I’d always thought washi was merely decorative. The traditional Japanese craft paper seemed too pretty to be functional, too delicate to do anything other than hang framed on a wall. But in the tiny town of Misumi, I would learn differently. There, in a workshop, I was taught how to turn a pulpy fluid into a raw, textured sheet, and how to examine the piece as if it were a medical chart to identify any flaws that might create weakness in the page. Washi is, in fact, much more functional than it looks, used for art restoration, in shoji (sliding room dividers) and to create theatrical costumes, like the dragons that appear in Kabuki performances. This pretty paper is the product of an intensive hands-on process, one that had been perfected over hundreds of years. It is art from nature, and intrinsic to the Japanese way of life.
For a visitor to Japan, the country’s historic crafts are an accessible way to find a deeper connection to its culture, but they’re facing a crisis. A shrinking population (due equally to an aging society and a falling birth rate) means that the know-how behind traditional artisanship is at risk of disappearing. Maintaining a robust international customer base for handcrafted products is also being challenged. Worldwide concerns about overtourism have hit Japan. At the beginning of 2019, a $12 per international traveller tourist tax took effect to help fund infrastructure projects in advance of the crowds expected for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Some of the country’s most popular sites such as the Nanzoin temple, home of the famed statue of a reclining Buddha, have told large groups they are not welcome.
To accommodate the country’s concerns about overtourism while more sustainably forging connections with Japanese culture, Toronto-based tour company G Adventures launched a Backroads of Japan itinerary this year. Specializing in small group tours, G Adventures may be best known for its more outdoorsy options, but it also organizes exclusive itineraries in collaboration with National Geographic that allow travellers to interact with local experts including historians, marine biologists and chefs. The Japan program starts in Tokyo and ends in Kyoto. Over the course of 11 days, it takes travellers to Nagano, in Japan’s Alps, and to small towns like Otsu, known for its onsen (hot springs) bathing scene, and Tottori, home to sweeping sand dunes.
The tour visits multiple centres of cultural heritage, including the site of my washi revelation, near Miho-Misumi train station. It also stops in Hagi, in western Japan, home to a famed style of pottery, and in the Aburanokoji neighbourhood of Kyoto, where shibori dyers create stunning kimonos and other textiles by hand. Immersing yourself in these three destinations makes it clear why the preservation and modernization of what makes the country’s artistry unique is such a pressing issue. It also highlights how an outsider can play a part in keeping the crafts alive.
Two of the things that Hagi, a small coastal city, is known for are its 400-year-old pottery tradition, and its rapidly aging – and declining – population. The latter is affecting the future of the former, as master potters work to find artists who can become successors in the studio and continue the tradition.
Hagi yaki is foremost known as tea ware, and its signature markings include understated shapes and subtle colours, often warm, neutral tones like ecru or tan that balance the green of matcha tea. But in an effort to evolve the art, and attract new audiences and artists, acclaimed potters like Nobuhiko Kaneko are experimenting with the forms and functions of Hagi yaki and encouraging his apprentices, two of which are his sons Ai and Nozomu, to incorporate contemporary designs into the historic craft.
“My main mission is to preserve the traditional tea cup and develop new styles to prevent the technique from fading out,” Kaneko says through a translator.
Hagi has 50 pottery workshops and about 200 people still making the traditional ceramics. Kaneko established the Jozan Gama Pottery museum to allow visitors to see the entire creative process, from wet clay being shaped on a wheel to firing pieces in a 50-year-old wood-fired kiln.
Across the street from the workshop is a store that Kaneko oversees. Though tea sets are plentiful, his avant-garde work, which includes sculptural vases and lanterns, are a marked departure from traditional Hagi yaki. At 67, he’s been sculpting for over 50 years, and says he continues to develop his technique and tries to think about ways to create new traditions and raise the profile of pottery outside of Japan. “I’m recommending people under me develop their own style using the traditional techniques,” he says.
His philosophy is working. His sons’ work boasts contemporary designs – platters that would pair well with Marimekko pieces, for instance – and their work is now being exported to design boutiques such as Wagumi in London.
Made from the pulp of kozo, a type of mulberry tree, via a process that requires the maker to manually shift a tray up and down, back and forth in a pool of pulpy water until a thin layer of paper forms, the creation of washi requires patience and a deft touch.
Named an item of intangible cultural heritage by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the craft of washi is practised in three areas of the country, one of them Misumi, Hamada, on the western coast of Japan. In this area, in 1889, the paper was made in 6,000 houses; by 1945, that number had shrunk to 279. Today, only four houses have masters producing washi. And the craft is nearing a crisis point.
Ensuring continued production is essential to the survival of many other Japanese cultural touchstones (in addition to shoji screens and traditional costumes, washi is employed for Origami and Shodo calligraphy), which is why the Sekishu Washi Centre in Misumi is focused on educating tourists and potential apprentices about the process of making the paper and on promoting the versatility of washi techniques.
Seigi Nishita is one of four masters whose work is on showcase at the centre. The 64-year-old takes on both functional and artistic projects. He exports plain washi to museums in the United States for art restoration projects, while exploring indigo dyeing techniques for his contemporary washi work. “My biggest segment of customers are asking me to make paper to restore old artwork, and old screens at shrines and temples,” he says through a translator. “The contemporary work I do for myself.”
Nishita has eight employees at his studio, and three apprentices, one of which is his son. He also, on occasion, teaches workshops at the centre, where visitors can take a class and make their own sheet of paper. The Sekishu Washi Centre also holds design competitions to encourage artists to come up with new uses for the paper, which has seen washi transformed into phone cases, purses, lanterns and even blazers.
It can take upward of two years to complete a kimono using shibori to dye the fabric. There are over 50 shibori pattern-making techniques that incorporate stitching, pinching, binding and/or folding, all of which require work by hand, sometimes so detailed that it’s a wonder anyone’s fingers can manage it.
The dyeing method dates back to the eighth century, and like other traditional crafts it is at a turning point. Many of the masters are nearing retirement age. The market for silk kimonos, the kind made in the neighbourhood of Aburanokoji-dori in Kyoto, is also shrinking. The robes typically cost 5-million yen, or about $60,000, and young artists don’t feel a two-year investment for one item of clothing is a worthwhile endeavour.
“Shibori is an assembly line process,” explains Ryo Shimada, who leads dyeing workshops at the Kyoto Shibori Museum. There are about 40 people in the neighbouring shibori community who design for and sell wares through the museum. “Some design, some dye, some create the colours,” Shimada says.
That the textile technique requires a team to produce a finished piece makes fostering a new generation of artisans more challenging. On top of that, some of the tools used to create the patterns are in danger of becoming endangered. Oke shibori requires a drum, or Hinoki bucket, to create large swaths of colour. “The people who make the drums have already disappeared,” says Shimada. New drums can’t be made, so the museum is trying to protect the stock that remains.
The museum celebrates its 80th anniversary this year, and along with exhibitions, is proactively marketing its workshops to young patrons. The sessions take participants through each part of the process, from design conception to binding, dyeing to unstitching. Its gift shop already sells some accessories created by former students. It’s a sign that this art of dyeing, like Japanese pottery and paper, may not be dying after all.
The writer was a guest of G Adventures. It did not review or approve this article.
G Adventures’ 11-day Backroads of Japan tour runs throughout the year, and includes walking tours of Tokyo and Hagi, admissions to select shrines and castles and a washi paper-making lesson in Misumi. Tours start at $3,999 per person and include a seven-day Japan Rail pass. For more information, visit gadventures.com.