Nestled within the natural wonders of Kyoto’s Arashiyama district lies Atelier Kira Karacho, one of Japan’s few master Karakami studios. This 11th generation family-owned atelier accepts commissions only from customers willing to visit in person, encouraging an appreciation of the craft first hand. Karakami, the traditional technique of pattern printing on high quality washi paper (made from Mulberry tree pulp) uses woodblocks that have been passed down through generations in an intricate painting and printing process. The final material is used in a variety of projects, from large public installations and temples to residential fusuma sliding doors and wallpaper. Even smaller paper goods like invitation cards and envelopes are created with this measured technique. The woodblocks used at Kira Karacho date back to the Japanese Edo period and stem from the maternal side of husband-and-wife team, Toto Akihiko and Senda Aiko. They begin the customized craft by working with the customer in selecting the ideal pigment and pattern. Then, instead of stamping the washi paper, a layer of paint is added to the hangi (raised section of the woodblock) and the paper is laid over and rubbed transferring the color. Toto is a pioneer in his field, developing many celebrated works in his signature “Toto Blue,” a shade that is poetic in feeling and carries an infusion of energies and deities. The pigment is applied in the shifuku-zuri and Fuuki techniques, performed with the fingers and dynamically representing the wind. The results are mesmerizing. In a conversation with Toto Akihiko, we discuss this cherished tradition and their contribution in maintaining one of Japan’s most masterful artistries.
Can you speak a little bit to your working process?
For me, the work is praying, not making. The paint is applied to the woodblock using a kind of sieve covered in gauze, then the hand-made paper is placed over the block and rubbed lightly with the palm of the hand. But It is not rubbed hard. The hand is run gently over the paper to transfer the color. The color is applied but without seeming to do so, although this seems contradictory, it is very difficult to explain in words; it is like scenery reflected quietly in water.
What is something unique or interesting about Karakami that might not be obvious to the viewer?
I think the culture of karakami is a culture of light. It is the light that continues into the future. Tradition exists now, in the present moment. Our karakami paper has continued for 400 years, but it is not a 400-year-old paper, it is a karakami paper that lives today but backed by history. The past does not belong solely to the past, there is also the past that exists today, now, in this instant; if it did not live, it would have no future. The past is forever being edited and art is no different. Even though a pattern may be repeated, it does not become a stereotype. A pattern is the shape of memory, it has fundamental characteristics but the people who continue this pattern must forever develop it.
What feelings do you seek to evoke in people who live with Karakami pieces around them?
Through its history, karakami paper has brought happiness to people’s lives through numerous patterns. Now, it is creating a point of contact with the modern world, applying the traditional prayer motifs to a variety of things, then dispatching these into the world. I believe that editing the beauty and values of Japanese traditional art crafts to produce karakami that will bring happiness to people is the role that the next generation is destined to play.
Can you tell me about a particular project you are working on at the moment?
Kira Karacho presents karakami works as fine art, a historic first that paves a new way forward for traditional karakami. Since 2018, Kira Karacho proposed a cultural project aimed at preserving the treasures of Kyoto and the spiritual heart of the ancient city for those 100 years from now, and announced the 100 Designs of the Heisei Era Project (today, “100 Designs of the Heisei and Reiwa Eras”). One hundred new wooden printing blocks have been added to the collection of 600 handed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years. In this way, Kira Karacho has opened a new chapter in the history of karakami paper.
How would you like to see this art form evolve in the future?
I hope to transmit knowledge of prayer and beauty contained within the Karakami paper. I would like to deliver this karakami paper, with its message of peace, to the whole world. We sincerely hope that karakami will bring people tranquility and happiness, and our work is done in a spirit of prayer for world peace. Our most heartfelt hope is that these aspirations will eventually merge with the great stream of history and bring joy to people’s lives.
By Alexis Kanter
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