和紙/Washi paper is one of Japan’s most fundamental cultural and artistic products. 和/Wa means Japanese, and 紙/Shi means Paper. Washi has formed the backbone of many Japanese artforms over 1,300 years, and it is registered as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage. The production of hand making paper was brought to Japan by Buddhist monks from China and Korea. Monks made and used paper to write sacred sutras. Japan learned the technique of paper-making and improved it. Washi is made using fibers of the gampi tree, the paper mulberry bush, or the mitsumata shrub. Until the Meiji Period when Japan was westernized and imported mass-produced paper, Washi was the major type of paper in Japan.
Washi is handmade and it involves a long and intricate process. The production of it usually takes place during winter when water is cold and pure without bacteria. Washi production has been a way for farmers to support their income in the cold winter time.
The most commonly used fiber for making Washi is paper mulberry. Branches of the mulberry are boiled and outer barks get taken off. Then they are dried and boiled with lye to remove fat, starch, and tannin. After that, the spent lye is removed in running water and bleached. Washi makers then get rid of remaining impurities in the fibers by hand.
What is Washi used for?
Washi is tough and used in many traditional arts and crafts.
Printing and writing: Washi is thick and can absorb inks well. It is widely used for printings and paintings including traditional Ukiyo-e paintings and ritual objects for Buddhism and Shintoism.
Art and Interior design: Because Washi is unique in color and delicate, it is used for many art forms such as origami, wall paper, lantern, indoor screens, blinds, wallpaper, etc.
Bookbinding and bag: Washi is flexible and often used for book covers adding a warm feeling to the reader. Specially coated Washi is used for making bags, purses and even for clothes.
3 Famous Washi in Japan
Mino is an area in Gifu prefecture. The high quality paper was first made in this area in 8th century Japan. It was relatively inexpensive, and became widespread throughout Japan. Many monks and powerful lords would visit the area to buy strong, thin, and beautiful Washi of Mino.
Tosa is an area in Kochi Prefecture. A combination of traditional techniques and rich natural resources of Kochi (such as the use of water from the Niyodo river, which is said to have the best water in Shikoku island) make it possible to produce amazingly high quality Washi paper. Famous world’s thinnest handmade paper called Kagerou-no-Hane (dragonfly wing) is made here. It is used for the repair work of ancient artwork all over the world. It is only 0.03mm thick.
Echizen Washi is produced in Imadate in Fukui prefecture, and it has a history of over 1,500 years. Imadate is a small town surrounded by mountains. There are about 70 local paper factories and studios along the Okamoto River. Echizen Washi is known as one of the most traditional Washi papers in Japan.
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