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Washi workshop: Good on paper, better firsthand

by Danielle Demetriou

“Mummy, where does paper come from?” This was a question recently asked by my young daughter that was easier to answer than her usual string of whats and whys (“Do insects cry?” and “Why were we born?” among them).

On this occasion, I was not only able to tell her with confidence that paper most definitely came from trees, but I also managed to take her and her sister to a workshop to learn precisely how to make it.

The class took place at Ozu Washi, a multi-story emporium that impressively dates back to 1653 and is devoted to all things related to the art of traditional washi (Japanese paper) .

It’s one of a string of thriving centuries-old family businesses that can be found hidden among modern towers and shopping malls in Nihonbashi, the birthplace of Edo and the starting point of modern Tokyo.

It’s also incredibly child-friendly. Upon entering the building, passing beneath a traditional red noren curtain, my daughters — aged 5 and 3 — immediately gravitate to something startlingly modern: Pepper the robot, who greets them cheerfully and introduces them to the store.

Ozu Washi spans three levels — on the first floor is a colorful shop space packed with hundreds of different types of paper in every hue and design imaginable, while the upper levels are home to a museum and a culture school.

Our destination, however, is just in front of the entrance: a first floor atelier housing the Handmade Washi Experience Studio where the workshop would take place.

The girls take an immediate liking to their teacher, Nao Tanaka, who is both friendly, gentle and informative as she first explains that we will go upstairs to watch a “washi cartoon.”

The anime is a visual feast for the children — a colorful hand-drawn illustration of a girl and her animal friends embarking on a seasonal washi-making journey, from collecting twigs to drying the paper in the sun.

Next, it’s time to get messy. Back in the studio downstairs, the girls are dressed in large turquoise plastic aprons and, to their undisguised glee, they are instructed to stick their hands in a clear slimy liquid that falls in gloopy strands from their fingers.

Tanaka explains to the girls that this is neri, a plant-root derivative, before the pair clamber excitedly onto blocks and watch as she pours it into a vast metal vat of white liquid made from the mushed bark of kōzo (paper mulberry) trees.

“Now we’re going to start making the paper,” says Tanaka, reaching for two flat bamboo sieve-like racks, before showing the girls how to gently swing them back and forth in the water, so the fiber is scooped up, forming a light film that will eventually become their prized sheets of washi.

Next comes another highlight: decorating the sheets. The girls sit at a table covered in a cornucopia of tiny paper cutouts and other trimmings — from rainbow-hued flowers to the silhouettes of tiny black cats.

Unusually silent, the two concentrate on placing their decorations of choice on their paper. Once satisfied they carry the bamboo trays back to the large vat of mulberry-bark water and copy the teacher, sprinkling drops onto the surface of the decorated sheets and giving them a final dip to seal their work.

The drying process is next: One by one the girls take great pleasure in switching the “on” button of a large metal drying machine, upon which they place their creations, complete with a previously made sheet of paper covering it for protection.

Once dry enough to move, the sheets are placed on a heated vertical metal board, with Tanaka’s hands guiding the girls’ as they gently stroke the sheets with a brush, before removing the protective paper and revealing their very own handmade pieces of paper.

When the sheets are fully dry, the girls, delighted with the end results, take great pleasure in the final touch: formally imprinting a red Ozu Washi stamp onto the creations before sliding them into envelopes to take home.

The hour-long workshop flew by surprisingly quickly, thanks mainly to Tanaka, who is clearly experienced at making washi with very young children. The whole process was seamless good fun, hands-on and just the right side of messy.

Best of all? At least one of my daughters’ endless questions has been firmly crossed off the What to Ask My Mummy list as they both now know from firsthand experience that paper definitely comes from trees.

Ozu Washi holds several workshops a day, from Mon. to Sat. Reservations are recommended. Each session lasts around one hour and it costs ¥500 to make a single A4-sized sheet of washi paper. Classes are conducted in Japanese but English-speakers are welcome. For more information, visit www.ozuwashi.net/en/workshop.html.