The Making of Japanese Handmade Paper: A Short Film Documents an 800-Year-Old Tradition

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.

If you have a yen to wit­ness the labor-inten­sive, tra­di­tion­al process up close, Dutch washi crafts­man Rogi­er Uiten­boogaart runs a guest house as part of his stu­dio in near­by Kamikoya.

The rest of us must con­tent our­selves with Takashi’s med­i­ta­tive 5‑minute doc­u­men­tary.

via The Kid Should See This

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Art of Col­lo­type: See a Near Extinct Print­ing Tech­nique, as Lov­ing­ly Prac­ticed by a Japan­ese Mas­ter Crafts­man

How Ink is Made: A Volup­tuous Process Revealed in a Mouth-Water­ing Video

Dis­cov­er Harvard’s Col­lec­tion of 2,500 Pig­ments: Pre­serv­ing the World’s Rare, Won­der­ful Col­ors

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

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Comments (8)
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  • Nancy Jacobi says:

    Thank you for post­ing this excel­lent video, cap­tur­ing the essence of the serene­ly pro­duc­tive vil­lage of Kurotani.Also thanks for point­ing out how chal­leng­ing it has become for its excel­lence to be appre­ci­at­ed in a world dom­i­nat­ed by the del­uge of “orna­men­tal dec­o­ra­tive sheets” pour­ing into the mar­ket.

  • Marcel Garbi says:

    Thanks for shar­ing this.
    I’m in love with Japan­ese washi, I use it for my paint­ings:

  • Peter Davis says:

    I use machine made washi for my wood engrav­ings. I do have a cou­ple of hand made sheets I haven’t found a suit­able sub­ject for yet. Excel­lent film. I hope they make a good liv­ing and get name cred­it for their pro­duc­tion.

  • Aisyah Ramadhani says:

    Won­der­ful post.This is nice post and gives in depth infor­ma­tion.

  • says:

    thanks for the post , real­ly good infor­ma­tion about Japan,

  • sumutpoker says:

    I’am recent­ly read this. It’s real­ly good. I like view­ing web site again.

  • lonny gorodn says:

    love­ly and beau­ti­ful­ly pho­tographed.

    I use Japan­ese papers in my scroll mak­ing and my draw­ings. I dis­cov­ered these fine hand­made papers in Japan in 1967 when I went on my first of 3 Ful­bright grants to study in Japan and Korea. I stud­ied paper­mak­ing and per­form­ing arts of Kabu­ki, Noh, Bugaku, and Nihon­buyo.

    There is a love­ly retail store for papers in Nihon­bashi, Tokyo … Hibara is the name.

    I stud­ied paper mak­ing with a nation­al cul­tur­al trea­sure in the moun­tains of Ouda Haza­ma in Nara preec­ture. We had to be up by 4am and the papers had to be up on the moun­tain side by 6:30am to nat­u­ral­ly dry in the sum­mer sun. By 4:30pm the paper had to be brought inside.

    In Chica­go, there was a tru­ly ele­gant Japan­ese paper shop named Aiko’s. After she passed the shop had a new own­er for a few years, and now it is closed and gone. A Cul­tur­al loss for the art world.

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