A national treasure & a paper goddess

There is no other place we have visited with the shear amount of papermakers in one country. Artisans, craftspeople or technicians, these people are the glue that binds each page of the paper making book together. We have had the pure pleasure to conclude our paper making journey in the East in Japan and each of our visits have enriched our knowledge and documentation. With this being our final post from Asia before we continue through North America we have below written about several unique places.

Mino Washi, Gifu

Our paper cycling route twisted through the main island of Honshu like a snake. We had ear marked several important places and had to let some go due to distance and time. Our hand drawn paper map had highlighted several places from the prefectures of Gifu and Fukui. The route into Gifu took us into the hills and beautiful scenic areas after a few days on busy and monotonous roads. Sakura was still being celebrated as we were unintentionally following the blossoms north east.

Mino Washi museum in the Mino village was our first port of call, but before we arrived we saw along the road a stone statue with carved illustrations of a papermaker. The adjacent workshop seemed closed but peering through the window we saw the tanks and frames ready to go. This was a good sign as we approached the tall church like museum. We entered the light filled glass windowed museum of Mino Washi with paper cranes hanging from the double height ceiling. The light filled the floors of this purpose built building which had been there since the late 90’s. As with many paper museums they are built within the physical surrounds and environment of papermakers past and current. Mino washi is no exception as there is a long history of artisan paper makers within the local villages and towns.

The museum is divided into several themes from historical displays, reconstructed Japanese houses and rooms showing the use of paper in the interiors. There was also a room dedicated to showcasing the intensive process of paper making and the equipment used in making paper. The documentary videos showed each artisan crafting the tools from the horse haired brush to the intricate bamboo mats for the screens. This was perhaps the most enriched piece of work and there are sketches below that capture some of the details as photography was not permitted. As with many paper museums the demonstration and participation of paper making is woven into the museum and this was situated on the ground floor. Within the shop area there were panels profiling over a dozen papermakers and their paper from the region.

We were grateful for the assistance from one of the demonstrators as he spoke good English and was able to answer many of our questions. We also met a young papermaker from a nearby village. She came in to see us and gave us some of her paper. She had been learning and making paper for the past 5 years and was being mentored by one of the master craftsmen in a local village. She mentioned she had heard about us from a fellow paper making from Yame, who we had met at the Yame paper making workshop months ago.

Unfortunately, we were unable to meet any papermakers in the vicinity but we were glad to visit the museum and learn much more about the tool makers, which supply many other papermakers across Japan. We were told these tool makers are very old and many of the skills and knowledge are not being passed down. Which is something we heard in many regions in Japan.

Echizen, Fukui

We continued our route through the beautiful hills from the Gifu to Fukui prefectures with Echizen being our final paper stop before Tokyo. We had high hopes for our visit to the village of Echizen but with just internet research we had no idea what awaited us here. We arrived late afternoon and found a camping spot next to a dam wall away from the village. We left our secluded spot the next day and within minutes we spotted what looked like several paper workshops. We popped our heads into one workshop and uttered the word “washi?” The man looked a little bothered by our unannounced intrusion but after a brief introduction to why we were here he warmed to us and he showed us around his small factory, where 4 people were stood at paper vats all 3 forming paper sheets and one man operating the large scale paper drying conveyor belt machine. We were not allowed to take any photographs but allowed to watch them at work. We were then taken into the old wooden store room where piles of paper had been previously made covered every surface and corner of this building. He gave us several sheets of paper which had been printed on and informed us these are used to make paper kimonos. He also explained the different papers they make and was open about the grade and other materials used. His business brought in paper pulp from Chile, Canada and Thailand which sometimes was used to add to Kozo or bamboo the percentage range from 20-40% of added pulp when a lesser grade of quality paper was required. No other papermaker had discussed this external resource and most referred to mulberry (Kozo).

A national treasure

As we walked away and thanked our first artisan for his time, he suggested we go up the road 200 metres, turn right and you should see Ichibei Iwano, a ‘master papermaker’. We found a tall young teenager in the garden allotment with his grandparents and asked him where we could find Mr Ichibei Iwano. He pointed to his grandfather and all of a sudden we were being offered green tea and shown the workshop facilities. Mr Iwano and his wife demonstrated for us how they clean and remove any impurities in the Koso fibres. He then showed us in to each room and demonstrated each stage of the process with care and attention to detail. At 82 years of age he knew his craft inside and out. The glint in his eyes evidenced a lifetime of passion and love for his craft.

The grandson told us that his Grandfather had been made (awarded) a living national treasure of Japan for his contributions to the history of paper making. We were overwhelmed by the families warmth and our pure luck to stumble into the papermakers workshop. The family also shared an interest in our journey and love of paper. Mr gave us swatches of his paper and as we wheeled our bikes down their path the 4 family members turned and waved us goodbye. We looked at each other with disbelief on our faces we smiled and whispered, “what the hell, we have just spent time with a national treasure of Japan”.

Our day in Echizen continued with a tour of the Paper Museum of Culture. Which displayed hundreds of paper swatches in open cabinets, allowing visitor to touch the materials, a library and upstairs a exhibition space on papermaker. In the entrance there were videos about paper making in Japanese featuring the national treasure, Mr. Iwano demonstrating his art. His paper has exceptional quality as many well known woodblock artists use his paper for their prints.

A further museum to paper making was located around the corner and this was dedicated to paper making demonstrations and workshops. Our guide demonstrated a familiar process to use and took us through each stage from the Kozo fibre preparation to the Neri, a root of a native plant which is added to the pulp. Neri is used to keep the fibres floating around, without it, they would sit at the bottom making the process of forming the sheet of paper impossible.

Paper Goddess

The quality and proximity of water normally locates paper making but in Echizen it has been a goddess, Kami, which means paper or god. Here the most beautiful and majestic temple is dedicated to Kawa-Kami Ozen, the paper goddess and each year in May for 3 days people honour her in a festival dedicated to the history of paper and its legend. Paper kimonos are worn during the festivities and offering and celebrations take place accompanied by the sound of drums; a drama on the history of paper is played by children inside the temple and other rituals mark the only place in the world which celebrates paper making. A legend states that a goddes from China or Korea thought the people of Echizen how to make paper making this place unique. In the 14th century a lot of Koreans (who learned how to make paper from Chinese) settled in Fukui area bringing probably skills in paper making as well as leaving a trace of Korean accent in the local language.

As we pedalled away taking a little paper spirituality with us we were slightly numb from the amount of paper overload. Nothing that a few hundred kilometres of cycling would help to digest the experiences here in Echizen.

Tokyo paper scrapers

Snow, mountains, Mt Fuji, coasts and 30 million people, we had made it to Tokyo, our final cycle destination in Asia. We had 2 places to visit in this metropolis and we thought this would would conclude Paper in the east.

We visited a paper showroom, Takeo in Tokyo. A Lab style showroom showcasing and selling an extensive variety of paper from around the world. You felt as if you had entered a sterile room where just the paper was on the surgeons table. Bodies of colours, hues, tones, textures laid neatly in rows. Itching you to take out touch and hold to the light. Each row teased you to flick through the samples tempting you to buy a canary yellow flecked paper or a lava black patterns matt paper. This was paper paradise. The design of the floor to ceiling draws subtly numbered, gave an overall impression of the magnitude of the paper on offer. Takeo is the middle person here. Bridging the paper manufacturers from around the world to the client in need of specific paper. A designers paper reference library consists of paper sample swatches allows for easy browsing.

One of my ex students from LCC (BA GMD) lives in Tokyo which we were happy to meet up after many years. Akane took us to several of her favourite second hand book and print shops. As we talked about her time designing for Kenya Hara, she told us she had been one of the designers on the Takeo store and printed materials! Our paper journey just keeps opening up connections and it constantly reinforces what we are doing.

Paper museum Tokyo

To conclude our short visit to Tokyo we visited the cities only paper museum. Located in the area where the western style factory was manufacturing paper from wood pulp and recycled paper in the 19th century. As with many paper museums the history is represented and artefacts specific to the region are displayed. The emphasis here was very much on the mass production of paper, showing machinery and discussing the process of recycling materials. Our English speaking guide was extremely helpful and had worked in the paper industry for over 40 years. As we walked around this museum we felt knowledgeable about the information we had acquired during our 10 week exploration cycling some 3,400km through Japan, zig zagging our way to the next paper marker. This time we exited the museum door expecting this to be the final chapter in our visit.

Port of call

We had set sail, well so to speak as our cruise ship had no sails! On day 3 we disembarked at Aomori, Japan and we walked along the harbour and into town as we had read of an interesting museum of the Nebuta festival. As we approached the museum from the waterfront we noticed that the building itself was very interesting. The closest we were getting to, the more details were revealed. From just a red block the red iron ribbons, cradled the shell of the building. The theatre of twisted red iron curtains opened to reveal sections of the museum.

Once inside this impressive building huge paper lantern sculptures towered in the volt like space. These where not normal lanterns but sculptural landscapes and scenes. Characters, figures, animals, symbolic images where created from wire frames, light inside and paper mounded to the frames and vividly painted. Each lantern measuring approx 3-4square would depict a mythical scene. In August evenings the Nebuta festival take place in the streets of Aomori. The lantern floats would parade and musical performances would accompany them. These lantern are large scale pieces of art which use a range (handmade and machine made) paper of long fibres, as it is strong to withstand the manipulation and painting.

We researched the architect behind the concept and discovered that the studio Molo is based in Vancouver, Canada. As we scrolled through their online portfolio we were surprised by the amount of paper based projects and products. Serendipity strikes again and we made arrangements to visit the studio upon our visit in Aomori.

As we docked in Vancouver, after 15 days transpacific sailing we headed to Molo studio and were kindly guided around the studio by the account manager, Laila Fox. The white spacious gallery studio housed a collection of versatile honeycomb structures made, of course, of paper. From stools, tables, lighting to movable walls, the collection highlighted the importance of simplicity, modularity, lightness and flexibility. The space is designed not only to highlight the quality of the collection but it also offers the possibility to explore and experiment with the products to even inspire further ideas. This was another great experience which has connected us with the world of paper and it’s contemporary and wide use.

The Paper journey will continue as we plan to visit Canada and the West coast of America over the next few months.

Side notes:

During the transpacific cruise one of the challenges was to build a ship which could hold 6 cans of coke and would be launched in the swimming pool. Barbara came up with an appropriate idea by creating origami cube-boxes. Many hours later and over 45 cubes made of recycled newspapers the ship “L’ Eroica” with many detailing was launched on 9th May. Her voyage was brief but spectacular…and believe it or not, it exceeded our expectations, especially when, after brilliantly passing the floating test, it survived the attack of pirates who threw basketballs at all the ships in the pool.Made of 100 % paper, recycled “L’Eroica” arrived in 3rd place despite our doubts.

All photography by Jack Blake & Barbara Salvadori 2018©

3 thoughts on “A national treasure & a paper goddess

  1. Speechless again and so touched you are sharing your journey with us! Amazing! If you make it to Oregon go to the Noerthwedt School of Craftsand if you are on the coast road stop off at Sitka Art Centre near Seaside Oregon. It’s on Cascade Head. Amazing place. Xxt

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your support as always and for the suggestions which we hope to make later on. Hope all is well with you guys xx


  2. Hi. When we met in Khiva you talked about reaching China. Now, you’re in Japan and talk about North America… That’s a World Tour!!! That’s incredibile, I am amazed, I finished the words to describe your tour to my friends!!! Good Luck!

    Liked by 1 person

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