HandmadeJapanese paper with a 1200 year history

The village of Gokayama in Toyama prefecture is famous for its steep thatch-roofed houses known as gassho-tsukuri. In this historical village they have been making a type of Etchū paper for more than 1200 years using methods passed down through the generations. From the preparation of the paper mulberry (kōzo) fibers to the molding of each sheet of paper, they have kept their ancient techniques, producing superior quality Japanese paper known as Yūkyū washi.
Gokayama in Etchū
 According to legend, Gokayama began as a hiding place for Heike fugitives escaping from the annihilation of their clan during the Genpei Wars (1181–85). It also has a history as a place of exile in the Edo period (1615–1868), being favored for such by the Kaga Domain (then lords of the area around present day Ishikawa prefecture) due to its precipitous terrain. Essentially isolated from the outside world and without large industry, Gokayama residents actively pursued local silkworm cultivation and papermaking production. Past generations endured both wind and snow.  Then in 1995, Gokayama was chosen for its unique lifestyle and local products born out of its harsh terrain and climate and for its distinctive thatched roof houses, becoming the fourth place in Japan to be registered as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site.
From the care of the mulberry fields in spring, to the summer mowing, to the autumn harvest, to the stripping of the mulberry bark in winter and bleaching it in the snow (yuki zarashi), all is done by hand in the traditional way with minimal use of chemicals. Pure mulberry paper made this way has both grace and strength. Even after a thousand years neither this kind of paper nor the ink written on it have changed color. For this reason, since 1949 yūkyū paper has been used to repair Kasura Imperial Villa and to conserve documents designated as Important Cultural Properties. 
The making of yūkyū paper begins each year in April. To ensure that good quality paper mulberry can be harvested, the ground is composted and then the seedlings are transplanted. In June, they begin nipping unnecessary buds (mekaki). To encourage growth, they cease nipping the buds in mid-August when the mulberry bushes are 1.5 meters tall.
By reaping time in November, the mulberry bushes will have grown as high as three to four meters, and once the cold sets in and the leaves have almost all fallen, it is time to harvest. 
The harvested mulberry branches are then steamed to facilitate the peeling off of the bark, which is the raw material for making paper. The ends of the steamed branches are beaten so that the bark can be peeled off more easily. The stripped bark is then dried in the sun and stored.  
Removing the black bark
When snow begins to fall, the black bark (kurokawa), or outermost bark is scraped or peeled off by hand, leaving only the inner bast fibers.
Exposure on the snow
Then the clean fibers are spread out on the snow to be bleached. This leaches the colored matter out of the fibers and results not only in naturally bleached fibers but also more refined and better quality paper. After about a week of exposure on the snow, the fibers are washed and the remaining bits of outer bark are picked out. 
The prepared mulberry fibers are then set in a cauldron with soda ash and stirred while boiling. After two to three hours, the boiled mulberry fibers are then moved to a water tank to wash off the lye with running water.
Removing dust and debris
The clumped fibers are broken down into individual strands and any remaining dust and debris are completely removed. Next the fibers are strengthened by beating. This completes the preparation of the raw material. 
Forming sheets of paper
The beaten mulberry fibers are stirred into a vat filled with water and a viscous extract taken from the aibika plant (tororoaoi, also hibiscus manihot). The paper sheets are formed one by one by scooping up the fibers on a screen set into a deckle (frame). 
The damp sheets are then stacked and held down with a pressing machine to drain and dry them. When the paper is completely dry, the yūkyū paper is checked for even thickness and impurities.
A variety of products are made from yūkyū paper such as gift envelopes, place mats, and accessories. 
At the Higashinakae Japanese Paper Processing Production Union they are accepting internships to experience the handmade Japanese paper manufacturing process. This program was created in hopes of continuing this historic Japanese paper production and of supporting those who come to the internship. 
By: Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University in collaboration with Kyoto Women's University
Credits: Story

Information provided by The Higashinakae Japanese Paper Processing Production Union, IC Design

Photo by Miyamoto Tomonobu & Nakamura Toshiaki

Text written by Miyamoto Tomonobu & Maezaki Shinya

Exhibition created by Suzuyama Masako & Mao Jiaqi, Kyoto Women's University, Lifestyle Design Laboratory

Supported by Sekichi Hisaji

English translation by Miyo Kurosaki Bethe

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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