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.