Lifestyle | Kateigaho International Japan Edition

Wonders of washi: Discovering the tradition of handcrafted paper

Wonders of WashiDiscovering the tradition of handcrafted paperIt is thought that paper first arrived in Japan around the third century. According to the “Nihon Shoki” (“The Chronicles of Japan”), papermaking started around the fifth century and increasingly developed in a uniquely Japanese way. In the quest for paper of the highest possible quality, artisans devised new methods and experimented with different materials. An example of paper made in the year 702 is preserved in the Shosoin treasure house in Nara.

Although many centuries have passed since then, tesuki — or handmade — washi is still produced using traditional methods. Plants such as kōzo paper mulberry are grown for their choice fiber. Several astoundingly elaborate, mostly manual, processes turn the plant material into paper. Washi is used not only to cover walls and shoji screens and for calligraphy and painting. It is also used to restore cultural properties throughout the world.

Nuances of white: Prized examples of papers known simply as washi. From top to bottom, Honmino-shi, Sekishu-banshi and Hosokawa-shi. | PHOTOGRAPHED WITH THE COOPERATION OF OZU WASHI
Nuances of white: Prized examples of papers known simply as washi. From top to bottom, Honmino-shi, Sekishu-banshi and Hosokawa-shi. | PHOTOGRAPHED WITH THE COOPERATION OF OZU WASHI

In autumn 2014, among types of washi made all over Japan, UNESCO recognized Honmino-shi from Gifu Prefecture, Sekishu-banshi from Shimane Prefecture and Hosokawa-shi from Saitama Prefecture.

It was not the varieties of paper themselves that were registered, however, but the traditional craft techniques used to make them. Also praised was the fact that the knowledge and practices have been handed down through the generations, thus creating a sense of regional solidarity.

What sets Honmino-shi, Sekishu-banshi and Hosokawa-shi apart from other types of washi? They only use the fibers from the kōzo plant, immersed in cool local waters and mixed with a plant-based mucilage. All three are made with a venerable technique called nagashisuki, which forms sheets in a wood-framed, bamboo-scrim mold called a suketa.

Despite these commonalities, the papers produced are far from being alike. Each reveals individual characteristics that depend on its place of production and the craftspeople who make it. Geography and the human hand impart unique traits to each of these Japanese papers.

This is the first in a four-part series about handmade Japanese washi paper.

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