Making paper in Japan + daily prompt: “What is something you learned recently?”

This WP daily prompt is so timely, as only 24 hours ago, I returned from a weeklong trip to Tokyo. It was an adventure packed with sights, tastes, and sounds that are unique to this fascinating place.

People close to me know that I rarely take the kinds of trips that feature mai-tais and lazy days by the shore. Don’t get me wrong – I love vacationing that way. The last time I traveled without a to-do list was about eleven years ago, in Zanzibar of all places. I keep telling myself, it’s time to completely switch off again, and find another secluded tropical beach. Somehow, though, each time I sit to plan a vacation, I remember the thousand and one things I want to do, see, or learn.

One of the things I meant to do the last two times I was in Tokyo was to take a traditional paper-making class at my favorite paper source, Ozu Washi. You can read about the shopping side of Ozu Washi in my previous post. To call Ozu Washi a shop, however, is to minimize the importance of this cultural center, which is an institution in the Japanese craft community. It has been a source of paper in Nihonbashi, Tokyo for more than 360 years. An earthquake and a World War may have destroyed the previous buildings, but the heritage has remained intact.

Washi (和紙) is traditional Japanese paper that is made by hand using natural fibers. It’s a durable and versatile material that is used often in Japanese daily life. In 2014, washi was recognized as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage. You can read brief descriptions of its uses and cultural importance here and here.

The washi class takes place in a small workshop on the first floor and takes about 30-40 minutes. I signed up for the first slot of the day at 10:30, and had the teacher all to myself. Akio had limited English, but he was great at explaining and demonstrating every step of the process before allowing me to try, and I used my Papago translator app for Japanese text.

Akio and I each made one sheet of white paper, and he simplified the process into five steps. After I chose my pattern and donned a waterproof apron, Akio handed me a bamboo-lined rectangular tray for gathering pulp. We started at a deep basin filled with a cloudy solution containing refined mulberry tree bark. The bark used is specific – it comes from the white inner bark of young mulberry trees. He explained this is the most common material for the type of paper we would make.

My teacher gave the solution a vigorous stir with a bamboo stick, then we began by submerging the mold several times and shaking it in different directions to properly distribute the pulp. Then we placed our pattern shape on top of the mold, and used a strong water spray to imprint the pattern onto the pulp.

After that, we took apart our molds, and rubbed the back of it with a sponge to release the molded material onto another sheet of paper. We then moved this material to a large, heated metal plate to dry. (Releasing the molded material is tricky – it can stick to the bamboo, and here is where I damaged my pattern a little.) Drying takes only a few minutes. When finished, the paper is peeled off the plate.

PHOTO: Which is the master and which is the apprentice?

Akio made it all look so easy, but my technique needs more than a little work.

The washi experience isn’t limited to the workshop. On the upper floors there are a gallery, history museum, and space for cultural classes such as calligraphy. The vibe here is friendly and welcoming, and I sense people working here have fun.

I’m grateful to the kind staff of Ozu Washi who took amazing care of me as their only student that morning. It was a true highlight of my Tokyo trip, and now I’m even more in love with the beauty, history, and versatility of Japanese paper.

Ozu Washi has a weblink here. In my next post, I’ll extend my answer to the WP daily prompt and share more highlights from this inspiring trip to Japan. Thank you for reading, be well!

PHOTO: A parting good luck gift for you – renzuru origami, or attached cranes that I made from a single square sheet of paper. Check out a post from three years ago that shows my attempt at four connected cranes.

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