The ability to masterfully foster the longevity of tradition while persistently innovating is a skill not foreign to the Japanese. Specifically, we see this most exemplified through various forms of the country's traditional crafts. Metal work, bamboo woodwork, ceramics, and textiles are just a few examples of categories the Japanese have cultivated and evolved. Upon zooming into a small 230 meter stretch of land off the Okafuto river in the Echizen region of the Fukui prefecture you will find one such craft - Echizen washi, a traditional papermaking technique named after its home region. According to locals the Echizen washi was a craft gifted to the region by a beautiful goddess 1500 years ago. The tale of Kawakamigozen-densetsu suggests that one day a villager was working on a small vegetable garden near the river when approached by a beautiful Goddess who explained to him what paper was, a material unknown to him at the time and reserved only for the nobles to write on. She taught him the process of papermaking using the plants along the river for which he was eternally grateful. He shared this knowledge with fellow villagers allowing the community to prosper. Today the region supports and continues the beautiful tradition of papermaking and celebrates the Goddess of the Upper Bank by worshipping the Okata shrine in her honor.
The process of making Echizen washi, like most of Japan's artful techniques, is carefully considered requiring time as a resource, and the patience of its maker. The paper can be made from the inner bark of a variety of plants. In the Echizen region Paperbush, Mulberry, and Ganpi are popular options, each rendering a unique variation in the finished product. Once the bark is collected, it goes through a rigorous 9-step process of cleaning, manipulating, pressing, and polishing. Traditionally all steps were done by hand. Today most steps still are with the help of a few pressing and steaming machines. Only a highly trained master can achieve consistency in thickness and texture between sheets. The paper is always resilient and ample for storing over long periods of time. After consideration, it was an obvious choice during the Meiji period to act as the material for the currency used by the Grand Council of State (the highest branch of government in Japan at the time.) Before it’s industrial popularity it’s humble origins are found in Buddhist temples and beyond, where it was used to hand copy Buddhist sutras, preserving sacred teachings. The uses for Echizen washi today range from everyday informal products like postcards and wrapping paper to more expensive items such as sliding doors and traditional Echizen ceremonial paper. The styles have expanded over time. Various marbling techniques, inking, and painting are applied to create vibrant color and intricate patterns. Some are inserted with hidden patterns seen only with the application of light. And although the craft itself has greatly evolved and expanded, the area from which it has come from has largely remained the same. For centuries Ezhizen has honored it’s cultural ties to papermaking with the annual Kami festival allowing visitors to come and watch the process firsthand. Learning, observing, and sharing the process of traditional craft is important in maintaining the quality and connection involved with producing goods in all cultures. The Japanese set a beautiful example for the world in how a craft can help one discover purpose, stay mindful and present, and ultimately foster community.
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