Among other things, Ainokura is known for its washi, a famous type of Japanese paper made from mulberry pulp that is both extremely delicate, allowing lots of light to enter (washi is often used for window screens, for instance, because it affords privacy while still allowing natural light into a room) and yet extremely strong (windows covered in washi have no need for shutters or other protection because the paper is so strong it protects against wind and storms).
While we were there, we met with one of the local washi-making masters, and had the opportunity to explore his workshop and make washi paper ourselves!
And it was amazing.
As a child, we “made paper” as a fun experiment/project: if I remember correctly (this was decades ago) you take old paper (construction paper in particular works well, I believe), tear it into tiny pieces, soak those pieces until they get pulpy, and then kind of mush them and flatten them into a new piece of paper.
That captures the gist of washi making (water, pulp, paper), but making washi is also absolutely nothing like that. It almost seems magical: you dip a screen into water, and magically a sheet of paper sort of emerges on the screen.
- You dip the screen into the water (which is of course a mix of water and mulberry pulp, but the pulp is so fine it just looks like milky water)
2. You shake the screen back and forth, and side to side, vigorously – the more vigorous the shaking, the more the fibers mix and the stronger the paper becomes – but not so vigorously as to slop it about. We dipped the screen and shook it about three times each.
After that last dip-shake, the screen/tray contraption looks like it still has nothing but a very shallow amount of water in it.
3. Nevertheless, you flip that shallow water screen onto a mat, press the mat with your hands to get out that excess water, and then carefully peel the mat off…
…and holy moly, there is PAPER underneath.
I’m serious, it felt like magic! Paper ex nihilo – I swear it appeared as if from nothing.
4. Then you decorate it! We were supplied with carefully dried, delicate leaves, as well as paper-punched leaf decorations to adorn our sheets.
Above is Aardvark’s decorated sheet. If you look closely enough, you might be able to see some very-close-together horizontal lines, and some deeper, more spaced apart vertical lines on the wet paper: those are impressions from the screen, which is almost like a very large, very fine sushi mat, and now I know that’s how washi gets its characteristic texture!
5. Then, you repeat the paper making process but to create an even thinner sheet of paper (we did not do this, the Washi master – whose name I am embarrassed I can’t remember, because we spent so much time with him hanging out in his workshop and studio, and convinced nearly all the students they should do this paper-making workshop as well – made the thinner sheet for us, since it is an even more delicate and precise process) and you flip that second water-soaked pulp that turns into magic paper on TOP of the decorated sheet.
6. And then you vacuum the water out. This is worth a watch: it’s neat to watch this in action because you can practically see the water getting sucked out and the paper drying – it is again like you are watching the paper emerge right before you.
(But warning: the vacuum is loud. Turn your volume down before you press play.)
7. After running it over the vacuum a few times, it is then left to sit on a heated metal plate for a few minutes to finish drying.
And voila! Washi paper.
We are pictured here inside the gift shop, which is in the next room from the washi-making room. There are literally thousands of products made from washi in here, including paper/cards/stationery sets, jewelry, wallets, ornaments, decorations, toothpick and tissue holders (huge souvenir items in Japan), mirrors, gift wrapping, etc. and this man made ALL of them.
He made the washi – but he didn’t just make the washi, he collected the mulberry branches, stripped them to get the core out, dried the core, split the core into tiny strips the size of individual hairs, and then used that for the pulp from which to make the washi, THEN he actually made the washi, THEN he fashioned the washi into all those items.
It is mind-boggling to consider.
He also let us look into his workshop, the main room of the house (note he too has a floor fireplace – all the Ainokura homes do):
And then he also has a room devoted to showing his fanciest products, the paper lamps he designs and constructs:
(Mom, THIS is where we got your St. Nick ornament! Happy Feast of St. Nicholas!)