The 'washi' paper trail: from the tree to its many purposes

by Stephen Mansfield

Special To The Japan Times

Stepping off the bus at the Gakko-iriguchi stop in Higashi-Chichibu Village in Saitama Prefecture, the first things to strike the eye are high-flying clusters of balloons, suspended like colorful dirigibles.

Here, the workshops and exhibition spaces of Washi-no-Sato, a well-known papermaking center tucked into the skirts of the Chichibu Hills, were subsumed under a weekend holiday crowd with a bigger appetite for food than culture. The UNESCO World Heritage designation of washi papermaking as an Intangible Cultural Treasure, however, may have explained the car park, jam-packed with vehicles, and the crowds, who were now pressing in on the food stalls.

The feast was impressive, the air hot singed with the smell of charcoal-grilled chicken, fried noodles and bean-paste sweets. An Iranian vendor was doing a roaring trade in spicy kebabs, paneer-o sabzi-o gherdoo (a feta cheese, walnut and herbs dip) and a savory ghormeh sabri (Persian herb stew).

Washi-no-Sato is an administrative part of Ogawamachi Town, which, along with other regions like Gifu and Shimane, is strongly associated with traditional papermaking. Records indicate at least 1,300 years of engagement in the craft. Washi making was introduced into the country by the seventh-century Korean monk, Doncho, and Korean craftsmen soon settled in the Ogawamachi area.

The paper was originally used for texts and sutra copying at Jiko-ji, a temple whose well-appointed hilltop location provides an outstanding view of the green and verdant swells of the Chichibu Hills. Lush with camphor, bamboo and cedar trees, the hiking trails of these hills are rarely crowded. The number of moss and lichen-smothered stone Buddha and bodhisattva figures standing beside the paths are reminders that these are actually pilgrimage routes leading to secluded religious sites.

During Ogawamachi’s Edo-Period (1603-1868) heyday as a papermaking center, its craftsmen worked their fingers to the bone. Rising at 4 a.m. and working until 10 p.m., they were tasked with provisioning the shogunate with high-quality paper. It appears that not everyone took to a life devoted to the long and arduous hours required for papermaking. An old local song has a young woman pleading with her mother to cancel an arranged marriage with a papermaker because she will have to work long hours with her hands plunged in cold water. The rewards, it seems, were not commensurate with the work. One line of the song complains that, like the water mixed into the pulp, “The dealer squeezes out all the profits.”

One type of washi, known as hosokawa-shi, was much in demand by government officials, who used the durable paper for account books and for listing land holdings; merchants used it to record daily transactions. Although it is occasionally used in the repairing and replacement of pages in antiquarian books, these days hosokawa-shi is more commonly found in the making of handicraft objects for the souvenir market.

Much as I liked the natural environs of Washi-no-Sato, its spotless workshop and exhibitions, I was looking for a papermaking operation closer to Ogawamachi’s hereditary craft roots. This I found in the less sanitized environs of the family-run Kubo Shotaro complex, a 10-minute bus ride from the station. The current manager and family head, Takamasa Kubo, was kind enough to show me around the premises.

Entering the Kubo washi workshop, which is named after Takamasa’s grandfather, is to step back into the age of craftsmanship. The ambience is set by the building itself, whose compacted earth floor, high roof, aged beams and semi-gloom are characteristic of old farmhouses or barns. There was no evidence of winter heating; in summer, workers do without air-conditioning, natural alterations in temperature suiting the papermaking process better than artificial ones. Such working conditions may explain why the number of apprentices has declined.

The UNESCO designation may help to generate new interest in the craft, but the fact that papermaking has been in retreat for decades highlights the difficulties involved in resuscitating it. If the records are to be believed, 750 papermakers worked and lived in the area during the Edo Period. Even as recently as the 1950s, half of Ogawamachi residents were involved in papermaking. According to Kubo, there are only a handful of craftsmen left in the area. There is a certain irony in this, as the demand for washi, a paper that is not only aesthetically pleasing, but also durable, has actually increased in recent years.

This is reflected in the creative, well-stocked shelves of souvenir shops in the area, where visitors can buy plain paper, greeting cards, notebooks and even hats made of the material. Historically, Japanese emperors and courtiers practiced their calligraphy on the paper, while well-off merchants sought out paper screens, fans, lanterns, umbrellas and wrapping paper for confectionery. The more impecunious found a use for this resilient paper as raincoats. Samurai warriors, about to go into battle or posted to cold, remote garrisons, sealed the joints of their armor with the paper.

Where Washi-no-Sato was clean, orderly and carefully temperature controlled, the interior of Kubo’s main workshop looked shambolic, at least on first encounter. I soon grasped, though, that everything was in its ordained place. Enduring extended explanations of processes can be a formula for boredom, but listening to Kubo as he demonstrated the steps involved in papermaking was intriguing.

Kozo, the bark of the mulberry tree, is used in tandem with other plants such as mitsumata (paper bush), as the raw materials for making the paper. With considerably cheaper varieties of mulberry imported from Thailand, the three prefectures of Saitama, Ibaraki and Kochi are among the sole remaining cultivators of mulberry. In Japan, the bark is removed during the winter months. A small number of mulberry trees grow on the grounds of the Kubo workshop, but most of the bark is now imported.

After the bark and stems are soaked in water to remove impurities, they are boiled in a basin. The resulting mash is then hand-separated and cleaned in fresh water, before being machine-pressed and transferred to another vat, where it is mixed with water and tororo-aoi, a plant related to the hibiscus family. When compressed, this achieves a sticky texture suitable for use as a fastener.

At this point, Kubo introduced the working of the suki-keta, a braided bamboo frame, which is dipped into the gooey liquid, then moved back and forth until its fibers, with the frequent addition of water, settle evenly over the surface of the net. What appears to be an easy, almost mechanical task actually requires a certain deftness, a rhythmic dexterity, as I discovered when Kubo handed over the device to me. A heavier frame than I had expected, the result of my efforts was a surface akin to a lumpy, gray porridge, or something unspeakably worse. Back in Kubo’s hands, an even white film soon appeared, which was then moved onto a board and dried, before being placed in a cloth ready for further machine pressing, a stage that removes any remaining water particles.

Raw paper can be dried on wooden boards in natural sunlight, but the samples I saw were transferred to another building, where they were hung and eventually brushed down. A machine process for making washi paper exists, but the results, though vibrant and clean, bear little resemblance to the warm tonal quality achieved by handmade papermakers.

After expressing my thanks to Kubo for his time and painstaking demonstrations, we bade farewell, but not before exchanging business cards, mine a plain white material that might have been cut from a cereal box, his made from the silky fiber of quality washi paper.

Getting there: Ogawamachi Station a 75-minute journey from Tokyo’s Ikebukuro Station on the Tobu Tojo Line. Washi-no-Sato bound buses leave from outside the station. For the Kubo Shotaro workshop (, take a bus and alight at the Saitama Craft Center.