September 17, 2017
by Mayumi Otsuka, Mai Takezawa and Kanako Wakamatsu
Have you heard of the traditional paper craft in Japan? It is called washi. Paper craft is one of the important Japanese traditional arts. There are several styles of paper craft in Japan, such as tosawashi in Kochi, obarawashi in Aichi, and narushimawashi in Iwate. Kurotaniwashi, however, is the famous paper craft of Kyoto. Kurotaniwashi is often referred to as “The most beautiful paper craft in Japan.” In this article, we will explain to you all about kurotaniwashi: its history, how it is made, and its use in popular souvenirs.
History of Kurotaniwashi
Kurotaniwashi has a very long history, starting over 800 years ago. Surviving soldiers of the Heike clan had escaped from Genzi pursuers and had hidden in a village in a mountain valley. Those surviving soldiers started papermaking as a livelihood. Since then, that village became famous for papermaking, as most of the villagers are took part in papermaking process in one form or another. The name of the village was “Kurotanimura” so the paper craft came to be named kurotaniwashi.
Originally, kurotaniwashi was used in the making of various practical tools for living, such as lights and sliding doors made with paper and wood. However, at the beginning of Edo period, kurotaniwashi began to gradually be used in not only tools for living, but also in works of art and in artistic ways. The reason is that the village was close to Kyoto and the paper was of very high quality. Some of main products of Kurotaniwashi in Edo era was related to Kyo-gohuku. Kyo-gohuku is generally point to textile product that made by silk fiber. After the Meiji period, the silk industry took off and began to develop rapidly. Therefore, the demand of the products made with silk increased. With developing of the silk industry, demand of the product for cocoon bag became high. Cocoon bag is necessary tool for raise silkworm for that silk, and that cocoon bag are mostly made by paper. As you can see, kurotaniwashi was used for art products and industrial products, but nowadays it is frequently used for daily products. For example, some post cards and letter paper are made from kurotaniwashi. In this way, the culture of using craft paper became more widely known and practiced in Japan. Eventually, kurotaniwashi came to be designated as an intangible cultural property of Kyoto prefecture. Over the years, several large fires have occurred in the village. During those fires, some of the most important historical documents were burned, so it was difficult to determine the details of its origins. Nevertheless, it is said that kurotaniwashi is the oldest type of paper that exists now in Japan.
How to Make Kurotaniwashi
Kurotaniwashi is made from Paper Mulberry (broussonetia papyrefera), a kind of tree that is called kouzo in Japanese. It grows to a height of over 3 meters. The first step is to harvest the wood. They cut down the tree without leaves in the winter. Next, they put the wood in a big barrel and steam it in a furnace for 3 hours. The part of the process is called kagomushi in Japanese. “Kago” means basket, and “Mushi” means steam in English. After that, the craftsman starts de-barking the trees, a process called kagohegi in Japanese. Hegi means ‘bark’ or ‘peel’ in English, and is a kind of local dialect. The craftsman removes the bark to expose the white tree bark inside and they cook it with alkali water for an hour. After that, put the kouzo in cold water to eliminate any remaining lye and soil. This stage of the process is called midashi in Japanese. After that, they smash the wood into pulp, similar to the way of making rice cakes from steamed rice. It is called dakai in Japanese. After dakai, the wood has now become a pulp of small fibers. They then mix the pulp with water and glue, then start creating sheets by pasting the pulp on a special wood board with a brush. This final stage is called kamitsuke in Japanese. Thus, kurotaniwashi is made by drying with natural air.
The countryside region of Kyoto Tango is very famous for a long time, because there are very suit for growing good kozo (paper mulberry) that is the main material. In addition, there are Kurotani river that has very clear water. Therefore, the water of Kurotani river is perfect for making Kurotaniwashi. People who are papermaker use only natural materials. However, people who know about the way of making Kurotaniwashi and are able to make Kurotaniwashi is decreasing, so we have to protect the way of making Kurotaniwashi that is one of the Japanese traditional.
In Kyoto there are many traditional products sold as souvenirs, some of which are made with kurotaniwashi. For example, you can buy something simple, like just kurotaniwashi paper for 600-800 yen. Other products made with kurotaniwashi are letter paper, post cards, envelops, notebooks, book covers, cushion covers, and so on. These products have a traditional texture, so they are very tough. Therefore, they are capable of long term use. They become charm of kurotaniwashi. even they become too old.
Kyoto Washi Koubou
Kyoto Washi Koubou is a store with some souvenirs made with kurotaniwashi. You can buy online. At the site, you can learn more detail about the history of kurotaniwashi, as well as buy some traditional products online. In addition, you can make your own kurotaniwashi by designing their color or pattern.
The “Kurotaniwashi Kaikann” is a store and studio of kurotaniwashi. It is not open Saturday and Sunday. You can buy kurotaniwashi souvenir at the store. If you reserve on the Internet before the day you go to the store, you can try making kurotaniwshi.
The paper craft that was born in Kurotani village is called kurotaniwashi, and it is the famous paper art of Kyoto. It is said that it is the most beautiful and oldest paper craft in Japan. Kurotaniwashi has a very long history from 800 years ago, and it is made by the special skill of craftsman using natural ingredients, such as the pristine Kurotani river water. You can not only buy kurotaniwashi, but also make it on your own in Kyoto. It will be a nice souvenir and may become a special memory of you in Kyoto. Why don’t you try it?