As a kid, I found a visit to my father’s paper mill a terrifying but awe-inspiring experience. The factory was located in Shawano, Wisconsin, on the banks of the Wolf River at the edge of the Menominee Indian Reservation. The roar of the gargantuan, whirring machinery that covered acres of the hundred-year old mill was deafening. The wooden floor rumbled and shook. The place smelled of wood pulp and noxious chemicals then unknown to me—maybe hydrogen chlorine and sulfur dioxide. Paper rolls were the size of cement trucks.
I was especially impressed by the man who swiftly bound sheets of matted pulp into bundles, cutting the binding twine with the edge of his little finger.
More than fifty years later it was my turn to make paper. I found myself with a group of fellow travelers in Echizen, part of Takefu Imadate town, one of perhaps a half-dozen places in Japan where kozo/ mulberry trees are used to make paper—washi—by hand, using simple techniques that date to the 8th century.
This means that a thousand years ago, when Murasaki Shikibu was writing The Tale of Genji, which is considered to be the world’s first novel, the washi industry was already thriving here. She lived for a time in this lovely mountainous area that is said to have been one of the settings for her book. Now that I’ve been there, I must re-read her amazing work.
In our day-long workshop, we learned that mulberry trees are stripped of bark, boiled, shredded, boiled again with ash/lye, pounded, and washed in the cold clear flowing water that abounds in this area. Sometimes neri, a mucilaginous material made from the tororo plant, is added to the mix. In the workshop we visited, a woman sat on a stool in front of a tub of this raw glop, picking impurities out of the fibers hour after hour with ungloved hands.
Not my father’s paper making operation!
Yamada-san, a lively women at least in her seventies, had us don rubber boots and aprons, then took us one by one to a wooden tank filled with the cottony fluff in water. A wooden frame about 33” wide by 24” across and maybe 6” deep was suspended over the vat with ropes and flexible rubber tubing. The bottom was a tightly woven screen of straw or bamboo. Yamada-san and her colleague guided us in Japanese, assuming we’d understand what to do next—and with a little help from Japanese speakers in the peanut gallery—we did.
We dipped the frame into the chilly water, scooped up several inches of slush, then gently sloshed it back and forth, and side to side as the water dripped out, leaving a residue behind. We repeated the process five or six times, trying to fill the bottom of the screen evenly and completely, doing our best not to get wrinkles in the resulting film. When the bottom of the screen was sufficiently covered and the coating was thick enough, we detached the screen from the frame and took it to a table where, with a balletic twirl, we gently inverted it and carefully rolled out a sheet of paper.
If we were lucky/skilled enough, the washi unfurled beautifully, with no tears or crumpled lines. If it had bubbles in it, Yamada-san carefully inserted a hollowed bamboo stick into the bubble, blew lightly, and popped it.
We each made a sheet with the two master craftsmen. The man was more shy than Yamada-san, but both clearly had fun showing us the ropes.
Yamada-san was thrilled when I told her my father was a paper-maker. A colleague! She shook my hand and patted me on the back. Her co-worker told me I had very strong hands, surely imagining that as a child I had participated in the family business, washing ash out of the kozo and pounding it on rocks in the Wolf River.
When we finished, Yamada-san lustily sang us the papermakers’ song and did a dance that included motions imitating the stirring of the vat of water and pulp with a long pole.
Another master washi maker told us more about the craft and the superior qualities of mulberry paper over that made from other trees. Mulberries are farmed and mature in a year unlike pines or other soft woods, which can take thirty years. Mulberry paper has a positive ph balance, it’s sturdy enough to use in clothing, and because it’s acid-free, it’s an excellent long-lasting medium for art and book-making. There are many different types of washi and ways of making it.
Later, with a local artist as mentor, we each used a more textured hand-made paper as the base for an art project. We decorated it with strands of colored or natural washi. I did my best—in ten minutes—to make something that I hoped would evoke the flame-colored maples we saw everywhere. If it looked like a kindergartner’s squiggles, is that my fault? But of course it is!
While waiting for the others to finish their projects, I wandered the town—charming, immaculate, with tidy shops and homes, beautiful gardens. A swift-flowing stream dotted with koi ponds and red maples constituted a linear park flowing through Echizen.
The town’s paper museum displayed different types of washi and the things people made from it—clothing, Shinto shrine and festival decorations, mobiles, artworks. Walking on, I visited the lichen covered Otaki shrine, dedicated to the goddess of paper. The handsome eight-hundred year old wooden building was set in a clearing of immense Japanese cedars. Strips of folded paper in the form of lightning bolts hung from the eves of the shrine, marking it as a sacred place. The building reminded me of a traditional Danish stave kirk/church (such as the one on Washington Island in Wisconsin) that was similarly constructed in wood with no nails or braces.
Days later, our dried washi projects arrived at our farmhouse quarters in another town. My paper was beautiful—smooth and shiny—if I do say so myself! The wrinkles in it…only added interest.
Photos by Martha Egan with photo of Martha by Gail Rieke