I was inspired to meet Mr. Uda after reading a Japanese online article about him.
Mr. Uda, a certified traditional craftsman for making Washi paper is the 4th generation of Uda Paper Mill in Shikoku-Chuo city in Ehime.
When I stepped into his workshop studio, he was in the middle of making Washi papers. I briefly greeted him and let him know that I’d wait for him to complete the batch of the raw material he was working on.
His workshop space was quiet and a little chilly. Traditionally, Washi papermaking was done during the month with cooler temperature in order to keep the quality of the raw materials. Mr. Uda follows the same schedule today that he makes Washi papers from October through May.
Only the sound of water and the equipment made from bamboo called Sugeta, moving back and forth echoed in the quiet room.
It was fascinating to see how fast he completed making a single sheet while paying great attention to the details. If he spotted unnecessary bubbles, tiny dark spots or dust, he removed quickly using a long straw or a tiny pin.
As I watch him continue working on his batch, I was wondering how it’s like to live as a Washi papermaking master for 43 years. Mr. Uda’s Washi papers were quickly piled up with all the edges aligned beautifully.
Uda Paper Mill has a huge factory space. There are 7 large Kamisuki (papermaking) machines along with other equipment like boiling and drying machines. Currently, most of them are not in use.
While the production of machine-made paper in the region has continued to increase to rank #1 in Japan, the paper mills who make handmade Washi papers decreased drastically in the period of 100 years due to decline in Washi paper usages.
When he started working as a papermaking craftsman, there were over 20 people working at Uda Paper Mill, making thousands of various Washi papers from the morning to the evening. He recalls “we’re told that in order to be recognized as a professional, we would need to make 750 Washi papers per day.”
Currently, he makes over 20 different styles of Washi papers depending on the clients’ requests come from all over Japan. His thin white Gampi paper, “Gampi Shiro-Usu” is an award-winning product and is used for various purposes including for creating the faces of Washi dolls.
As he was giving me the factory tour, he explained to me the steps to make his Washi paper and the equipment he uses.
There are three main raw materials for making Washi paper - Kozo, Mitsumata, and Gampi. It’s hard to see the obvious differences from the photo but if you see them close and touch the barks, you’ll see and feel the differences.
Kozo is a member of the mulberry family. Its fibers are long, thick and strong therefore the papers made from Kozo are durable and flexible, and often used for making various things indispensable to our daily life such as Shoji screens, Washi lamps and other interior designs.
Mitsumata is a relative in the daphne family. Its fibers are shorter and weak, and the fiber cells contain a lot of water. Papers made from Mitsumata have a soft and smooth surface. Insects don’t like the fragrance of daphne family plants and don’t attack the paper made from them, therefore anything written on Mitsumata papers can be preserved for a long time. Those qualities make Mitsumata papers perfect for making high-quality stationery.
Gampi is a member of the daphne family. The length of its fibers is about the middle between Kozo and Mitsumata. The paper made from Gampi has a smooth surface and it’s slightly glossier than the other two which creates an elegant look. As the daphne family member, Gampi paper is also safe from the insect attacks. Those qualities make the paper a perfect candidate for Japanese calligraphy.
Harvested barks are soaked in the water for a few hours to overnight before their dark outer layers are removed. Then the fibers are cooked in the alkaline solution for about 2 hours in the special vat. (below photo)
Upon completing the cooking process, the barks are washed thoroughly to remove any traces of the alkaline solution, then put through the machine with tiny slits at the bottom (see the photo below) to remove any dust and other unwanted parts of the fibers. Kozo’s long fibers don’t go through these tiny slits, so manual labors are required to clean them.
Once the fibers are cleaned, they’ll be beaten to separate the fibers. It takes a week just to prepare the raw materials to get ready for Kamisuki, the papermaking.
The fibers are now mixed in the water along with Neri (viscous liquid to help fibers form nicely) to make sheets of Washi paper.
The pile of paper is left overnight then put in the press machine to remove most of the moisture. Although many paper mills use large steam machines to quickly dry papers, Mr. Uda still uses natural drying method by placing papers on the wooden panels.
There are so much care and attention put into making Washi papers. This is why handmade Washi papers have a feeling of warmth both to see and touch.
Washi paper is one of the most papers I use for creating gift wrapping designs. Their elegant appearance and unique texture create the authentic beauty to the designs even if there are no colors or patterns added on them.
If you haven’t used Washi paper for your gift wrapping before, I highly recommend you to try. It’s much more forgiven to make any mistakes or easier to wrap oddly shaped items than the regular gift wraps because of their durable and flexible characteristics.
Join my private FB group to learn more about papers, the art of gift wrapping and other traditional crafts and culture: https://www.facebook.com/groups/TheArtOfGiftWrappingInJapan/
Special thanks to:
Takeo Uda of Uda Paper Mill (Shimobun 2015, Kinseicho, Shikoku-Chuo city, Ehime Japan 799-0111)
Yoko Takahashi / San-Maga Web: https://ehimesansan.jp/sanmaga/column/878/
Tomomi Higuchi for coordinating the interview