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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