The city of Echizen in Fukui Prefecture is home to some of Japan's best cultural icons, and washi papermaking is one of them. Washi paper definitely has a role to play in the rising prominence of traditional Japanese culture, and spending time learning about its origin is something I recommend any Fukui visitor to experience.
Your first destination should be the Echizen Paper & Culture Museum. Entering through its doors, one is greeted by the sight of a paper structure of 307 paper cranes, apparently made out of just a single giant piece of hemp washi measuring 2 x 2.7 meters. Pretty impressive stuff. Walking around, one is able to explore the history of washi paper, its origins, the legends who have inherited previous generations’ traditional techniques, and the signature types of washi paper each legend created. Exploring deeper into the museum unveils a huge gallery where a thousand different pieces of washi paper are suspended in the air, with their different colours adding a stunning sense of vigour to the gallery's aesthetic. The largest piece of handmade paper in the world ever created is also on display, measuring 4.3 x 7.1 meters, not to mention some beautiful, intricately-designed paper lanterns to admire.
After the museum, I visited the Udatsu no Kogeikan, a traditional washi-making house along the main tourist road in Washi no Sato (Paper Village). Upon entering, traditional washi-making equipment can be sighted immediately, authenticity at its best. An elderly professional emerged from his study, and started demonstrating the washi-making process. From the meticulous care to washing mulberry bark to boiling it, combining the boiled mixture with other materials and using a screen to form each perfectly crafted piece of washi paper, one could see the light in his eyes as he explained with such passion about his craft, while explaining each step and pointing to the various tools respectively.
The experience of watching the masters at work wouldn’t be complete without trying my hand at it. Luckily enough, the nearby Papyrus Kan is able to offer that experience. The learning space already has prepared the boiled mulberry bark mixture, so visitors can learn how to create, decorate and dry their washi masterpiece before taking it home to keep. For visitors wanting to purchase some authentic washi products, the other side of the Papyrus Kan sells a wide variety of notebooks, postcards and various other souvenirs.
Even though the quality of handmade washi is unrivalled, only through the use of modern machinery can the demand for washi paper be matched. I visited a few factories that had the best of both worlds - huge machinery taking on the uphill tasks of boiling and beating pulp, and drying the pieces of paper, while the factory workers used huge screens to form each individual piece of washi paper. It was incredible to see washi paper created on such a large scale. The advanced machinery was visually impressive, working in harmony alongside individual people to ensure only the highest quality in their products.
The entire day spent exploring washi paper culture was a day well spent. Both humbling and insightful, I honestly don't think I can appreciate my regular A4 printing paper the same way that I appreciate washi paper now.