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Washi-making techniques evolve in a small town

                                Craftspeople make a large sheet of washi paper at Igarashi Seishi Co. in the Goka area of Echizen, Japan.
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Craftspeople make a large sheet of washi paper at Igarashi Seishi Co. in the Goka area of Echizen, Japan.

ECHIZEN, japan >> Kawakami Gozen, the goddess of paper, continues to inspire craftspeople in the Goka area of Echizen, Fukui prefecture, where the streets are lined with papermaking workshops.

Legend has it that the goddess appeared to residents of this mountainous area 1,500 years ago and advised them to make paper.

Thanks to an abundance of water and wild trees, Echizen washi paper production was established and became recognized as a specialty item worthy of presentation to the imperial court and shogunate.

Today, the sound of splashing breaks the silence of the small town, as raw material for washi paper are scooped from water tanks.

At Igarashi Seishi Co., founded in 1919, craftspeople make large sheets of washi for fusuma (sliding doors). They use hibiscus plants for the top-quality product.

In the workshop, young workers place a wooden sifting tool into a tank of cold water, one step in making pure white paper.

The company also produces original washi with fine wave and floral patterns that are popular with inns and upscale ryotei (traditional Japanese restaurants).

Igarashi Seishi president Kozo Igarashi, 76, also serves as president of the Fukui washi industry cooperative and chairman of the All Japan Handmade Washi Association.

“The conditions around washi paper are harsh at the moment due to a shortage of raw materials and the movement to go paperless,” Igarashi said. Association membership has fallen to 47 from 100 over the past 40 years, he added.

In response to the challenges, Igarashi Seishi has developed “food paper,” creating fiber using vegetables such as leeks and potatoes. The vegetable fiber serves as a substitute for wood in making washi.

The technique, inspired by research by Igarashi’s grandson, utilizes vegetables that would be otherwise discarded, addressing the issue of food waste as well.

Now, another generation is breathing new life into the world of washi.

To keep the tradition alive, Goka opened a museum last year where visitors can try their hand at papermaking. The Echizen Washinosato Art Museum displays Heian emaki scrolls (narrative picture handscrolls), reproduced on Echizen washi paper.

Igarashi is also working to have Echizen Torinokoshi handmade washi, a traditional Japanese paper made exclusively from domestic gampi shrubs, registered as an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO.

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