Written by Keiko, September 2020
Chiyogami paper is a type of traditional Japanese paper using very beautiful patterns. Its origins date back to the Heian period (710-794) when the aristocracy sent poems to friends or lovers to communicate to each other instead of sending plain letters. There was a fashion at that time for being much more imaginative, using poems much more often to express their intentions. Very romantic, but perhaps it was – and is – easier sometimes to express honest feelings through poems rather than normal letters.
In those days, as well as using poetry, they started to use pretty paper, or patterns. This is the start of the history of chiyogami paper. During the Edo period (1603-1868), chiyogami became quite common, and was used not only by the aristocracy, upper classes, but also by the merchant class. They used it also as a wrapping paper, put pieces of paper into their cosmetic boxes, jewellery boxes and letter cases, as well as using it to make all sorts of things like origami dolls.
The designs they used are definitely very much Japanese styles, though I can see some distinct similarities between these Japanese prints and Liberty prints, for example. I suppose they both use flowers and plants, and are inspired by nature.
As you might know, Japanese ukiyo-e (wood block prints) were very popular during the Edo period, these were greatly admired by many of the Impressionist painters. Chiyogami was also popular during the same period, and was produced using wood block prints. They became popular souvenirs for people visiting Tokyo from the countryside. Just as the ukiyo-e industry had artists, wooden block makers and print makers working together to produce artworks, the chiyogami industry also a circle of designers, wood block makers and print makers working together to develop new popular papers. You can imagine these two industries helping each other to develop craftsman-ship and innovative ideas, even though their target audiences might have been slightly different, chiyogami being more design oriented.
I have been a big fan of chiyogami since I was 5 or 6 years old, when my grandfather and parents used to give me small pieces of chiyogami paper to use as origami paper, but they were too pretty to fold so I just hung on to them. That started my collection, and I put them in a little tin box. I remember I used to exchange new interesting patterns with my friends. ‘I have two pieces of this pretty iris pattern, do you want to exchange it? Can I have your cherry blossom one instead?’ My friends and I were showing each other our new collections all the time. Some of them were not keen to swop their pieces, but I was always happy to see brand new collections. I thought they were amazingly beautiful – much more interesting than a Barbie doll.
It am still very found of chiyogami paper, it’s just makes me happy to see interesting combinations of patterns and colours, wood block’s gentle line is very charming too. It is also nostalgic, it reminds me my childhood memory.
Some important designs are kept as wooden block and still available as a piece of paper. I hope it will be conserved to next generations and generations. Following Japanese store is selling traditional chiyogai paper in Tokyo. Why not to visit them for your next Japan trip? It is an affordable craft or art!