Fall Edition, Volume 8, No. 4

by Sidney Berger, Professor of English and Information Studies, UCLA

As a scholar and historian of paper for more than thirty years. I have learned a good deal about Western and Asian papermaking: equipment, techniques, fibers, designs, products, and so forth. But there is no substitute for being there. One can read volumes and see video after video, but true education comes from first-hand experience, and, thanks to Hiromi, I had plenty of it this month.

I have been making paper since 1971, and I have taken a couple of workshops in making paper in the Japanese manner. I have my own sugeta (the traditional Japanese mold used in nagashizuki papermaking, sometimes spelled with a hyphen; sometimes spelled suketa), and have used it a number of times. So I thought I knew something about Japanese papermaking. And I did. But a single workshop or two and limited experience will give only a part of the picture.
My wife, Mich?le Cloonan, and I were able to visit the wonderful papermaking area, Fukui Prefecture (founded in 823; and called Echizen until 1881 when the name was changed to Fukui), northeast of Kyoto. It is still called the Echizen

cooperative. It was an exhilarating and educational experience. We arrived in a taxi to the home office of the Echizen Cooperative, from which the papers of many of the makers of the village were distributed.

We were met by Mr. Hiroaki Naito, who ushered us into a little, comfortable reception room, and we chatted about paper and papermaking, and about our mutual friend, Hiromi, as much as we could, though without an interpreter, we did not get very far. Tea was served, an indication of the almost ritual nature of our visit: we were going to be treated with great kindness and courtesy: and we were. Mr. Naito proved to be an excellent, friendly host, and through his guidance and kindness, we had a great time

Our interpreter arrived and things started flowing. One of the things I saw in the room was a large bookshelf filled with sample books, primarily of papers from the Echizen papermakers. The range and quality of the papers were astonishing. The books must have contained samples of thousands of different sheets, all beautiful, high-quality paper. They are a tribute to the brilliance, imagination, and skill of the Echizen craftsmen and artists.

Though we had only about five or six hours, we covered a good deal of groundÑbut, unfortunately, only a small part of the village. I would love to have stayed long enough to meet all the papermakers and see them at work. But that would have taken weeks.

One workshop we visited brought us to a large studio in which women were peeling and inspecting bark, painstakingly removing the kurokawa (the outer bark) from the shirokawa (the white inner bark). This is a reminder of the unbelievably labor-intensive task hand-papermaking can be if it is done to exacting standards. In the West, someone would invent large electronic eyes to automatically scan the fibers, with some kind of device to fish out the darker fibers. Or there would be a way to bleach the dark fibers so that extracting them would not be necessary. But the Japanese papers are truly hand made. If one considers all the hands-on tasks these papermakers must do, it is a wonder that they can survive in this modern, industrial world. The Japanese make some of the best papers in the world, and knowing this, artists and printers are willing to pay more for far superior products. The affordability of the Japanese papers has always amazed me, especially considering the extensive amount of hand work that goes into making them.

Where the Western papermakers can use a Hollander beater, that tool is not quite strong enough to cut the very strong kozo, gampi, and mitsumata fibers. The Japanese have their own kind of "Hollander," configured the same, but instead of having a cylinder with blades and a bedplate on which the fibers are ground down, they use a Naginata beater, which contains series of curved knife blades that "scrub" apart the fibers rather than cutting them. We saw several of these beaters in Echizen.

Though I had seen (and even have made paper using) the nagashizuki method, it was instructive to watch the different papermakers doing it, with their own versions of the vatman's shake, their own body language, and-for me just as satisfying-their individual senses of accomplishment at the formation of each sheet. I loved seeing the concentration, the facial expressions (some very cool and blasé, some concerned, some deeply engaged) as the operation progressed from first dip to the concluding couch of the sheet. There is a beautiful rhythm and self-assuredness to these masters of washi making.

In one of the studios, we were treated to perhaps the most striking and educational experience of the visit to Echizen: we observed the making a huge sheets of paper, with giant molds suspended from bamboo poles, dipped by four people, with a fifth standing at the side of the vat to guide the sugeta. They were making paper using the nagashizuki method.

When a single papermaker practices her craft, it is marvelous to see the well schooled series of motions that she must use to form a sheet. But it is even more marvelous to see the complex series of movements performed by a four- or five-person team. First they "perform" the kakenagashi, the quick push of pulp, on the very first dip of the sugeta, across the screen. The excess pulp is thrown off the far edge of the screen (in the West this is called "throwing off the wave"), and the first layer of fibers is distributed over it. The next motion is the choshi, in which the stuff (the mixture of water, neri [the slimy formation aid], and fibers) is scooped out and rocked back and forth until it is smoothly distributed over the screen. The movement must be constant or some of the stuff will clump up on the screen. That is why it is so marvelous to see a team working in tandem to produce lovely, even sheets. The third motion is called sutemizu, similar to the first motion, in which a final slosh of fibers is sent across the mold, sort of like a coating. The word means "throwing away water." It took perfect teamwork, precise timing, and much strength to make these wonderful large sheets.

Following this, we watched as a series of hooks and lines raised the su (the flexible screen) from the keta (the rigid frame that contains the su), drawing the su up into the air and swinging around to position the su over the couch onto which the sheet would be placed.

The process is called kami o fuseru ("turning over the paper") or su o fuseru ("turning the screen over"). The sheet, still loaded with water, must have weighed over 100 pounds at this point since the sheet was so large (maybe 8 feet square), but the tools and the schooled and precise hands of the couchers deposited the sheet perfectly onto the shito (the post, or stack of newly formed sheets).

We next went to the studio of Tadao Fukuda, a brilliant suminagashi artist. When I entered his studio, he looked familiar to me. We eventually learned that some eight years before, about 1994, he was brought to New York City to the new Takashimya store, which-to commemorate its opening-had brought in a number of Living National Treasures and artists to demonstrate some of Japan's most brilliant arts. There was a joiner, working in wood; a ceramicist; a ceramics painter; a dyer; a kimono maker; and so forth. Mr. Fukuda let me try my hand at suminagashi back in 1994, and he did so again on this magical visit to his studio.

As with my experience with nagashizuki, I had taken a workshop in suminagashi, and I had done it a few times. But to watch the master work was a rare treat. One would think the art would be simple: distribute pigment over the surface of the tub, manipulate it with wind, and then lay the sheet out on top of the liquid. But it takes a first-hand experience to see that there are subtle techniques, body motions, movements, stances, and so forth that make the difference between a "nice" sheet (mine) and a brilliant piece of art (his). One of the features of this master's technique was his ability to balance four or five brushes at a time, with them held between different pairs of fingers. Then he could tap the surface of the water quickly with one color after another. It was like poetry in motion, his hands rhythmically moving over the bath, depositing one color, then another, then another, and so on, the circles of pigment appearing like magic beneath his hands.

Once the pigments had been distributed over the surface of the liquid, using brushes for each color and for the "blank

spaces" between colors, Mr. Fukuda looked at the decoration for a few moments, the way a golfer checks out the lay of the ball, the slope of the green. He then took a small hand fan and gave it a flutter here, a wave there, and a jiggle there. Another moment of analysis, and then he blew gently over the surface of the pattern a couple of times from different angles. The sheets he produced were stunning. Amazing: he and I used the same pigments, the same bath, the same brushes, the same techniques, and even the same hand-held fan, yet his papers were gorgeous, mine were fairly homely. It must have been the breath.

We were treated to a lovely lunch of soba (noodles), and then went to the local paper museum, where a fully operational mill was set up.

Mr. Naito and I made a few sheets of paperÑhis coming out quite well, mine . . . well, I didn't embarrass myself too much. Visits to a couple of other studios were just as satisfying. In one, a beautiful broadside was being produced, all in colored pulps. A basic large sheet was couched, and onto it a pattern of pulp, dipped from a vat, was over-couched. But the second batch of pulp was lifted out of the vat not on a screen, but on very fine, shaped metal "strips." Imagine dipping a ruler on its side into the vat of pulp. When it is brought up, a very fine line of the pulp sticks to the long thin edge of the ruler. The vat-person (a woman with excellent English and Chinese as well as Japanese) had a mold that contained an intricate pattern made of shaped metal strips (like the ruler, only bent into shapes), set on their side into the mould, so that a thin line of pulp was brought up onto the strips. She couched this on top of the basic sheet, but did not lift it from the sheet. She then dipped out a second such mold, containing yet another pattern, but in a different-colored pulp, and the second mold slid perfectly over registration pins on the previous mold, so that a second color of the pattern was couched onto the original sheet. At this point, rather than picking up the two-part, joined molds, she left them there. They had open areas in the metal strips (open areas within the patterns made by the strips), and into these open areas she poured-from what looked like cheap plastic ketchup dispensers with a long plastic nose-yet other colors of pulp.

Hence, we had the white sheet; a second color from the first special mold; a third color from the second special mold; and about three or four other colors made from poured pulp that was dropped into the open spaces of the double mold. The result was a wonderful multi-colored broadside of a sheep and flowers and such, all formed on one single-surfaced sheet. I had never seen such an intricate method of papermaking before. The technique was brilliant and the actual execution of the sheet was beautiful to watch. The final product was an amalgamation of excellent materials, perfectly constructed molds, fine craftsmanship, clever color separation, and artistic design. This was a treat to see. This excursion to the Echizen Cooperative was a delight in many ways: we met friendly, knowledgeable people, we saw brilliant papermaking and great craftsmen and artists, we acquired excellent books and papers, and we had delicious soba. What more can a papermaniac ask for?

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