[From December Issue 2012]
The tradition of Japanese Paper or washi (wa meaning Japanese and shi meaning paper) originated in China and was introduced to Japan through Buddhism. Paper making began during the Nara Period (8th century) and continued to develop gradually. But it is mostly during the Edo period (17 ~ 19th century) that Japanese paper became really popular, when it began to be sold all over Japan and new types of washi appeared. The production of paper became a part-time job during winter in farming villages.
Washi is the general term used to describe handmade paper made with traditional Japanese techniques. One of the biggest differences in the production processes, compared to normal wood pulp paper, is that the process requires little or no chemicals. Most Japanese paper is made in winter when pure, cold running water, essential to the process, is abundantly available. The cold water inhibits the growth of bacteria that might spoil the paper. The result is a paper that usually is sturdier and more durable than normal paper.
Washi is mostly made from the bark of gampi, mitsumata or kozo (paper mulberry) trees. Washi made from bamboo, hemp, rice, or wheat can also be found, but in smaller amounts and is mostly produced for specialized purposes.
The kozo tree is indigenous to the south of Japan. As it is known for producing strong fibers, it has also been used to create textiles. Mitsumata is a type of bush native to China that has been used for papermaking in Japan since the 17th century. With its ivory color and fine surface it is especially suitable for making calligraphy paper, but was also used to make paper money during the Meiji period (19 ~ 20th century). The gampi tree is found in the mountains of Japan. Japanese paper made of gampi fibers is very rare and very expensive. Mainly used for books and artisanal crafts, it has a natural reddish cream color and a smooth, shiny surface.
At the beginning of the production process branches are pruned, steamed, dried and stripped of their bark. The fibers are then boiled in water to remove starch, fat and tannin. Then it is rinsed in cold running water to remove any impurities. The remaining non-fibrous material is removed by hand. Wet balls of fiber are scooped onto a screen and shaken to distribute the fibers evenly. After drying the fibers, the washi is ready and it only needs to be sorted and cut.
Echizen (present day eastern side of Fukui Prefecture) paper dates back to the 15th century and is named after the region that produces it. Echizen is one of the most famous regions for paper production and its papermaking tradition was recognized as a traditional Japanese craft in 1976. Often used to create Japanese style lanterns, umbrellas or shoji screens, Mino (present day Gifu Prefecture) paper was first mentioned in the 14th century and is famous for its durability.
Ieda Paper Craft was established in 1889 in Mino City, Gifu Prefecture and now owned by the fourth generation of the IEDA family. They become well known for their “1/100” brand that combines paper craft with art. One of their most successful products is their paper snowflakes. The blurry borders of the Japanese paper are reminiscent of the structure of snow crystals, giving them a beautiful and realistic look. They are used as window decorations and, rather than having to use glue, will adhere to glass with just water. They can be removed and reused many times. Easy to use, ecological and safe for children, these paper snowflakes are the perfect decoration for the winter season.
Text: Nicolas SOERGEL