Friday, January 14, 2011

How We Went to the Awagami Paper Factory and Made Paper; Part I

I have made paper before in my life, but I have never climbed a steep road through rice paddies to find a field with rows of young mulberry saplings ready to harvest for the soft fibers of their inner bark. I have made paper before, but I was cheating. Paper, like babies, seems to arrive with the storks. Until you actually go into a field planted with rows of kozo, as the Japanese call these trees, it is hard to really understand that in essence paper is an agricultural product and nowhere more so than here in rural Japan.

With a group of 19 students and a colleague from the art history department at RISD, I have been in Yamakawa, Tokushima Prefecture for just 5 days, and together we have made around 400 sheets of beautiful 100% pure local kozo paper, or Japanese washi. I have been thrilled in this short time, even awed, to participate in the production of paper almost exactly as it has been done for over 1200 years, when paper making first came to the island of Shikoku.

After a breakfast many Americans would find more foreign than a Turkish toilet, we left the hotel on our first morning and walked up into the terraced hills under the gaze of the forested Mt. Koutsu. We climbed past the farm houses with their grey ceramic roofs, the ubiquitous small canals used to irrigate the fields, bamboo forests, cedar trees strait and tall. Along the way we met Shizu Fujimori, the daughter of Mr. Yoichi Fujimori, the current leader of the Awa Washi company.

Awa Washi is the name of the company that runs the Awagami Paper Factory, where we have been for the past week. Just ot give you a glimps of the longevity of this enterprise, Awa Washi is currently under the management of the 8th generation of the Fujimori family. This company and its principle product, Japanese handmade washi, was designated an Intangible Cultural Property of Tokushima Prefecture in 1976 and Mr. Minoru Fujimori, the father of Yoichi Fujimori, was selected as Master Craftsman and awarded the Metal for Technical Excellence by the Japanese ministry of Labor. His son, Yoichi Fujimori, currently runs the Awa Washi production, and introduced machine made paper in addition to continuing the tradition of handmade paper. His 2 daughters work for the company out of Tokyo, and one of them, Shizu, is currently acting as our translator.

Dogs bark from a nearby farm, their noses up against a tin gate. We follow Shizu up the hills, to a small field with a small garden shed, where her father and two other men are busy at work. The field is not very large at all by American standards, maybe half an acre. It contains perhaps ten rows of kozo trees, each about ten feet tall and 3 feet apart. They are more like elongate bushes than trees, as several shoots spring from the same foot. These long stick-like trees have few if any branches, mostly near the tops. We are instructed to cut the trees to 3-4 inches from the base, leaving a stump where next year’s growth will sprout. We cut down two long rows of trees, and then cut the branches into 4’ lengths and bundle them up with strings. The side braches are cut off and discarded. The bundles which we carry to a small truck, remind me of the many old Japanese prints of workers carrying bundles of sticks on the Tokaido road. Perhaps some of those pictured were working for the Fujimori family and making paper?

Fujimori-san is a very patient man. He is calm, his voice quiet. He shows us a smaller bush, with small bundles of white buds on the end of each shoot. This is mitsumata, the second of the three varieties of plants that produce fibers for Japanese paper makers. Mitsumata grows very slowly, 3-4 inches a year, but the fibers remain soft and you can cut several years growth at once. The kozo fibers from older branches become hard and wooden, so these are cut every year. The third kind of fiber is called gampi, and it has never been domesticated as far as I know. Gampi fibers are the most expensive; they are soft like silk when you touch them. The paper they produce has a lovely sheen and is extremely strong. In olden days, gampi fibers were used for the production of money. We cut the mitsumata bush as well and bundle the sticks.

Halfway down the hillside, we turn down a long drive that disappears into a small forest of cedar and bamboo. Here is located the Awagami log cabin studio, where we will spend the rest of this day and the next first steaming the branches, then removing the bark. The kozo bark has three components, and though they can all be used to make paper, it is the inner most and whitest bark that will give us the nicest sheets of paper. The outermost bark simply flakes away in the process of twisting the bark and pulling it off the branch. The wood part of the branches is discarded at this point.

The second layer of bark, what we are calling the green layer, is slightly slimy at this point, and needs to be scraped off the white inner layer. For the rest of the first afternoon and the entire next day we remove the green bark from the white using knives. At this point any imperfections such as scabs on the bark or little black spots needs to be removed or it will end up in the paper. We sit in a circle, a blanket on our laps and plastic gloves over cotton ones on our hands and pass the hours telling stories, or rather, Elena and I told stories. It was cold, and we often took tea breaks to warm ourselves up, though not often enough! Mrs. Fujimori made us some wonderful thick ginger brew that was sweet as molasses and almost as thick. In spite of the cold and tedious nature of the work, the setting was beautiful. Throughout we were very aware that this is an ancient process, demanding its own timing. Fujimori-san tells us that the picking out of defects from the bark was traditionally done by farmers who had spare time in the cold winter months. Think of winter quilting sessions in 18th century America and you might approach the feeling.

On the third day we went to the main factory in town, where we met Fujimori-san and Shizu-san in a conference room on the second floor. The room is lined with art books on one side and has large glass windows that over-look the factory down one floor on the other. There is an electric tea kettle that is always on, and a bowl of sweets on the side table. We are told that this room will be ours for the duration of the workshop; we will eat lunch here as well as access the internet, and leave our belongings while we work downstairs. Downstairs we are shown how the fibers are washed and boiled with soda ash. At this point we combed through all the fibers by hand in very cold water, once again looking for bits of wood or black spots, removing any and all imperfections.

Now, believe it or not, we begin an activity where we actually get hot and sweaty. Its lasts the rest of this day as well as most of the next. We beat the fibers, placing them on wooden blocks and pounding them with short wooden bats to break up the long strands of bark to release the fibers. This is more pleasant than it sounds, as we can get into the rhythm of the beating, sometimes with a baton in each hand. The fibers fold like millefeuille pastry dough, the dark ochre color turning softer and more buttery. The noise is more than sufficient to block out any conversation. There is a certain Zen in this activity as well. When we are done, we have three grocery sized bags of fiber, hardly much at all I think to myself. It turns out I was way off.

Daniel Heyman

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