Sunday, March 13, 2011


Our Awagami Factory teachers: the paragons of perfection
It has been already a while since we came back from our magical winter session in Japan. Demanding as the present is, the memories still persist and you cannot and, in fact, don’t want to break the spell of this enchanting trip.
The travel portion of the course consisted of two parts – a ten-day papermaking workshop at the Awagami Papermaking Factory in Yamakawa, Tokushima Prefecture, Shikoku Island, and a ten-day Kyoto-based art history survey taught through visits to major historic and artistic sites. There were also unforgettable transitions – two days on arrival in Japan spent in Osaka, half a day on Awajishima with Tadao Ando’s architecture and a Ningyo Joruri performance and an overnight stay at Koyasan, each filled with ultimate discoveries, whether immediately realized or coming later as an afterthought.

Deeply moving and enlightening as the art history part of the course was we were mere visitors at that time – like other outsiders infatuated with the poignancy of Japanese feel of beauty. Like others, we were in awe of the daring naturalness at Ise Jingu, felt mesmerized at Koyasan by morning ceremonies and walks through the Okunoin Cemetery, the Hall of Lanterns, Kongobuji, and the Daito amidst a heavy snowfall, enthralled by the Silver Pavilion and strikingly simple rock gardens at Ryoanji, Daitokuji, Kofukuji.

But it was the papermaking workshop at the Awagami Factory, initiated and organized by Daniel Heyman, a print artist teaching printmaking at RISD, that made our trip really unique. It was there at the factory that we were allowed to be a part of the process practiced by the Japanese (and Japanese alone!) and for centuries: we were making famous Japanese paper – the washi. Frankly, initially I wasn’t going to participate. Being an art historian, I have very little experience doing things with my hands and I thought I would use the time of the workshop to catch up with some of my many overdue obligations. But it turned out to be just impossible to stay uninvolved – so fascinating the project was from the very beginning. Thus I became a part of the team learning how to make washi. We were doing this in a small rural town of Yamakawa set in a valley of Yoshino River, among the rice paddies surrounded by mountain ridges – the place was so genuine, so authentic, and so timeless! It was a thrilling feeling of being a foreigner miraculously afforded this level of immersion into the thick of Japanese real life! Moreover, we were taught papermaking at of the major historical centers of this craft – on Shikoku! The workshop was scheduled for winter – the traditional season for papermaking as cold keeps fibers from fermenting. Furthermore, we were studying this craft under the expert guidance of the two-hundred-year-long custodians of the tradition, the famous Fujimori clan, together with their highly knowledgeable and skilled staff and friends. Mr. Fujimori liberally and with subtle humor let us to the secrets of his mastery, Mrs. Fujimori taught us and fed us, their daughter Shizu provided skillful explanations in English and helped in various ways. Naoko, who works for the factory, was always there to assist with whatever needed, Reiko Nireki, an artist affiliated with the factory, helped with advice and translation; there were also other workers of great expertise, whose names, unfortunately, I don’t know but whose guidance I would like to acknowledge.
The beauty of washi and the immense range of its usage hardly need any introduction. At once flexible and durable, smooth and textured, opaque and translucent, we saw it everywhere in daily life of Japan. It diffuses the natural light in the sliding screens in a Japanese traditional house, it is used for Japanese banknotes, for calligraphy and printmaking, you see it in zigzag streamers of Shinto offerings, in the garments of Shinto priests, in the masks and toys, etc. It was washi that endured the multi-block printing in ukiyo-e, Japanese traditional woodblock prints of the 17th – 19th century, still the most widely admired form of Japanese art loved for the perfection of its drawing, design and color as well as its intriguing content.

On many occasions in my life I have read detailed accounts of the stages of mulberry paper production, I have PowerPoint presentations prepared for teaching on the basis of these readings, but how different this bookish knowledge is from that acquired through the actual apprenticeship! Concise as our workshop was, it allowed sufficient time to get into all the activities involved in handmade paper manufacturing and even to creative experimentation due to the superb planning on the part of our master-hosts.

Words of gratitude are also due to the warm and thoughtful care we were surrounded by on a regular basis. Not only the quickly disappearing supplies of snacks, tea, and coffee were constantly and invisibly replenished, heaters brought, etc. One also cannot forget the sudden appearance of Mrs. Fujimori accompanied by her loyal miniature poodle Momoko with some goodies made specifically for us such as a big pot of hot sweet ginger drink or delicious sponge cakes. It made us feel personal guests!

The last day: wonderful surprises
I think about the last day of the workshop over and over again. Mrs. Fujimori was showing us orizomegami – how to fold and dye paper in a traditional way. The bowls with warmed dyes mixed with neri were waiting on the table while Mrs. Fujimori with the precise and absolutely natural movements of her beautiful hands was making the sheet of paper into a narrow strip and then into just a small triangle. Quickly choosing the colors to be used, with the same easy and assured gestures she dipped the corners of the triangle in several bowls, rinsed it in alum and unfolded the sheet with colorful kaleidoscope patterns to everyone’s admiration. It was then our turn to try, which we did – sometimes with more and sometimes less satisfying results but with unfailing enjoyment. It was the same day that we tie-dyed a handkerchief with Awa indigo, the famous specialty of Tokushima on Shikoku.

We were still finishing up when the greatest surprise came. We were called to gather together in the center of the factory’s main floor and Mr. Fujimori solemnly and cheerfully presented each of us an unspeakably beautiful diploma testifying to our completion of the course of washi making at the Awagami Factory. The text was written in Japanese on a beautiful textured thick paper and put inside a folder made of another type of remarkable Japanese paper – colored paper with most famous traditional designs. Everyone was stunned and utterly happy! You can tell if you look at our group picture!

After that our generous hosts continued to lavish gifts upon us, each receiving a most valuable catalogue of Awagami Fine Art Paper and – additionally – a DVD with all the process filmed and explained! What a memorable completion of the course!

Awagami Factory teachers and RISD WinterSession 2011 group holding beautiful certificates of completion of papermaking workshop.

The homage to the Fujimori clan – projects of the RISD students
The assignment was to create anything using paper crafted during the workshop at the Awagami Factory.

The artistry, variety, inventiveness, freshness, originality of student work submitted only a week after return from Japan was just astounding! And no wonder since the inspiration came from such a full-bodied experienced orchestrated with a great care by the masters from the illustrious Fujimori family!

Blanca's landscape print triptych - graceful, elegant, with feeling. Picture doesn't do these prints justice.

Andy's three-dimensional composition "Five Elements - Gorinto." Very thoughtful, inventive, lively, interesting, artistic - with a variety of forms and textures revealing many of washi inherent qualities.

Angela Chun's folding screen with Japan's mountainous landscape, ravens and much, much more. Torii next to the screen and a beautifully crafted and painted box for the screen - see image below.

The box for the screen by Angela Chun - here again you see the Torii and hardly visible here cut out raven alighted at the corner of the gates. Simple and strong design! The texture of the paper is expressly visible in the original.

Martin's whimsically graceful mannered beauties - captivating in every detail! The hairdos of the head-and-shoulder ladies in the upper row are all paper sculpture made at the Awagami Factory during the workshop. As to long-necked and long-armed damsels of the low row, their hair was also made at the Awagami Factory with red threads blended in into the pulp. The vision of the work was already there!

And here come Lily's masks of Inari foxes - masterfully crafted from her paper, humorous and artistic, enlivened with toy eyes and wrapped for consumption and thus reflecting the omnipresent connection of the sacred tradition and mass-culture! So observant!

Leslie used her paper for an anatomical composition, vividly expressing her bodily concerns.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Naked Truth

(reflections on Fuigo-inn onsen experiences in Yamakawa, Tokushima Prefecture. January 2011)

* * *

From that very day when my colleague Daniel first shared with me his observation that a public bath in Japan is rather a locale for community gathering than just a place to wash your body – something like a well in a village, I kept thinking about this. Indeed, there is little doubt that people who come to a rural onsen like ours at Fuigo-inn in Yamakawa have known each other throughout their lives, and the same was true about their parents and grandparents and so on for generations. Regular visits to an onsen are a usual thing, a part of life routine loved by the entire nation.

* * *

What struck me most was the possibility of a deeper meaning contained in the fact that suchlike community interactions occur at a place where the participants are in the state of their utmost naturalness, i.e. completely naked. Moreover, the visit to an onsen begins with a “purification rite” of sorts: with thorough washing of your body in a fairly ritualized manner. Any guidebook on Japan is sure to include detailed description of the onsen etiquette, which, simple as it is, sometimes is not so easy for a foreigner to follow faultlessly.

* * *

So, visitors to an onsen are stripped to the core – their appearance doesn’t anymore carry the signals of individual taste, status, political affiliation, etc. encrypted in the choice of what and how to wear. There is nothing but your own self among the same kind of selves – that’s it. I thought if it were legitimate to make here a connection to the Shinto ideals of naturalness and purity, Taoist ideas of the necessity of becoming one with the natural way of the universe, Zen Buddhist concept of nothing special being necessary for the awakening since everything possesses Buddha’s nature? All these teachings / religions, consciously or unconsciously, became essential for the Japanese way of thinking, shaping concepts of ethics and aesthetics, or to say this simply – defining the understanding of what is good and what is beautiful.

Japanese aesthetics relies on the appreciation of things simple, natural, and unpretentious. Unmatched craftsmanship of Japanese artisans is rooted in the treatment of every natural material as a living entity since everything in nature is regarded animate due to the presence of the spirits kami within. This approach is evident in Japanese woodwork with its careful revealing of grain and the natural color of timbers, particularly striking at Ise Jingu but not limited to it, of course. You see the similar attitude “molding” Japanese pottery in which any kinds of spontaneous distortions become the most prized features. The same sentiment underlies rock and moss arrangements of the dry gardens, the so often seen support systems of straw ropes and bamboo struts propping up the sprawling branches of a living tree unable to hold them itself, etc.

With all that said it hardly should be surprising that old friendships are kept refreshed in an onsen where things are literally laid bare. It is also, perhaps, not a surprise that new cordial friendships spring up in this environment of utmost openness. And this is exactly what happened one day when a friendly Japanese woman came up to me and asked something simple – it seems to me, she just asked where our group was from and what we were doing in Yamakawa. Hiwada Shizuyo introduced herself, told me that she lived at a local temple Ikōji not far from the inn and invited me over.

The first day I went to explore the place with some friends and found the temple but knocking at the door seemed an intrusion and so we retreated. The next morning we met with Shizuyo-san again and she repeated her invitation. So, after the day at the Awagami Factory ended I wandered through a completely quiet town in twilight and already in complete darkness climbed the steep steps of the temple. I came up to the door and rang. This very minute I saw a quickly moving shadow of my new friend appearing against the milk-white shoji and Shizuyo-san went out to meet me. It was obvious that she was waiting for me! She showed me around the temple, let me into the adjacent room, brought little tray with nice pastry and in a second appeared with a bowl and a bamboo whisk. With easy, precise and absolutely natural movements she whipped up the beautiful thick green tea for me which I greatly enjoyed. When it was the time for me to leave Mrs. Hiwada, having presented me a bag of goodies, jumped into her car and drove me down to the inn. It was already a cordial friendship! Difficult as our communication was because of the language barrier we still managed to exchange basic information – how old we were, who our children and grandchildren were, who our husbands were. I know, for example, that Shizuyo-san has a son and two granddaughters and that a grandson is forthcoming soon. From that day on every morning we met with Shizuyo-san in the onsen, washed next to each other and sat in the hot bathtub afterwards, always finding some simple but important things to tell each other about. One day Shizuyo-san came up and rubbed my back – an unexpected but recognizable experience, something practiced in public baths in Russia where I am originally from. An unexpected coincidence but perhaps just a natural favor among washing people in public baths internationally.

I told my colleague and the students about my new close friend and about being a guest in the temple. Everyone was intrigued – and Shizuyo-san graciously extended her invitation to the entire group. The next day there were fourteen of us! Again we were shown around the temple and Shizuyo-san and her friend made green tea for all of us and let everyone try a hand at it to the utmost excitement of the participants. It was on two more occasions that our group was welcomed to the temple. Once the husband of Shizuyo-san, Mr. Hiwada Jisen, the priest at the temple and author of many books came out to greet us in his priestly garb. We all felt in awe. Special scrolls were put out and hung at the front of the altar frame. One of the scrolls represented Kukai, the same as Kōbō Daishi, the 8th century Buddhist teacher and a founder of Shingon School of esoteric Buddhism, who is particularly revered on Shikoku where he was born. His story was somewhat familiar to many in our group since we were going to Koyasan, the main temple complex founded by Kukai. The other scroll told about the pilgrimage of our host to China where he visited all famous places associated with Kukai who had studied there. Both our hosts – the priest and his wife taught us calligraphy and gave us towels and memo-pads as souvenirs. Everyone seemed thrilled and moved because the experience was so utterly authentic.

By way of conclusion, these deliberations on the root of the warm human connection that swiftly developed from my onsen acquaintance made me suddenly realize its innate correlation with the concepts fundamental for Japanese culture that all focus on the deeply hidden truth of things. Two major are makoto – the sincerity and purity of mind and heart, and kokoro – the heart, the inner core of things.

Elena Varshavskaya

Our group at Ikoji Temple with my friend Hiwada Shizuyo.

Our group with Hiwada Shizuyo's friend.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Friday, January 28, 2011

Some notes. ( by raine vasquez)


I have an affinity for prefacing my thoughts with disclaimers; an activity that, according to an old Professor of mine, was the result of either bad writing (if something must be disclaimed then it should have found its way into the content) or lack of confidence. In this particular instance, I hope that it is the latter. For what follows is the transcribed journal of my thoughts during a month-long trip to Japan. As such, it lacks the much needed citation, revision, omissions, and clarity that I’d have it possess. What is presented, however, are some personal reflections on my interaction with Japanese culture: fractured, incomplete, unvetted. In summary: it is a blog. But in the spirit of a disclaimer, I’d like to list those authors (my need to cite) whose writings were influential in my experience in Japan, and, in some cases, formed the foundation upon which I felt compelled to expand: Donald Keene, Roland Barthes, Jun’ichiro Tanazaki, and John Whittier Treat.


The Uninitiated

Visiting Japan as an Uninitiated, a Westerner with little or no knowledge of the language (visual, linguistic, or otherwise) of the Japanese people, affords one the chance to experience the signs of another culture without the bias that language carries with it. Language, both speech and script alike, carries innumerable signifiers of cultural implicature that alter interpreted meaning. This is implicit in the language but the affected meaning is always on the side of reception. Examples: accent, ethnicity, social status, and inflection; within a language every speaker has a perspective. It is my status as an Uninitiated, my ignorance, in effect, that washes the language clean of these signifiers.

Adrift in a Void of Meaning

Roland Barthes, in Empire of Signs, points out that “language carries with it these signifiers that keep us from accessing certain levels of communication... As an outsider we can view a semantic culture free of linguistic barriers.” However, we should beware this sense of freedom in our analysis; while we do not have access to the syntax and historical weight within the language, it is that language which has formed the semantic culture. Our exile is thus transitive, without the linguistic there is no semantic; We are adrift in a sea of meaning, unable to drink for fear of dehydration.

The Gesture

Respite. An island: the gesture. A level of communication presents itself to us as soon as we acknowledge the fissure between our linguistic bodies. The gesture takes the place of language, beautiful in its clumsiness, and simple in its syntax. This language has been bleached of excess; it is not burdened by class or politics (were we to find these in the Other we remain unable to position ourselves in hierarchical relation to him/her). Misinterpretation, that ghostly figure that haunts our complex languages, is foregrounded in the gesture. This language becomes about misinterpretation: its elimination.

The gesture is a histrionical performance: the actors personify their roles in outrageous caricatures: the angry becomes Anger. It lacks the subtleties of spoken language, shedding sarcasm and irony. Despite the implicit hierarchy between a native and an Uninitiated the ground is made even through the elimination of these excesses; one must convey a message rather than a position. It is the navigation of common ground in order to bring each other to the same place: blunders are made by both sides, two steps forward one step back... at last! the epiphany! Oh, you mean...!

Death of the Gesture

However, this form of language requires that one of the performers be an Uninitiated (although both may occupy this space). Thus, we will quickly lose our even footing, as we cannot be immersed within a culture and maintain our position outside it. We assimilate: the signs will not remain empty. The more we become aware of cultural distinctions, propriety, and language, the the more we become subjected to the restraints of language. The gesture retreats to the background in advance of language; culture will impose and language will thicken around us. The gesture becomes simply an accompaniment of this language as the politics of communication strive to dominate meaning.

So it is that this avenue of simplified communication begins to recede as suddenly as it appeared and we are ushered unceremoniously into that complex

tangle of linguistic inference.

The Otherness of Japanese

The encounter with Japanese culture poses the categorical: is this thing Japanese? yes or no? More to the point: is this thing strictly Japanese? Our inability to answer this question in the affirmative frustrates. Japan lies somewhere in the shades of differences, yet we can answer with certainty only to the similarities (and even this is tentative, at best, in our growing global state). The Otherness of Japanese is a statement about our own culture rather than Japans. Many times, during my trip, one Professor or another has exclaimed at how Japanese a thing is, whether it be the everyday aesthetics of wrapping, gift giving, or the dawning of face masks to prevent the spread of illness. The implicature of these statements is, of course: see how specifically not-American these activities are?

Japan the Mirror

Kant, in Critique of Pure Reason, has pointed out the impossibility of knowing a thing in itself since we cannot step outside our own perspective in order to view it. Through this condition the encounter with Japan becomes a mirror: at every turn an encounter with some form of myself, whether it is what I am or what I am, distinctly, not. What follows are not my meditations on Japan, rather they are considerations of myself in Japan: they are self-reflections.

This is being especially provocative, of course, since it is certainly possible to close the gap between ourselves and another culture through interaction and education(Although the degree to which this can be accomplished is something about which I remain skeptical since it is seems impossible to trace ones own cultural lines).

Japan the Irrational, Disorder in the Streets, De-centered

My first expansive view of a Japanese city (Osaka, from a raised crosswalk) afforded me several reactions which I felt the urge to put to paper; In the order that they arrived: awe, wonder, and confusion. The first two responses are self-explanatory: the city seemed overwhelming, sprinting eagerly to conquer the horizon. But it is this skyline that bred confusion. It’s chaotic and disordered. Skyscrapers cast shadows over residential houses and tiny plots of farmland alike. Contemporary shopping malls dominate entire blocks before giving way to traditional Japanese architecture which is itself situated beside rusted tin shacks. A lack of zoning regulations, or simply different ones, bequeathed a city where the skyline rose and fell as randomly as the mountains that ensconced it.

The cities of the West are, in contrast to Japan’s, composed with an order that parallels that driving force of Western thought: progress. The Western city is to be navigated, not digested. It is a serious of steps, a grid or a circle, where all roads lead to the center. This center is clearly marked by those infamous silhouettes that grab for our attention like the edges of a Brice Marden painting (suddenly the sky is a backdrop, its magnificence usurped by those symbols of our dominance, hence: skyline). This cluster of skyscrapers, our metaphysical, monetary, and political center, also carries the psychology of upward mobility. It is a place to go to and come from. There is an immediate sense that something is missing in Osaka: there is no sense of direction. There is no center against which one might set their compass; No towering markers of urban sophistication to orient the self, and the rest of the city, against.

Adding to this sense of irrationality are the streets themselves. Most of the surface streets of Osaka do not have names (street names are seldom used in Japanese postal addresses, the exception being the Chinese cities of Kyoto and Nara). Similar observations, on the streets of Tokyo, led Barthes, in Empire of Signs, to see Japan as irrational: “an apparently illogical, uselessly complicated, curiously disparate” system. For Barthes this is a reminder “that the rational system is merely one system among others.” This statement, however, is problematic: it is a virtue of the Western conception of rationality, a binary system, and a categorical one at that, which does not allow for the existence and proliferation of another rational system. One or the Other is more rational, more efficient, and our own rationality demands the immediate adoption of that system. Thus, Barthes is required by Western axiom to view the Japanese system as irrational. But if we accept Japan, ever adaptable Japan, as a rational system then perhaps we might learn where tradition and reason meet: that line where an overhaul of the system ceases to be the rational decision.

The streets of Yamakawa-cho, a rural town nestled in the mountains of the Tokushima prefecture, are also unmarked. Asking for directions here (to the post office, grocer, bus stop) will often result in the construction of a hand-drawn map. Without the benefit of street names this map turns vendors into landmarks, revealing the streets for what they truly are: negative space. This shift in emphasis, from the street as object to the path as subject, forces us to construct a city full of people rather than a grid full of names. The town also highlights another difference between our two systems: the grid. The avenues of this sleepy town, often barely wide enough for a single vehicle, cut across the valley at whimsical angles. They run the perimeter of the randomly shaped plots of land, occupied by houses or small farms, that rise and fall in steps. This system seems to have found no rationality in the grid; a stark contrast to the rectilinear pattern stamped across the U.S.

Japans food, like its cities, has also been de-centered (an aggressive term that occupies a specific perspective). In the West, an entree is often placed in a privileged position: steak is the meal, the potatoes are the compliment; satellite dishes are organized around the main course or are simply nutritional after thoughts. In Japan, a meal becomes the location of an activity rather than a process: the Japanese dish is presented as a palette to be sampled and mixed according to individual aesthetics: flavors are combined the way a painter mixes colors. The meal is made up of a myriad of dishes, each equally portioned and carefully partitioned so that no color will bleed into the next. The balance is striking: the pinch of a strong flavor, pickles or octopus, is countered by a larger portion of the mild or bland: rice, miso. But the aesthetics of this palette extend beyond the flavor of the food: the combination of textures, smells, and colors are all considered: carrots are cut into flower shapes, the white of the rice is emphasized with the bleeding red of a pickled plumb, the soft fleshy texture and rich pink of raw fish is set against a bed of crunchy green lettuce.

The de-centered cityscape and non-concentric streets of Osaka may seem disordered and irrational to Western eyes, but it is through this shift in perspective that we come to see the ontological relationship between reason and culture: it is not reason that our endeavors serve, like some Socratic Ideal, but rather reason serves our endeavors. The rational cannot be shrugged off (“merely one system among others”) because reason is a means: the goal must be ascertained before it even comes into the equation. This becomes evident in Yamakawa-cho, where the streets preserve Japans ancient farming structure (one can’t help but speculate that those farms have remained exactly the same for generations) over switching to the more “rational” grid. It is also apparent in the Japanese meal (different but not irrational) that hierarchy was simply never the point.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Monday, January 24, 2011

12 minutes remaining

on my laptop before it runs out of battery.

I had some octopus balls the size of fists at a flea market recently. An old lady sat next to me, chewing for quite some time. She took something out of her mouth, looked at it, and it was a piece of octopus completely in tact but chewed clean by her toothless mouth. She stuck it back in her mouth, kept chewing, and got up - or... more like her angled body rotated to her feet. She then pushed in her chair, an inch at a time, until it was under the table, and eventually made her way out.

There needs to be a toothless little old lady with me at every meal.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Awagami factory has been hard at work making paper despite our 21 person invasion these past 8 days. Two short women, one stout the other thin but round faced, their heads covered with round white hats stand apron clad all day long in a small glass enclosure in the middle of the factory, picking tiny black spots out of gampi fibers soaked in icy water. A loud beater behind them pounds endlessly at times, but they don’t seem to notice. Scooping small bowls of fiber saturated water which they clean with tea spoons, they ensure the purity of the silky white threads that go on to produce the world’s most expensive paper. In a far corner of the factory another woman using these cleaned fibers casts large sheets of gampi, each perhaps 30”x40,” rocking the large bamboo screen in and out of a fiber filled tub,

pulling perhaps 15 sheets an hour. Across the factory a man wearing a rubber apron and boots is mixing a dozen 5 gallon buckets of kozo fiber with pulp and the albumin like juice of the neri root. He then pours the buckets onto an enormous screen 3 meters square which is then rocked and gently hosed until the fibers settle into a thick even sheet. This enormous sheet is then pulled over a vacuum suction bar, where the water is drained allowing the paper to be moved to a drying board. It takes two workers to move a sheet this large, and when they are finally dried they are rolled into enormous tubes for shipping. The color is warm liked whipped yellow butter, heavy in weight, glass-smooth to the touch on one side, slightly rougher on the other. I have

never seen such large sheets of paper, and of course I wonder what on earth I could do with one -- how long would it take me to fill its area with drawn images? What if I made a mistake? I am quite sure these papers must cost several hundred dollars a sheet. Shizu tells me that Awa Washi makes these sheets exclusively for Hiromi Paper in Santa Monica, California. Who buys them from Hiromi and what happens to them then is a mystery; for me the pleasure in contemplating what I would do with such a sheet of paper is enough of a luxury.

Our next task is actually to learn to cast sheets of paper, and then to remove them from the casting tray and properly press and dry them. For this Fujimori-san has the patience of a master craftsman who loves his craft and enjoys passing his knowledge to others. He treats us to several demonstrations as a group, and then invites two students, Sarah and Liz, to try their hand at casting as we watch and he coaches. Each day since as he inspects our progress he works patiently one on one with many of the students including myself when he feels that a little refresher on technique will result in better sheets. That the man is a master is beyond question, his body dances through the casting of each sheet – as joyful a pairing of man and material as I have ever witnessed.

The first step in casting a sheet of paper is to mix the fiber and neri into the water. The wooden tub (all the tools are either wood or bamboo), is filled half way with cold water into which we add a melon size ball of fiber and an amount equal to a nice salad bowl of neri. A kind of swinging wooden rake made of wood braces and diamond cut bamboo blades is hooked into place so that the blades reach down into the water. The rake is rocked back and forth to break up the fibers and distribute them evenly in the mixture. After about 60-100 swings of the rake it is removed and the stirring continues with a bamboo pole for about 5 minutes. Fujimori-san tells us to listen to the sound of the water while it is being stirred, as this will inform you whether or not there is enough neri. Not enough neri and the fibers will clump and the paper will be uneven. I never seemed to get an answer as to if there can be too much neri.

The paper fibers will be scooped out of the water onto a tray which consists of a lockable stretcher and a bamboo matt. The tray hangs by two small ropes attached first to a metal spring and then to a wooden bar that jets out over the tub. The top of each tray has two wooden dowels that run the depth of the tray and serve as handles. If everything is properly set, you can hold onto the front of the tray’s handles with minimum effort and the rope will allow the tray to dangle a few inches above the water level. Now comes the hard part. Fujimori-san begins his little dance, which I call the Awagami shuffle. With his feet shoulder width apart, he quickly dips the front edge of the tray into the water, picks it up sharply and spills the first run of water out the far side. This quick action lines up the fibers across the matt, and creates a smooth “top” side to the paper. He does this a second time, and then on the third swing he gathers more water into the tray and rocks it back and forth allowing the fibers to spread evenly and in all directions as the sheet of paper begins to form. Depending on how thick you want the paper, you can stop here or keep dipping several more times. Rock too much and the wet fibers slide all around and the sheet is ruined. Don’t rock enough and the fibers don’t spread evenly. Plunge the tray into the water vertically and all should be fine; move it slightly backward or forward, and the fibers jump off the bamboo matt. Fujimori-san makes it look so easy every time. Believe me, it’s not!

Once the paper sheet has formed on the tray, you place the tray on two wooden bars that cross over the bath and let the remaining water pass through the fibers and the bamboo matt. I won’t go into it, but I lost many a finely formed sheet just by poorly adjusting the bars and losing control of the tray. The tray is now opened, and the fiber covered bamboo screen is lifted over your head and turned upside down as you turn around 180°. A wooden tray is set with a wet blanket waist high with two wooden posts on the near side. This is where you “unload” the sheet, again not so simple. As you begin to drop your arms from over your head, you first lower your right hand holding your left high so that the paper only touches the matt on one side, using the wooden posts as guides. Then gently lower the rest of the sheet. You remove the bamboo matt from front to back, using a bit of water and pushing from the back of the matt with your right hand if the paper fibers stick. Additional sheets are turned out on the previous sheet, a small ribbon placed on the old sheet to help in pulling them apart for drying. Now turn around and start again. Every 4 or 5 sheets of paper you will need to add more fiber and neri to the tub.

Over four days, when the piles of paper began to mount, we pressed the paper under heavy weights and a large press; the river of water that drained out was impressive. The following day the sheets are removed one by one and dried either “hot press” style or “cold press” style. For cold press, the more traditional method, the sheets are laid out singly on wooden boards to dry in the sun or alternately in an aerated room. Hot press involves laying the sheets one at a time on a stainless triangular steam dryer, which is a large metal box filled with steam that we rotate as one side becomes covered with drying paper and another side need its papers removed. Both options have their advantages, hot press working much faster, and cold press in general producing a nicer piece of paper for printing. We had a minor calamity with the cold press today when a board blew over and several sheets blew off other boards which were outside. We quickly moved the remaining boards in doors to dry overnight.

Of course, RISD students being who they are, these general rules and instructions were quickly modified to satisfy their voracious visual curiosities. All manner of plant material and fibers were inserted in the final layers of sheets; fiber colors and textures were altered; sheets were artistically crumpled on the hot press; sheets were folded and creased and laid with ribbons. Students experimented with mixtures of different fibers including gampi. Though I have enjoyed every step of this process, watching the students get into it in their own very individualized manners today and yesterday has without a doubt been the most satisfying part. And of course, watching our resident art historian Elena Varshavskaya become a bonifide paper maker, and really enjoying it when she hadn’t planned on participating, that too has been a real joy to watch.

We will be sending the paper back en masse to RISD where some of it will be used by the students for their final projects for this course. The rest is theirs to keep or use as they see fit. I have a wood block print I want to print on my sheets, and plan on carving the blocks in February. Stay tuned, as we hope to find a venue to exhibit some of the paper and all of the final projects at the end of the term.

Daniel Heyman

My apologies, as this post and the one before it contain quite a lot of technical information which is rather dry. My goal is that these notes may serve as a reference as much as a travel log.