Refined woodblock-printed decorative papers based on Tang prototypes, developed and adapted in the Japanese aesthetic for over a millennium

History of Kyoto Karakami
Karakami (literally “Chinese paper”) is a Japanese term used for a traditional brand of decorative paper, which is usually colored and printed with sophisticated designs. Karakami got its start in Kyoto and is still where its production is centered. The tradition of paper decoration originally came from China. It took root in Japan when artisanal guilds were established in the ancient province of Yamashiro, now the southern part of Kyoto prefecture. This kind of decorative paper was first used in Japan during the Heian period (794–1185), when aristocrats used it for brushing classical waka poetry. During this time, artisans adept in techniques such as paper-dyeing, gold and silver leaf patterning, pigment application, woodcut printing and more, and more, supplied lavish and elegant paper (ryōshi) to the imperial court during the Heian dynasty.
Origins of Karachō
Paper artisans further refined this art form and passed it on through the generations. In the early Edo period (1615–1868), this kind of paper was used as the writing paper for the much-sought-after printed books Saga-bon (“Saga books”) produced in Hon’ami Kōetsu’s artist colony of Takagamine, in northwestern Kyoto. Later, when karakami paper came into use on traditional paper-covered sliding doors (fusuma), groups of paper artisans congregated their workshops into concentrated areas, such as along Kyoto’s Higashinotoin Street. It is now clear that this is the area in which the first-generation Karakamiya master Karakamiya Chōemon (abbreviated as Karachō), who was of the samurai class, began his work in 1624.
Woodblock Prints Dating Back 300 Years
Karakamiya continued over the centuries, but it could have been decimated by major fires that broke out during the Hamaguri Gomon incident of 1864. Luckily, the head of Karakamiya managed to preserve the business’s essential woodblocks by filling washtubs with water and placing the blocks in a sealed earthen storehouse. Karachō is the only paper maker left in Japan to have survived since the Edo period. The shop retains 650 precious examples of woodblock prints preserved for over 300 years. 
Special Attributes of Kyoto Karakami
Traditionally, there were two types of karakami: Kyoto karakami and Edo (present-day Tokyo) karakami. Edo karakami utilized Hosokawa paper produced in areas of nearby Musashi province, such as Chichibu and Ogawamachi, and frequently incorporated stenciled Edo komon (miniature repeat patterns) designs—which were suitable to printing. Kyoto karakami, meanwhile, utilized high-end washi papers such as Echizen hōsho paper and torinoko paper, which were printed with traditional patterns stemming from court culture of the capital. These items were favored by establishments such as machiya tradesmen’s houses and tea houses, amongst others.
The Respective Roles of Shōji and Fusuma
While shōji papered windows and doors can be used to adjust the amount of light let into a space, fusuma sliding doors essentially function as room partitions. Still, fusuma are a key element in interior decorating and room arrangement: fusuma patterns tend to have a big part in determining the atmosphere and even the purpose of the room. A myriad of patterns were produced to suit the needs and tastes of court nobles, samurai, tea ceremony practitioners, and more, as well as to suit particular building styles.  
Karakami Swatch Books
Karachō has preserved swatch books dating back to the Edo period. In particular Taisho-period (1912–1926) karakami swatch books are a wonderful illustration of the differences in patterns that emerged over time. Thanks to these beautifully printed books, we have the opportunity to observe techniques unique to Karachō. In addition to multitudes of patterns reflecting the tastes of the times, the books include examples of printed lacquer, silver leaf, crinkled karakami, and more.
Restoration of Katsura Imperial Villa
The tenth-generation Karakamiya master oversaw the restoration of the Katsura Imperial Villa in 1950 and also in 1959. Further, in 1979, the eleventh-generation Karakamiya master was also involved in additional repairs of the structure. During this period, he managed to replicate all the original karakami patterns—created when the building was first built and rediscovered during the restoration process—through a long process of trial and error, including producing the foundation pattern paper. The number of patterns restored during this period totaled approximately 4,000. Later, these were carefully preserved by the twelfth-generation Karakamiya master for future repairs to the Katsura Imperial Villa.  
Making Karakami
To make karakami, the backing paper is coated with a sizing agent and then dyed with pigments and other materials. Next, white crushed shell pigment (gofun) or mica is dissolved and combined with seaweed paste (funori) or animal-based glue (nikawa). The mixture is brushed across a large sieve, which is gently rubbed over a woodblock so that the entire woodblock is evenly coated. The paper is placed on top of the woodblock and pressed with the palm the hand to print the pattern. Since devices such as baren pads are not used in karakami-making; the quantity of pigment used and the amount of time taken to press the pattern depends entirely on the intuition of the artisan and their many years of experience.  
Capturing the Right Moment
Woodblocks are very often made from the wood of the magnolia tree. This wood is soft and easy to sculpt, and the surface remains smooth even with many years of use. For this reason, though the woodblocks preserved at Karachō have been used for three centuries, they show virtually no signs of wear. The grain of the cherry tree, which was often used to make woodblock prints, grows at different speeds depending on the season, which can lead to discrepancies in degree of hardness causing concave and convex areas. Because karakami features repetitive patterns, this type of wood is unsuitable for the craft.
Choosing Papers for Karakami
The twelfth-generation Karakamiya master utilizes washi (handmade Japanese paper) from around the nation, including Echizen, Yatsuo, Sekishū, Kurotani, and more, for different purposes. He skillfully incorporates the attributes of the paper from various regions, considering factors such as compatibility with mica and patterns, how the product will be used—such as in for books, fusuma sliding doors, or for letter writing—as well as the suitability to the design of the space and balance.
In Praise of Shadows
In former times, traditional Japanese houses allowed people to adjust the amount of light coming into each room with both shōji and fusuma screens. At night they relied on candlelight or paper lanterns. Amidst this lifestyle where people read and wrote in dark environments, it is easy to imagine the great role that silver and gold played in this scenario. Karakami mica decorations undoubtedly created intriguing shadows in the play of candlelight.
Conveying the Right Sentiment
The first floor of the Karachō studio houses a great variety of different items. Though it is becoming less and less common to write letters nowadays, you might just be inspired to write a handwritten letter when you witness the implements displayed here, such as postcards, letter pads, envelopes, and more. Visitors might also gain some interior decorating ideas when they see the studio’s ceiling, walls, fusuma doors, and more decorated in gorgeous karakami.  
Taking on New Challenges
While Karachō is a purveyor of tradition, this establishment never stops taking up new challenges in the field of expression. Examples include furoshiki wrapping cloths featuring karakami Rinpa patterns in a collaborative project with a furoshiki shop, and the development of a tea ceremony tapestry pouch. In 2015, Karachō was also invited to a ramen bowl exhibition together with famous designers for the unveiling of new bowl designs that the company was involved in. Though an art form can be perpetuated simply by conveying the traditional methods from one generation to the next, Karachō seeks to take things one step further and actually forge new tradition.
Returning to Our Roots
Seiji Senda, the twelfth-generation Karakamiya master, remarked in an interview as follows: “Karachō was established about 400 years ago by the first master of our shop, but we’ve really seen dramatic change over the past few decades in what we do. Since printed wallpaper is now mainstream, karakami has now been simplified along with this trend. Though we fully understand the demand, we remain intent on going back to our roots. Culture simply disappears if we begin to forget why we have such-and-such pattern or color, or why karakami itself is even necessary. Karacho will always be about authenticity.” 
Karachō Main Shop and Studio
By: Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University in collaboration with Kyoto Women's University
Credits: Story

Information & images provided by Karacho

Supported by Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts, Fureaikan

Text written by Ueno Masato

Photo by Suzuki Yoshinori

Movie by:Takayama Kengo, A-PROJECTS

Exhibition created by Kobayashi Yuka & Sakashita Riho Kyoto Women's University Lifestyle Design Laboratory

Edited by Melissa M. Rinne, Kyoto National Museum

Directed by Maezaki Shinya, Kyoto Women's University

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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