Lifestyle | Kateigaho International Japan Edition

Wonders of washi: Sekishu Washi Kubota produces strong, pliant paper from local mulberry plants

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.

A shared resource: The kōzo (mulberry) used in making Sekishu-banshi is cultivated in a community field near the Kubota workshop. | MASASHI KUMA
A shared resource: The kōzo (mulberry) used in making Sekishu-banshi is cultivated in a community field near the Kubota workshop. | MASASHI KUMA

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.

Cut down to size: In winter, raw wood is harvested with diagonal cuts from a sickle, then 1-meter-long lengths are transported to the shop. | MASASHI KUMA
Cut down to size: In winter, raw wood is harvested with diagonal cuts from a sickle, then 1-meter-long lengths are transported to the shop. | MASASHI KUMA

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.

Less is more: After it's harvested, the bark of the kōzo (mulberry) gets stripped off. Leaving the bark's midlayer intact gives the resulting paper a light-brown tinge and a profound depth. | MASASHI KUMA
Less is more: After it’s harvested, the bark of the kōzo (mulberry) gets stripped off. Leaving the bark’s midlayer intact gives the resulting paper a light-brown tinge and a profound depth. | MASASHI KUMA

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.

Good things take time: When a sheet is complete, water is drained from the paper and it is left to stand overnight, then dried in the sun. | MASASHI KUMA
Good things take time: When a sheet is complete, water is drained from the paper and it is left to stand overnight, then dried in the sun. | MASASHI KUMA

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.

An ongoing legacy: In 1974, Akira Kubota began producing handmade Japanese paper using techniques taught to him by his father, Yasuichi. Akira wants his paper to reflect the nature of the Iwami countryside. Having inherited the skills of his ancestors, he keeps his focus on training the next generation of craftspeople who will carry on the Sekishu traditions. | MASASHI KUMA
An ongoing legacy: In 1974, Akira Kubota began producing handmade Japanese paper using techniques taught to him by his father, Yasuichi. Akira wants his paper to reflect the nature of the Iwami countryside. Having inherited the skills of his ancestors, he keeps his focus on training the next generation of craftspeople who will carry on the Sekishu traditions. | MASASHI KUMA

“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.

Getting the stamp of approval: The tradition of creating graduation certificates using washi paper that you have made yourself is something found only in a papermaking community such as this one. | MASASHI KUMA
Getting the stamp of approval: The tradition of creating graduation certificates using washi paper that you have made yourself is something found only in a papermaking community such as this one. | MASASHI KUMA

Sekishu-banshi can be purchased at the Sekishu Washi Kaikan. Furuichiba 589, Misumicho, Hamada, Shimane 699-3225; 0575-34-8111; sekishu-washikaikan.com; washikaikan@sekishu.jp. This is the third installment in a four-part series about handmade Japanese washi paper.

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