The making of Sekishu-banshi has been handed down through generations in the Iwami region of western Shimane Prefecture, where paper was already in production at the beginning of the 10th century.
In the Edo Period (1603-1868), the paper increased in importance as Osaka merchants began using it for their account books. It was then that the name Sekishu-banshi came to be known throughout Japan. What characterizes this washi is its resistance to tearing, due to the long, thick fibers of the Sekishu kōzo (mulberry) grown in local fields for three years before harvesting. The bark fibers have a robust yet pliant quality. An oft-told anecdote says that in the Edo Period, if a fire broke out, merchants didn’t hesitate to throw their account books made from Sekishu-banshi into a well to keep them from burning; the paper would not be damaged by water, attesting to its resilience.
Today, Sekishu-banshi is used to restore precious cultural properties such as fusuma sliding doors and folding screens. Its strength, its softness to the touch and the fact that words written on it do not blur mean that it can also be used for books, calligraphy, tanzaku cards for writing poems or wishes, and name cards.
The kōzo plants from which the paper is made are cut in December and January. Branches are then steamed, the thickest part beaten with a hammer and the bark stripped away. Kōzo bark has three layers: on the outside is the black bark, then a greenish midlayer and underneath that is the white, inner bark.
While only the innermost white bark is used for Honmino-shi, a feature of Sekishu-banshi is the strength it gains from use of the midlayer. After the entire bark has been stripped from the cuttings it is allowed to dry naturally, then soaked for about half a day in water to soften. Then the black outer bark is carefully removed, leaving the middle and inner layers.
The Iwami region also has a unique way of making its paper. There is no side-to-side swinging of the suketa mold as is part of the Honmino-shi process. Instead, the raw pulp is moved forcefully, yet meticulously, in the sukifune (papermaking tub) in a front-to-back motion only.
“Our aim is to preserve the traditions we inherited from our ancestors, who made paper from local raw materials, and to create washi that can be incorporated in modern-day living spaces,” says Akira Kubota, a member of the Sekishu-banshi Craftsmen’s Association. He is keeping the spirit of the past alive in Sekishu-banshi.
Sekishu-banshi can be purchased at the Sekishu Washi Kaikan. Furuichiba 589, Misumicho, Hamada, Shimane 699-3225; 0575-34-8111; sekishu-washikaikan.com; email@example.com. This is the third installment in a four-part series about handmade Japanese washi paper.