The Way of Washi

Written by Sophie, April 2021

We often talk about washi paper at NishuraEast, but what actually is washi? Outside of Japan, washi paper tends to refer to Japanese paper. However, within Japan washi refers to a very particular handmade paper.

There are three particular places in Japan where washi is still made in the traditional way, and each paper has a special name. Sekishu-banshi is made in Hamada City, Shimane prefecture. Hosokwa-shi is made in Ogawa town and Higashi-chichibu village in Saitama prefecture. And hon-minoshi is made in Mino City, Gifu prefecture.

How is it made?

Washi is made from the bark of the mulberry tree, or kozo. Young shoots of kozo are cut, and their outer bark is stripped. The bark is soaked in water for three days, the water is kept flowing so as to keep it clean and remove impurities. This turns the bark from dark brown to white. The bark is then boiled until it is soft. Each piece of bark is then examined for imperfections or impurities, and these are removed. At this stage the bark must stay submerged in clean water at all times. The bark is removed from the water and beaten with a wooden mallet in order to separate the fibres. The beaten fibres are then added to a vat with clean water, as well as mucilage (a sticky, sap-like substance) from the tororo-aoi plant. This will help the fibres bind together to form sheets. A reed screen is used to scoop through the vat – the water falls through the screen, leaving the fibres in a thin sheet. Each piece is carefully layered into a stack. These are left to set and dry overnight, when they are then pressed to remove any remaining water. The sheets are then separated and taken outside to dry in the sun.

Once dry, every single sheet is examined for imperfections. The artisans are so proud of their craft, that they discard any piece of washi that doesn’t meet their exacting standards. Washi has many uses, from paper screens in traditional Japanese rooms, to yuzen paper, to lanterns.

There is an incredibly interesting, and oddly soothing video from Polar Designs that you can watch about the process. I highly recommend it!

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