Legend has it that around 1,500 years ago a mysterious woman (thought to be from Korea or China) taught papermaking skills to the residents of Echizen, Fukui Prefecture, Japan. The locals had been struggling to grow rice on the land but the area was fortuitously blessed with pure water and paper mulberry trees, from which instead evolved the region’s production of washi paper.
Clustered around five villages, today the area is famous for its washi and is home to one of Japan’s ‘Living National Treasures’, Ichibei Iwanoi, considered a master in papermaking. The paper made here is so renowned for its quality that until 1950 Japan’s banknotes were printed on Echizen Washi, and the Japanese royal family still uses the paper to announce new royal births. Rembrandt used Echizen’s Gampi Washi Paper for his prints in the 17th century. It was also the paper of choice for the samurai, if you’re in to that sort of thing.
And that is why we ended up trying our hand at washi papermaking in this regional Japanese village. A naive endeavour as, turns out, it’s incredibly hard physical work. We’re talking Zac Efron toning up for ‘Baywatch the Movie’ levels of workout. Plus there happened to be a film crew there at the time, so circulating somewhere in Japan there’s a TV show about two British bozos trying to make Japanese paper. Look out for us on the telly!
Washi paper is stronger and more absorbant than its Western counterparts. It’s made entirely from tightly interwoven plant fibres:
the bark of the Paper Mulberry Tree (that’s ‘Kozo’, used to make hosho paper for woodblock printing, calligraphy, wrapping, papercraft and even umbrellas)
the Oriental Paperbush (aka ‘Mitsumata’, shiner and smoother than kozo and used to make Torinoko paper for ‘shoji’ and ‘fusuma’ room dividers and diplomas)
or Gampi, the finest, rarest and most lustrous, resistant to insects and used for papers designed to last a really really long time.
First you have to harvest the plants, followed by a lengthy process of steaming, separating, boiling and washing only the parts of the bark you need. Historically there would be a river or stream in front of the papermakers’ workshops, and the raw plant materials would be left in the water overnight to be soaked and cleaned. An appreciation of nature, materials and sustainable production methods remain integral to traditional Japanese crafts.
Any remaining impurities in the fibres are finally picked out by hand: the fewer the impurities, the higher quality and whiter the paper. This job requires patience and attention to detail and can take days.
Then comes the fun part: this is where you get to beat the plant fibres to untangle them. Hitting the plant fibres excessively can weaken them, while if the fibres are not beaten enough then they will produce a coarse and brittle paper. It’s a delicate balance which comes with experience and knowledge. Of which we had neither.
The next step is to mix the plant fibres with Tororo-Aoi, from the very useful Mallow plant family, and related to okra, hibiscus, hollyhock and cotton. Okra is the edible fruit of a variety of hibiscus. Marshmallows were originally derived from a type of hollyhock (no, we didn’t know that either. Today’s Fun Facts, kids)! Anyway, the clear, slimy liquid extracted from the roots of Tororo-Aoi is called ‘neri’ and is used to help keep the paper-plant fibres in suspension in the next step.
You’re left with a fudgy paper pulp.
This is probably the most recognisable part of the process. The paper pulp is mixed into a vat of water (that’s the ‘suki bune’).
The bamboo frame (the ‘suketa’) is then repeatedly dipped into the vat, collecting pulp as it goes. The first scoop is a shallow dip that allows pulp to quickly flow across the surface of the screen and form the face or front of the sheet of paper. Any excess pulp is allowed to flow over the edge of the mould. Subsequent dips go deeper into the vat and allow more pulp to collect on the screen before any excess is allowed to flow over the edge.
You need to do this rapidly to prevent the pulp collecting unevenly, and this is where your arms get a real workout. The process continues until the desired paper thickness is achieved.
The joy of a suketa is that the base splits out, allowing you to then plonk your soggy paper sheet onto a drying table. These wet paper sheets are stacked and separated with thread between them, and left to dry overnight in the sun or in a drying room. Excess water is pressed out if necessary, and a brush used to smooth out any notches. The last stage is to delicately take the paper off the press sheet by sheet, pulling the threads to release.
It’s pretty amazing to watch: a pile of wafer-thin sheets of paper, which cleanly separate rather than tear when a thread is pulled between them. That’s testament to the strength of washi.
And there you have it: how washi is made in Echizen.
If you’ve got buns of steel, and ever find yourself in Echizen, you can observe the craftsmen at work and try a washi workshop at the Udatsu Paper & Craft Museum, located in an Edo-era papermaker’s house. It’s about 5,000 yen for one person to make one or two sheets. Simply email email@example.com to book.
Alternatively our beginner’s papermaking kit has been designed by the washi paper masters of Awagami (more on them later). In store now, it includes the equipment to get you started, minus the hassle of harvesting the plants. Link at the bottom.
And the mysterious papermaking teacher, all that time ago? She disappeared into the Okamoto river and was then forever known as the “Kawakami Gozen” or ‘Upstream Goddess”, and enshrined at the Okamoto Otaki Shrine. She continues to be worshipped by people in the Japanese paper industry to this day.