For many of us, washi paper is the art supply equivalent of a dish that’s “too pretty to eat.” I love to look at it, but would be loathe to mar its beauty with my amateur creative efforts.
Originally intended for use in lanterns and shoji screens in Japan, its simplicity makes it a stand out among the far more ornamental decorative sheets populating the fancy international paper selections. Though there is no shortage of machine-produced washi on the market these days, the loveliest examples are still handmade in Kurotani, a small town near Kyoto.
Kurotani has the distinction of being Japan’s oldest paper-making town, and as documented by filmmaker Kuroyanagi Takashi, above, the washi process has changed little in 800 years.
In the pre-industrial age, washi-making was seasonal. Farmers planted the paper mulberry (kozo), mitsumata, and gampi plants essential to the process along with their food crops. Come havest-time, they would soak these plants’ fibrous inner barks until they were soft enough to be cleaned and pounded.
Then as now, the resulting pulp was added mixed with liquid and a mucilage to yield a (not particularly delicious sounding, and definitely not too pretty to eat…) spreadable paste.
The sheets are formed on bamboo screens, then stacked and pressed until dry.
The end result is both strong and flexible, making it a favorite of bookbinders. Its absorbency is prized by printmakers, including Rembrandt.
The rest of us must content ourselves with Takashi’s meditative 5‑minute documentary.
Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She writes a monthly column about people who love their jobs for Mainichi Weekly, a bilingual Japanese newspaper. Follow her @AyunHalliday