Twice now I’ve found myself on Tokyo when my hosts have kindly said, “What would you like to do? The choice is yours,” to which my answer has been, “Go to a stationery shop”. We have some good stationery shops in the UK but I don’t think I’d make the same choice there. But paper in Japan – handmade paper or washi – is different. In the West (to speak very broadly) we tend to think of paper as of secondary importance, as the ground for content. An encounter with washi challenges that conception.
These thoughts were prompted by an experience this year, wondering with my family through the city of Norwich. There we came across an exhibition of washi. The exhibits were drawn from two collections: first, the Parkes Collection, established in the 19th century by the British minister in Tokyo and now kept in the Economic Botany Collection at Kew Gardens in London; and, second, a collection originating from an abortive exhibition project in the 1990s called Washi: the Soul of Japan.
The exhibition we found at Norwich University of the Arts was the beautiful exhibition of any kind that I have visited. We saw washi that had been created in all manner of ways – my favourite kind (Ogunigami) made, according to the accompanying book by Nancy Broadbent Casserley (ISBN 978-1-84246-486-1) “in the cold, snowy winter in Nigata…stored, still damp, in the snow until the first sunny days of spring. The washi is then dried on top of the snow, where it is bleached by the sun and the reflected light”. The paper (“crisp and thin, with dense fibre distribution”) looks every bit as delightful as one might hope.
We saw too washi designed for every kind of specialist purpose you can imagine – for example, book covers, boxes, calligraphy, collages, handkerchiefs, hanging scrolls, paper lanterns, rain covers for shoes, restoring cultural properties, sliding doors, tablecloths, umbrellas, wallets, and wrapping flowers or sweets.
Amongst the most remarkable exhibits were washi treated to look (very) like leather and some multi-layered, three-dimensional objects such as a helmet and a telescope, plus Kiribori edokomon samezukushimichinaga – a golden “patchwork of traditional motifs…created by using an awl to punch tiny holes into a stencil, through which resist paste was pressed”.
Amongst most beautiful were the washi with inclusions, for example leaves arranged between two damp sheets and then dried. Apparently this type of paper is used for book covers. When my press gets to the point of producing books with covers of this kind, I’ll know we’ve achieved something rather special.
Has earth anything to show more fair?