Echizen is the historical washi paper making area where they started developing the craftsmanship 1500 years ago. It is believed, a goddess of paper brought this technique. She is worshipped at Okamoto Shrine, in the feature image above, to this day and celebrated in a spectacular festival in May. Click here to watch.
I find the area very exotic. Although it is only a couple of hours on the train from Kobe where I grew up, climates are different there. Echizen is in the north west of Japan. It is on the northside of a mountain range which divides the main island of Japanese archipelago. It rains and snows more on that side because humid winds bounce back at the wall of mountains. I hear people from the area don’t mind the weather in England. Academic ranking of Fukui prefecture where Echizen is is very high, and people tend to stay in the area, while one in three of the Japanese population lives in Tokyo these days. However, the residents of Echizen seem not to be too keen on food. Every winter I have visited there for the last ten years, lunch was always soba noodles, although I think they are absolutely delicious. One shocking thing is that they don’t take off their coats at soba restaurants while they eat. It is so cold. I have to think twice about going to ladies’. They appreciate cold sunless climates for papermaking. The cool temperature without much sunshine stabilises the quality of the materials. Craftsmen (usually women) work through a day dipping their hands in a bucket of warm water from time to time to keep them from going numb! They even build their houses with workshops at the foot of mountains to avoid sun on purpose. They are determined and dedicated.
Materials of washi paper are very different from those of Western paper which is made of wood pulp. Washi paper is surprisingly strong, even when it is wafer thin when it is dry due to the fibre content. Bark is stripped from Kozo, Mitsumata and Ganpi plants, boiled for two hours, cleaned by hand and shredded just to prepare the raw material for the paper. The fibres are then mixed with plenty of clean, clear water. They are then spread evenly in a shallow basin and covered with a pasty liquid made from yum plant roots, whose texture varies by season and is crucial to the process. Each sheet of washi paper is finally dried on a wooden board made from ginkgo which is chosen for its fine grain, though synthetic materials are often used these days.
Hi-tech Japan has no place here. However, the technique has been revolutionised; sizes of washi paper which used to be only 30cm x 30cm are now as big as 2m x 4m, or even bigger depending on workshops. This has made it possible to use handmade paper to be used in interiors. I do prefer handmade washi paper to the machine made pieces.
Young craftsmen and women are keen to make the next generation of washi paper. Not only people who were born into papermaking families but also some who come from all over Japan, especially from large cities, fascinated by the craft. I met a few young girls who have been training for a couple of years. They find repeating the same motions therapeutic.