paper that southes the soul



Sharp eyes, sharp ears, a keen nose, rhythm in their blood and patience - that's what papermakers have to bring to their workshop. In Mino district, not far from Nagoya in central Japan, artisans have perfected a centuries old method of making paper. The end result is unique, more versatile than almost any other , as costly as silk, and indispensable for restorers the world over.

"After a day or two, almost anyone can manage to coax a few sheets of paper from the vat, but the risk of accepting an order for 500 sheets of identical weight and identical quality should only be taken on after a decade's experience," warns 81 year old Sayoko Furuta, the "Mother Queen" of the papermaker's art in Mino.

'Kouzo' mulberry bark needs to be boiled for several hours

before foreign particles can be removed.

Once pounded by hand or in a giant blender,

the fibers can be re-aligned by the master to become sheets of uniform quality.

Her delicate paper has saved the life of many beautiful but crumbling scroll, document and ancient map, both at home and abroad. It is pH-neutral, guaranteed for centuries against chemical change, and, even soaked in glue, doesn't tear. Whereas paper produced industrially from wood shavings turns yellow and crumbly with age, the paper made here by hand grows whiter and matures, like a good wine.

Known as washi this paper long fulfilled important functions in Japanese life. It was used for lanterns, umbrellas, fans and scrolls - articles which were in use day in, day out, for years, and stood the test of time. Jackets and raincoats of treated washi fitted their wearers snugly, while sliding paper windows diffused the sunlight, bathing interiors in a soft and even light.

Hardly any of these articles can be found in Japanese households today, and as often as not they are imitations made of industrially produced paper, which is cheaper. In its heyday at the turn of the century, Mino was home to 4.700 workshops. Now there are just 30, employing 69 artisans, each specializing in a particular kind of paper. Mino has developed into one of three "large" papermaking centers in Japan, renowned for its tearproof paper with a very smooth surface.

In 1971 the Ministry of Education, aware of the high quality of Mino paper and eager to protect the craft, declared hon mino gami (authentic Mino washi-paper) part of Japan's national heritage. In view of the dwindling number of workshops and the wide range of different grades of paper they produce, the rivalries of yesteryear have disappeared. Today all of Mino's master papermakers are happy to sit down at one table and drink a cup of sake together.

A stroll through Warabi, a small riverside village in Mino district, is balm to the eyes. The houses are regularly distributed at the foot of the hill like scales on a fish, all with their front doors facing south, and with large forecourts. Not just some murky back room, but the best room in the house is given over to work: the lightest room, immediately to the right as you come in, mostly four by four meters in size, houses all the tools needed for papermaking.

Now and again a scent of sweetish vapor wafts out of a vat; pieces of mulberry bark, the raw material for washi, are soaked and then simmered for a few hours in a weak lye. This dissolves the natural resins, leaving the fibers lying loosely next to each other. After a final meticulous inspection, the bark is meshed into pulp.

Here and there the visitor will come across a long building echoing to merry chatter. Kneeling at trough, their legs folded like pocket-knives, elderly ladies inspect the tip of every fiber under cold running water. They notice soft black impurities at once by sight, light woody growth by touch, and both by experience. After the cleaned strands of 'kouzo' were turned into pulp with the help of a giant 'blender', it is up to the master - who may well be a woman - to scoop out regular sheets from the vat in which the fibers are immersed. To do this a screen made of fine bamboo dowels woven with silkthreads is used. To prevent the fibers from sinking to the bottom of the vat, the gelatinous juice from Tororo Aoi roots, a relative to the Hibiscus and Okra plant is added to the vat. No felts, as in Western Papermaking, is needed to separate the wet sheets from each other. The next day the pile is pressed, and the damp paper is drawn over wooden panels with soft brushes and dried out in the sun.

To explain the intricacies of making washi , master papermaker Danjaku Ichihara draws a simple comparison: "A cake will always work: 500 grams of flour, a pound of butter, 125 grams of sugar - the proportions don't change, no matter whether it's raining, snowing or there's a thunderstorm raging outside. For our paper, though, we have no such fixed recipe. " The masters change their proportions almost intuitively according to the air pressure, temperature and humidity. The ingredients are organic, and their behaviour varies with the weather.

"We also have to plan production so that we have good drying weather when we're finishing with the scooping process, " explains Masashi Sawamura,. If a pile of damp paper cannot be dried, bacteria and mold will ruin many days' work in short time. " My parents were better weather forecasters than the experts in the radio," he laughs.

The quality of paper can also suffer as a result of another kind of "athmospheric" disturbance. " When I am making these large sheets with my husband, we declare a marital truce," say Mrs. Asako Ohta, as she dips the long frame into the vat in unison with him. "A number of orders have come in during some domestic crisis. The result was akin to scrambled eggs on the bamboo screen."

Married couples form the core of the team in a workshop. Outsiders are rarely employed. Although it's mostly the women who stand at the vat the whole day, while their husbands boil the bark and dry the paper, it's the latter whose names appear on the certificates, and who do the talking in negotiations. But the lady masters are content to leave these formalities to the menfolk while they get on with more important matters, such as refining techniques.

But the papermakers are only one section of the orchestra. Without the craftsmen who make the screens, the precisely trimmed frames and boiling utensils, and without the farmers who grow the mulberry trees, no master would ever be able to produce a single sheet of paper. But the number of such workshops and plantations has sunk to a dangerous level: there are only five screen weavers and three framemakers left in the whole of Japan. The growing of mulberry demands similar care as tending vinyards, and few young Japanese are interested in this kind of work.

Restorers of ancient documents and calligraphic scrolls are the only people still absolutely dependent on handmade paper. Sotaro Yamaguchi in Yaizu City needs three different kinds of paper to restore the suppleness to scrolls which have grown brittle with age. "We are very worried about the shortage of apprentice papermakers," says Yamaguchi."Papermaking is like an oral tradition, passed on from generation to generation like the baton in a relay race. If it's once dropped, the whole rhythm is lost, a rhythm which has been handed on from person to person for over a thousand years. "



'to be continued shortly....

return to the craftslink coverpage