They can even make dolls with washi paper (Photo: Bonson Lam)

Kyoto Rakushikan

Songs for the Paper Maker’s daughter

They can even make dolls with washi paper (Photo: Bonson Lam)
Bonson Lam   - 3 min read

Feel and breathe the spirit of washi, the 1500 year old art of Japanese paper making. Here in Kyoto, the home of Japanese handicrafts, I can feel the lifeline of the Kozo mulberry tree as the mixture of its fibre and pure Kyoto spring water washes through my hands in the paper making workshop.

It is hard to imagine that few minutes ago, I was in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Kyoto City Hall, and now the life source of verdant forests is one with me in this temple of paper making.

Today I had the opportunity of learning from the master himself, Mr Yoshizo Uemura, owner of Rakushikan, and still going strong in his nineties. As the descendant of the original washi makers, his mission is to preserve and promote washi so it can be enjoyed for all eternity.

He has taken on a decade long labour of love in documenting the living history of washi in Japan. Paper makers from Hokkaido to Okinawa have contributed to this limited edition twelve volume encyclopedia, called “The Soul of Japan – Fine Japanese Paper in the Second Millennium” Since he started this project some of these washi masters have passed away, so this may be the only documentation of unique washi making techniques. While you may see this compendium in various galleries around the world, such as the Louvre and the Smithsonian, there is nothing like coming home to the source of this beauty.

What I didn’t realise until today was that washi can be made water and fire proof, by soaking it in different kinds of oils and flame retardants. Amongst the exhibits are a fireproof washi coat used during fire festival in Nara’s Todaiji temple, and you can see black soot marks on the surface of the coat, but no burns.

Being beautiful and lightweight, washi makes for an ideal gift while you are traveling. There are different types of washi you can buy, including kinkarakawa-shi (paper with the texture of tanned leather); shoji-gami(for sliding screens); hosho-shi(writing paper); chochin-gami (for paper lantern); kasa-gami(for umbrellas); ningyo-shi(for dolls); and even senmenshi(for folding fans).

You can easily lose yourself amongst the four floors of displays and shop, which is like an Aladdin’s cave for paper lovers. Paper in all kinds of designs, materials, for home decoration or as art in its own right. There are hundreds of drawers which invite you to make your own discovery of washi that is not displayed elsewhere in this emporium.

You can also join the washi paper making workshop which is lots of fun for all ages. As washi paper comes from the nutrition line of the tree, it is like the paper is still alive but in a different form, and what a better way to feel and breathe living art by making it yourself and feeling the paper fibers and water washing through your hands. You can even learn paper making songs!

Bonson Lam

Bonson Lam @bonson.lam

I knew my future was destined to be with Japan the moment I flew from Sydney to experience the atmospheric laneways of Kyoto last century.  I am humbled to have met many distinguished people during this time, especially the national living treasures of Japan, such as the doll maker to the Imperia...