So, Um, Why Japan? Or Instead, What Brought Me to Japan

This is the hot post. This is the post that explains what the hell I am doing in a small village on the western coast of Japan.

I hope you all know the story. If you don’t, here’s a quick recap. In 2009, while traveling through Italy a few weeks after my dad passed away, I had a dream where I opened an envelope that was lined with a cool pattern, but never saw the card inside. To be clear, there was a card inside, I just never saw it because I woke up immediately and said, “Holy Shit! This is what I am supposed to be doing with my life!”

By the time I returned to New York City after traveling a bit longer, I had already plotted my path to making this a reality. I can’t quite say that the path has been easy, or that I’ve made millions of dollars because I haven’t. Instead, I’ve made more money each year, but I am not a lucrative business. And that has to change. (Hello, December, month of business planning and development!)

About two years ago now, so just a year after I decided I was going to do this stationery business, I realized that I needed desperately to get out of the life I was living. I hated my full-time job, I cried constantly; I needed something to change and I had no idea what.  During this time, I started applying to jobs and going on interviews, but nothing worked out.

While on a trip visiting a good friend in Cleveland, I bought a coupon on Groupon for discounted language courses. (In my past, I was notorious for signing up for classes on a whim. I’d get bored and take up a new hobby until I felt I had learned enough or experienced all that I was going to experience and moved to the next hobby, or class.)  At the time of purchase, I had no clue what language I would study; I just new it was a good deal and I could stand something new and challenging.

A couple of weeks after buying that coupon, I went into the office of my full-time job and realized I needed to go to Japan. I can’t quite remember the circle of logic there, or what my inspiration was, but I remember thinking, now this all makes sense. It makes sense that I work for a Japanese company for the past three years. It makes sense that I bought language courses when I need to learn some Japanese!

My coworkers helped me look for Japanese Washi Villages and I contacted the person on the other side of the Echizen Washi Village’s English website, Rina.  She detailed the Museum’s program and offered me advice on places to stay, etc.  We emailed back and forth for a while with me saying I am considering coming around this time, only to have them change.

I was set to come last year, in 2011, but the Earthquake and Tsunami that hit Sendai closed that door. My mother, for the first time in her life, asked me not to do something and I acquiesced. It was hard, but I did. It made sense and I realize now that I was not ready to go last year. I was meant to come this year, now.

So what is in Japan?

Japan has a very strong tradition of papermaking. In the village I am currently staying in, it dates back 1500 years!  In other villages, a little bit less time, maybe 1300 years or 800 years, but still the same, these folks have been making paper for a long time.  (A prime example, in Echizen lives one of the “living national treasures of Japan.” His father was also a “living national treasure” when he was alive.  The current treasure is the ninth generation to make paper in his family. His son helps and will take over when his father passes, continuing a long line of family tradition.)

As a designer and artist, I have worked with Japanese paper many times. I am fascinated by it. I love the texture, touch, weight, and smell of each sheet. I also have fallen in love with many designs on these sheets. (Since coming to Echizen, I’ve learned that artists outside of Echizen actually do most designs on the sheets. An artist will purchase Washi to use for designing purposes and then wholesale the sheets to people like me. Some paper studios do offer designed paper that is gorgeous, while others just make plain Washi to sell.)

I realized as I worked on projects that I don’t know how paper is made. (Can you believe that?) I also realized that many people in my industry don’t know how paper is made. It is really easy to call a print shop and say, “I need this printed on a glossy or matte cream 100 pound stock,” without knowing where the paper comes from or how it is made or who made it. I wanted to change that. I wanted to be able to tell my clients, “I know how this paper is made. I’ve seen it. I can do it. This paper and design is more than just a piece of paper!”

Being that I run a business that focuses on creating unique paper-based items for customers, I want that relationship with the paper and the makers of the paper. Furthermore, I love paper so much (I really do!), that I want to know the origins of it.  When I work with a client, I pick papers specific to the customer and to their project. I am a bit obsessed with making sure the paper fits the project. If it doesn’t, I go back to the drawing board.

So this, being in Japan, makes sense. It just does.

I’ve been in Japan for over a month now and I have seen Washi made. I’ve participated in every part of the process and I’ve tried my hand at making Washi. (I’ll provide more details in the coming days.) I’m hardly a pro and I know it will take many, many more days and months and possibly even years to get the skill level that the artisans I have worked with have (they’ve been doing it their entire lives, many of them!), but I know where this tradition began and how important and deep it runs not just to the artists, but to the community and to the country.

So, What’s Next?

Ultimately, I would love to be able to make my own paper. Realistically, at this point, I can’t just go back to America and open a paper studio though. The supplies I need are immense and I would have to raise capital and all that other jazz. In other words, I need to get some things in order personally and financially to be able to do this.

I also want to travel to a few more other countries that make paper – China, India, Italy, France, Thailand, Egypt, and if, at all possible, Iran to learn about the Persian art of paper making – and see their methods and techniques.  I would love to have a solid idea of the global handmade paper making community. It sounds daunting and expensive, but I think it’s worth it. Especially since I use these papers in my own work and because I am so inspired by them.

Realistically, I will figure out a way to stay in touch with the Echizen community, purchase paper from the artisans here, continue to be part of their community and grow my business.  Of course, in my little head the other day, I was walking and thought, “wouldn’t it be great if you opened a shop/studio where you offered custom design, paper making and sold paper from the artists of Echizen? Wouldn’t that be really amazing?!” It would, but right now, it is not happening. That may be down the road in a few years. At least, we’ll make that a goal.

I am leaving Echizen after a month and a half next Friday, November 30th. It’s the day before my 32nd birthday and I will head down to the Osaka area to spend a few days there with two artists before heading back to Kyoto to explore the paper community there and just enjoy the City. I loved it the first time I went two weekends ago for two days. I can’t wait to have a few days there with time to ponder, relax, and do whatever the hell I want at a slower pace. (Note: if you ever travel to Kyoto, you need a week. There is just so much to do and see and is worth the cost.)

From Kyoto, I’ll head back to Tokyo where I will spend my days looking at more paper and traveling to a few areas outside of Tokyo, like Mt. Fuji. (No, I’m not climbing!) The first time I went to Tokyo, I didn’t love it. I spent most of the time sitting on my friend’s couch catching up on my Spanish novela, but I have a feeling that Tokyo this time around is going to be different and a bit more fun.

More importantly, I’ll be able to really think about where I’m headed in 2013 and understand what I want of myself as an entrepreneur and business owner.


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S2 Stationery & Design

A rule-breaking designer, artist & entrepreneur who's passionate about paper and handcrafting stationery. I also write, travel, and focus on eco + social good.

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