What 45 Days Studying Paper Making in Japan Has Taught Me

I left Echizen for Osaka last Friday morning for the second part of my journey in Japan. It was early and cold. The moon was still out as the steam rose from the mountains. It was eerie, yet gorgeous. I walked across to the Goddess to pray and thank her before heading out into the eerie morning and catch the bus for the next adventure. It was the perfect way to say goodbye to a town that had become such a huge part of my life during the 45 days I spent there.

Originally, I was supposed to stay in Echizen until after the New Year, but that changed. I am being flexible here. I came here with a goal to learn paper making and to be in Japan. At this point, I’ve learned paper making, not completely, but after 45 days, I’ve learned quite a bit. I’ve received quite a full education. I could spend days and months and plenty of more time here, and I intend to come back and visit and learn more in the coming years, but as I discovered on my last day, the last 45 days have stuck. Thursday, November 29th was the happiest day of my 45 days,  because not only did I make a sheet of paper perfectly, but I laid it down and set up for the next sheet without a single misstep. That was a sign that leaving ahead of schedule was in fact a good thing. I knew it instinctively that leaving was the right thing to do, but having confirmation helped.

Below is what I wrote as an update for the program I studied under in Echizen. I’m not sure that the update will ever be shared (due to the nature of my parting with the coordinator), and I added bits to this one (versus the original) to share more and since these are my words, I can share them as I please. This is how I sum up my 45 days and share it with you. There is so much I can say, but at the same time can not; this was not just an education of a skill, but a deeply personal education for me.  It was such a beautiful experience, and definitely a challenging one, but I think it speaks of my character and my persistence and my perseverance. Anyhow, read…

To say that being in Echizen was easy would be false. Not because of anything culture related. In fact, I’d say that this little village of talented artisans took me in like the warm hug I needed.  I say this because of my own state of mind.

When I left New York City to begin my papermaking adventure and pursue my dream, I left with a bit of a battered and war torn heart. Almost three years of history boarded that Aeroflot plane with me as we crossed the Atlantic Ocean for Moscow, Russia and then Istanbul, Turkey.  After eight days in Istanbul, where I was looking for design inspiration of the sharpest kind, I boarded another Aeroflot plane this time headed to Tokyo, Japan.  That history was still with me and as I learned it was eating at me more than I thought it would and Japan, Echizen, Fukui Prefecture, to be exact, would be the place it would play out.

I mention the emotional part only because Echizen is the perfect place to have an emotional struggle. It is beautiful. It is cold. It is quiet. The main part of the Echizen Village (made up of The Paper and Culture Museum, Udatsu Paper and Craft Museum, and the Papyrus House) where the history of Washi is shared closes by 5pm and the only café in the village closes at 7pm.  After 7pm, you are on your own with your thoughts, creativity, and anything else you choose to occupy your time.

Echizen is by no means a small hole-in-the-wall village though, nor a great place for a recluse. Surrounding it is Sabae, Takefu (accessible by bus and bike and cab), and Echizen City. There is a knife village and lacquerware village about 7km away from Echizen and there are restaurants, grocery stores, and many other cafes, like a bread shop that I just discovered two days before leaving, and another cafe that serves dinner and is open beyond 7pm just next door to Udatsu. Add to the mix some of the most amazing people I have ever met while traveling Echizen is a wonder. The people were unbelievably kind and welcoming. Every day, I felt like I was being given a warm hug.

For an American gal like me who speaks no Japanese with the exception of thank you and please, although I can use the phrase “studying papermaking in Echizen” really well now, I got by surprisingly well. Using facial expressions, hand gestures, and following the sounds and undertones of the words being spoken I managed to learn a lot about papermaking and the people who live in this Village.

In the beginning, it also helped that I had Rina as my voice. Rina coordinated my trip to Echizen with the Museum and speaks English and acted as a translator on many occasions, including a few dinner parties where the interest in me was high and my ability to respond was low. She often remarked on how amazed she is that the Manager of Udatsu Paper and Craft Museum, where I spent my days watching, studying, and learning, and I communicated as much as we did using my Japanese dictionary and her combination of English/Japanese dictionaries. Heck, I am surprised!

I came here with two expectations one, being that I would fumble language wise, but I would become almost fluent in Japanese because I’d have to, and the second, being to learn paper making.  The later, while not completely perfect, I learned. I can proudly say that I can make traditional Japanese paper. Mastering, or learning really well Japanese language, not so much. I can hear and understand a bit. My ears are definitely listening more and trying to pick up words and phrases, but speaking Japanese, eh, we have a long way to go.

Okay, but seriously where am I a month later?

Well, I saw the entire process. My last week at Udatsu, I got to see kozo being boiled. That boiling completed my weeklong paper making education.

I know you are wondering if it is a week long, why have you been there a month?

The answer is that papermaking takes time and has a schedule and when I got here kozo did not have to be boiled. It was not part of the schedule.  And I can’t complain because I’ve gotten to take my time learning different stages of the process:

  • I’ve checked the fibers for dirt for many hours on many different days.
  • I’ve also seen the fiber beating process a few times and have helped directly afterward in the mixing of the fibers to be used to make paper.
  • I have also soaked, gently kneaded (to loosen the kozo) and then removed with a knife the top black protective layer from kozo (one of the main plants used to make Echizen Washi).
  • I have worked directly with tororo-aoi, the plant whose root is used to make “neri” the all-natural glue like adhesive that when mixed with the fiber bonds them together, by cleaning, soaking, and beating it down so that the sticky adhesive freely flows and can be used to make sheets of Washi.
  • I have tried several attempts at making sheets of paper (this one is not 100%, but in the last week, I got a closer rhythm that tells me I will get it, eventually).
  • I have mixed the neri and paper fibers together. (It is a tough job and requires a lot of body muscles since you want clean strokes to mix everything together. My arms are getting sleeker thanks to this simple almost daily function.)
  • I have removed dirt and other brown marks from another plant that is used to make Washi, “gambi.”  (It is not the most glamorous job, but when I get into the zone, I get into the zone!)
  • I learned how Washi that is not usable is recycled. (That is a hot process! Seriously, we boil water and then add the paper to it.)
  • I’ve helped set up the newly made paper in the pressing machine to have the remaining water extracted.
  • Lastly, I’ve helped remove completely dried sheets, lay out the newly pressed paper flat on boards made from gingko trees, and set them into the steam room for drying.

In all of that though, I have left out what I have learned which is even more important than the process. By watching the artisans almost every day for the past month (Out of 45 days total studying at Udatsu, I’ve missed seven days for personal reasons, and add another seven days because Udatsu is closed Tuesdays. Making for 31 days total I spent at Udatsu Paper and Craft Museum studying.) I’ve learned how to see and feel my way through the paper process.

The artisans here at Udatsu have a history of making paper. They either come from families that made paper, or worked for paper studios for years. Now, they lend their skill to teach others and to keep the Echizen Washi tradition alive.

With one addition of neri they know that they’ve pieced together the proper formula for Washi sheets. With one handful of fiber, they can tell whether the fiber has been mixed well enough to hold together. They know exactly how many motions with the screen will make the right weight paper. With one look, they can tell that I’m unsure about what I’m doing and direct me on the proper way.

It reminds me a lot of watching my mother make tamales every Christmas season. In my home, it is a tradition that involves one main female maker and then a handful of female family members to help. I have been helping my mother (and my grandmother (who was in charge then)) since the age of five. When my grandmother passed away, my mother took over the tradition and for 20 years I’ve helped. I swear I have no clue how she makes the tamales even with all those years under my belt. My mom tells me every year, “when I’m not around, you will instinctively know how because you’ve watched me and grandma all these years.” I of course don’t believe her. How can I even begin to imitate what she does? With a single taste my mom knows when the mix needs more salt, or olive juice, or anything!

It is the same with learning Washi.

What I’ve learned from watching the artisans mix and look and feel and touch, I hope to remember always. These are moments that could not be captured on video or in pictures because they we usually noticed by me while I was in the middle of helping.

This is where a crazy and curiously adventurous girl who has loved paper since she was five soars. Where the emotional history that boarded that plane gets lost. This is where I remember that language barriers, although frustrating, don’t mean anything when you are connecting and love what is being connected.  Every welcoming face, hug, and even “NO!” that I’ve been shown or told or experienced was because my interest in the work these artists do is in my heart.

My decision to leave Echizen two weeks ahead of schedule is from the realization of two things:

1. I took my meager savings to make this trip happen. It has been worth every dime to make this dream come to fruition, however, my desire to see more of Japan (including two other paper making villages) and to stay in Echizen no longer meet.

2. I am a month a way from the end of 2012. I will celebrate my 32nd birthday on the first day of December, and when I get back to the United States in January, I will have no job and almost no money. Returning to a City, Tokyo to be exact, will allow me to plan the next stages of my business and how to integrate Echizen Washi and all that I’ve learned in a month’s time.  It will allow me to focus on the future with a bit more time and with a lot more respect, rather than just ushering myself into 2013 scattered.

I plan to return to Echizen, again, and again, and maybe again a few more times. There is a festival in May (Japan’s Golden Week. In Echizen the days are May 3rd, 4th, and 5th) that I would love to see in person. More importantly though, the people I’ve spent my days with, even in my clouded emotional world, have been chicken soup for my soul, and I can’t imagine not returning to see them. My month in Echizen, was never just about learning how to make paper and following a dream, it was also about realizing a whole lot about myself, too.  For that reason alone, it could never just be a once in a lifetime kind of thing.

Before I go, I’ll share a story. My first week here, Rina took me on a tour of four paper studios in Echizen. One of them was the largest paper studio in Echizen where they make large sheets of Washi. It was the day after the Fall Festival at the Village shrine. At the festival, one of the paper makers, a woman by the name of Aki-san, lured me into dancing around the bonfire to traditional songs sung to the Paper Goddess.  The next day, with Rina translating, Aki-san, who makes paper at the paper studio, started singing the songs sung to the Paper Goddess (her Shrine lives in Echizen as well and is worth seeing as often as you possibly can).

Aki-san sang slowly and softly several different songs. About the second song, I burst into sobbing tears. I couldn’t explain it. I felt silly for crying. I apologized. When Aki-san finished, she hugged me and said, “She’s emotional.” (Not an understatement!)

What I thought during the minutes she sang was nothing more than, “her voice is beautiful and this moment is one of THOSE moments that you’re lucky to experience, where life hits you upside your head and reminds you that you are alive. I wasn’t thinking about being away from home, or anything more than what a beautiful moment I was having with a woman who has so much history and can sing respectfully and with power to a Goddess. I will always remember the power of Aki-san and her love and respect for her Village and the Goddess that watches over them and being allowed to be part of it. It was humbling.

I am humbled to have been part of this Village. I am extremely grateful to everyone who welcomed me and made me feel at home in a place that is many, many miles away from my own and during the holiday and my birthday season, especially. I really do feel like I have been the luckiest girl in the world to spend 45 days in Echizen.

I can’t wait to come back and I look forward to working with the artisans and with Echizen Washi specifically as I get back to my stationery and design empire.

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s2 stationery & designs

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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