Have you ever heard of "washi"? You might have heard of it as a type of paper, but what exactly makes washi different from our regular paper? And what is the origin? In today's blog, we want to introduce the background history of washi. We also stock some washi trays from an enchanting old store in Kyoto, so we want to tell you a little more about their lovely story :) If you scroll down, you can also see how you can use the washi trays to decorate your home!
Featured: Kyoto Washi Tray - Plum, Bamboo, Pine
What is washi?
Washi is a traditional Japanese paper which is made from plant fibres. The most popular type of washi is created from the steamed, stripped, and mashed bark from the branches of mulberry plants. This type of washi is called choshi or kouzogami. The cellulose cells of the fibres of the mulberry connect through hydrogen bonding.
The thickness of the paper will vary according to the production method that is used. For the tamezuki method, no dispersant is used, and so large amounts of watery fibres are strained through a screen, resulting in thicker paper. For the Japanese nagashizuki method, a dispersant is added to the fibre bath, which creates thinner, faster-drying paper. The dispersant is called neri. It is a starchy liquid that is made by pounding the roots of the aikiba plant (tororo-aoi) and soaking them in water.
All manner of plants have been used to create paper in Japan: hemp, gampi, mitsumata, mulberry. Many finishes have been perfected too, from polished, and hammered, smooth surfaces that are beautiful to write on; to the grey, ink-and-paper recycled shukushi that has been in use since the Heian era (794-1185), when Kyoto was first the capital city. Additives such as mica; alum; or gold leaf were added to paper to create (respectively) whiteness; or a beautiful painting surface; or a decorative pattern.
Here on a translucent sliding screen (shouji ) at Taizoin temple, you can see washi that has been created using an insert of acer leaves.
A Brief History of Washi in Kyoto
Papermaking originated in Japan through the production of Buddhist scriptures, around the year 701. About a decade after Kyoto was established as the capital of Japan (793), the kamiya-no-in controlled the manufacture of paper; as well as studying new methods of papermaking, and training zoushishu to travel across Japan teaching their paper-making skills. The kamiya-no-in take their name from the Kamiya river that flows through the city. The beauty of this paper, known as kanyagami, is described in The Tale of Genji – the beautiful 11th century novel about a fictionalised Heian court, written by the Empress’ lady-in-waiting, Murasaki Shikibu.
Genji Monogatari illustrated by Tsuna Isome, 17th century, from the Keio University Library.
If you’d like to learn more about washi paper, why not take a look at the free Futurelearn online course run by Keio University: The Art of Washi Paper in Japanese Rare Books. https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/japanese-book-paper
About our Kyoto washi trays
Our beautiful washi trays come from a traditional old machiya-style store that is located in one of the old back lanes of Kyoto. These lanes echo the original grid system of Heian-kyo – the medieval capital of Japan – which was built in emulation of the cultured and revered contemporary Chinese capital Chang’an (modern day Xi’an).
Suzuki Shofudo store in the back lanes of Kyoto.
Nowadays, two traditional fan shops are located nearby, and just around the corner is a store that serves matcha accompanied by a traditional red azuki bean dessert.
A nearby traditional fan shop.
Suzuki Shofudo was established in Kyoto in 1893 as a manufacturer of traditional paper items. Kyoto was renowned for its beautiful kimono, and it was the kimono patterns from the Showa era (1926-1989) that became the inspiration for the paper patterns. But far older patterns are recreated too, such as the kikukarakusa chrysanthemum pattern, which came from China in the Nara period, over a thousand years ago!
How the patterned Kyoto washi paper is made
The patterned washi paper is created using a stencil-dyeing method called katazome that originally comes from the old, traditional kyo-yuzen dyeing technique for kimono textiles.
Thank you to Suzuki Shofudo for allowing us to use this photo!
Katazome is an intricate process. First, soybeans are mashed to create soybean milk (gojiru).This acts as a fixative for the colour pigments. The first part of the pattern is created onto the washi paper using a starch resist. Then the gojiru fixative is poured into the dye, and the paper is deep-dyed, several times, in order to create a rich colour. The process is repeated for each colour of the pattern; then the starched resist is washed and cleaned away, leaving the fresh, bright colours on the washi paper.
Beautiful washi paper on the racks in the store!
We had a wonderful time visiting the store, and the beautiful upstairs office. It was lined with tatami, and was set in the eaves of the machiya. We were offered delicious green tea to drink, and in return we gave a gift of Fortnum and Mason’s biscuits!
Our washi trays come from a heritage of traditional kimono dyeing; and from a business skilled in the art of paper products. They are very special, but with their wipe-clean surfaces they are practical to have around the home, adding that little touch of beauty and tradition!
How our Kyoto washi trays can add a touch of beauty to your home!
1. For your snacks
Featured: Kyoto Washi Paper Tray - Purple Flower 50cm Adeline Klam Organic Cotton Furoshiki | Japanese Apricot Orange Our small trays are an elegant way to serve biscuits with tea. Here, we're enjoying delicious Japanese green tea with Japanese plum flower cookies!
2. For your stationery
Featured: Kyoto Washi Paper Tray - Sensu 48cm Isa Monyo Reversible Furoshiki | Chrysanthemum Red/Blue Our small trays are perfect for organising small desk items such as paperclips, post-it notepads, or coins.
3. For your cups
4. For your keys
Featured: Kyoto Washi Paper Tray - Aoi Modern Girl Furoshiki Bag Kit with Ring Handles - Dot / Beige Our small trays are a handy place to keep your keys, so that you'll always be able to find them!
5. For your jewelry
Featured: Kyoto Washi Paper Tray - Geisha Our small trays are a pretty way to keep your rings and lockets near to hand, on your dressing table. This Geisha pattern is adorable - note the red lanterns and pink cherry blossom in the background!
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We hope you found this interesting and that you now have ideas on how to add another touch of charm to your room :) We also recently wrote a blog post on how to decorate your home using furoshiki - you might enjoy that one too!
Text and Photo Sources
Futurelearn, Keio University: The Art of Washi Paper in Japanese Rare Books
Including Photo: Genji Monogatari, illus. Tsuna Isome, 17th century, Keio University Library.
Harvard EdX; Melissa McCormick: Japanese Books: From Manuscript to Print Photo: Suzuki Shofudo