Breathing new life into papermaking in Echizen

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Craftspeople make a large sheet of washi paper at Igarashi Seishi Co. in Echizen, Fukui Prefecture.

ECHIZEN, Fukui — Belief in the “shisoshin” goddess of paper is alive and well in the Goka area of Echizen, Fukui Prefecture, where the streets are lined with paper-making workshops.

About 1,500 years ago, a goddess is said to have appeared to the residents of this mountainous area, which was ill-suited for rice paddies, and to have advised them to start papermaking.

Thanks to plentiful water and an abundance of wild trees for raw materials, Echizen washi paper grew to be recognized as a specialty product worthy of presentation to the Imperial court and shogunate.

The goddess, called Kawakami Gozen, is revered by washi craftspeople as their patron deity.

In winter, the Goka area even takes on a divine look, with fog covering the mountainsides.

The sound of splashing as raw materials for washi paper are scooped from water tanks breaks the silence of the small town.

At Igarashi Seishi Co., founded in 1919, I watched craftspeople making large sheets of washi for fusuma sliding doors.

The young craftspeople placed a special wooden sifting tool in a tank of cold water to make pure white washi paper.

At the workshop, they use sunset hibiscus plants to produce for making high-quality washi.

The company also produces original washi paper designs with fine wave and floral patterns that are popular with inns and upscale ryotei restaurants.

The company’s third president, Kozo Igarashi, 76, also serves as president of the Fukui prefectural washi industry cooperative and chairman of the All Japan Handmade Washi Association.

“The conditions around washi paper are harsh at the moment due to a shortage of raw materials and the movement to go paperless,” Igarashi said. He explained that the number of companies in the association, which was more than 100 about 40 years ago, has fallen to 47.

He is taking steps to overcome this predicament. For example, Igarashi Seishi has developed “food paper,” which includes vegetable fibers such as from leeks and potatoes.

Vegetable fiber can be used as a substitute for the decreasing amount of wood available for washi. Using vegetables that would otherwise be thrown away will also help address the issue of food loss.

The project began with independent research by Igarashi’s grandson. It is an innovative idea from the next generation that is breathing new life into the world of washi.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
“Food paper” sheets mixed with vegetable fibers

Igarashi is also working to have Echizen Torinokoshi handmade washi, a traditional Japanese paper made exclusively from domestic gampi plants (Diplomorpha sikokiana), registered as an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO.

The Goka area has a culture that values both tradition and innovation.

There are facilities and a museum in the area where visitors can try their hand at papermaking.

The Echizen Washinosato Art Museum, which opened last year, exhibits Heian emaki scrolls reproduced on Echizen washi paper.

Murasaki Shikibu spent some time in Echizen when she accompanied her father on a mission to the Echizen provincial office.

Just imagine “The Tale of Genji” being written on washi paper made in this area.