s southwestern coast. Yakumo features not only an excellent memorial museum to the late Abe Eishiro (1902-84) — the first Japanese papermaker to be designated as a national living treasure — but also offers visitors the chance to make washi on the same property. In fact, it was Abe who created Izumo Mingeishi (folk-craft paper from the local area) and established Izumo Washi (Japanese paper in the local style) as a traditional craft technique.

The invention of paper ranks as one of the greatest human achievements of all time. Over centuries it enabled the transfer of written, then printed, information not only between individuals, but down through generations. Early Egyptians, some 5,000 years ago, used the papyrus plant to make sheets of material on which to draw characters, and the word “paper” even comes from the Latin “papyrus.” According to the Confederation of Paper Industries, the paper that we recognize today originated in China, where its development is credited to Ts’ai Lun around A.D. 105. Papermaking spread westwards very slowly, through the Middle East and North Africa, only reaching Europe in about A.D. 1110.

As its significance, value and the diversity of its uses increased, so too did developments in its production. With the industrial revolution came mechanization, which was first applied to papermaking in Holland in 1680 with the invention of the Hollander beater. It took almost another century (1774) before a method for producing white paper was developed by bleaching colored fibers — mostly from rags at this stage — with chlorine gas. By the late 19th century, it became possible to produce paper from wood chips and pulp, and rapid technological advances meant that by 1900 a German machine was capable of producing sheets of paper nearly 3 meters wide at a rate of 150 meters every minute. Just over a century later in 2005, a paper-producing machine in Indonesia was clocked as the world’s fastest, running at more than 2,000 meters per minute (about 120 kph), although, most current machines average rather slower times.

Today, the world’s largest paper mill is in Hainan, China, with an annual capacity of more than 1 million tons. However, on an industrial scale the manufacture of paper pulp raises a stink, as it is produced from swathes of felled forests, which are chipped and then shipped to processing factories.

The Nippon Paper Industries pulp factory at Kushiro, eastern Hokkaido, is one example. I pass its towering chimney stacks with some regularity and the smoke that billows out of them can be smelled both far inland and far out to sea depending on the wind strength and direction. It is an unpleasant, chemical odor, but this is the stench of a necessary process in the production of paper on a grand scale — something that we require to feed our seemingly insatiable need for a semipermanent medium. On that medium we place the records of our dreams and progress, and we also use it for wrapping and packing items, by the billion, each day. Today, Japan ranks third in the world in terms of paper production.

Although there has been much talk of achieving the paperless office, it remains difficult to imagine a world without paper. Despite having fully embraced computerization myself in the early 1980s, my own office, to this day, still has a wall of reference books, three filing cabinets filled with paper reports, receipts, statements, pamphlets, brochures and maps; other shelves store files of paper documents, and yet more shelves hold row after row of personal notebooks. On a daily basis yet more paper arrives by post: newspapers, journals, circulars and genuine mail from friends and colleagues. I resist printing documents and emails; rarely, if ever, do I print photographs, and I reuse and recycle all paper and packaging. Even so, the accumulated paper that my office contains must exceed a ton.

I am not attached to the paper around me; it is merely a temporary, supportive medium, a necessity for the storage of information. In itself, paper holds no attraction for me, with the exception, that is, of the paper-based art I have collected. On my walls are pictures, many of them woodblock prints, which all use washi. Unlike mass produced paper, handcrafted traditional washi is entirely different — it has texture. It also has soul.

Japanese papermaking requires clean, cold water, specific species of plants and considerable effort. It is truly an art form, for washi is made from fibers, laboriously extracted from various shrubs and trees. Most common among these are Paper Mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera), Gampi (Wikstroemia sikokiana) and Mitsumata (Edgeworthia chrysantha), although it can also be made using bamboo or hemp fibers. These fibers produce a tough paper, useful in many traditional arts, from calligraphy to woodblock printing. Washi can also be used to manufacture clothing and household goods. I have a business card holder and a receipt wallet, both made from durable washi, and both still in use after many years.

The process of making washi is prolonged. Once the mulberry’s (or other shrub’s) leaves have fallen in autumn the stems are harvested and steamed. Steaming makes peeling off the bark easier, though scraping and removing imperfections in the fibers is still a tedious job. The strips are boiled with lye to remove any tannins, fats and starches, then washed in pure, cold running water to remove the lye.

During winter, the dried strips of bark are bleached by laying them out on the snow during sunny days. After being washed once again, the fibers are teased out by beating the bark into a pulp and then mixing this with mucilage derived from the crushed roots of the Hollyhock known as Tororo Aoi. It is this addition that prevents the fibers from tangling and contributes to the strength of the finished product. A fine-mesh screen is then lowered into a vat of water and pulp and rocked back and forth as it is lifted, to deposit a fine layer of fibers onto the screen. Laid out, these wet, pre-formed sheets are then squeezed to remove water and dried, making the final paper sheets.

What sounds easy is definitely a learned art, but the products that can be made from it are endlessly diverse and beautiful. Artists, such as Hokusai — if he were still alive — might be amazed by our profligate use of mass-produced paper today, but like still-living woodblock printers, he, too, surely would have continued to use the wonderful texture of washi to complete his works of art.

Traveling Japan in search of traditional crafts, such as washi, is a wonderful way of decompressing from city life and exploring the more rural backwaters of this fascinating country.

Find out more: Visit the Abe Eishiro Museum in Yakumo, Shimane Prefecture (abe-eishirou.jp or www.kankou-shimane.com/eng/spot/detail/38 for English), or Gokayama, in Toyama Prefecture (washi.city.nanto.toyama.jp/english/), to learn more about papermaking or try it out for yourself.

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