Paper making in Akiruno, Japan

Paper making in Akiruno, Japan

by Hazel Gray
11th-grade homeschooler, Yokota Air Base

The day is finally here! My family drives about forty-five minutes to Akiruno, a little town lodged in the foothills of the Okutama mountains. Pulling into a small parking lot, we disembark and enter a rural and aged building adjoining it. The pleasant aroma of wood smoke fills the air. Gazing around, I see wooden frames of every size lining the walls, basins of cold water, a table prepared with diverse materials, and an entire library display of beautifully patterned, handmade paper. The eager staff greets us cheerfully as we sit down at a large table. We are spending the morning at the Akiruno Furusato Kobo Workshop. We are going to make paper.

Making paper by hand is an ancient Japanese tradition. The particular method we are learning, called “Gundogami”, or “Gundo paper”, is a traditional style of paper-making exclusive to Japan involving the kouzo tree. The branches, about 1.5 cm in diameter, are cut into even lengths, then steamed until their bark peels off. Only the bark is used to make the paper; the naked branches are discarded. After a rinse, the dark outer layer of bark is scraped off, exposing the flaky white strips. The strips are boiled with sodium carbonate for four hours, rinsed again, then beaten into a fluffy pulp. The pulp is stored until needed for further use.

We learn about this meticulous and tedious process with a fun mix of English and Japanese between our family and the staff, and now we are ready to continue our morning by transforming the provided pulp into sheets of paper.

We don our aprons and gather around one of the large metal basins filled with cold water. Our instructor scoops a large mound of kouzo pulp with her hand and dumps it into the basin, then takes a large bamboo stick and stirs rapidly and vigorously until all the pulp is broken up, making the water look very cloudy. We each have a turn to stir ourselves. It is fun and dare I say tiring! Then our instructor takes a sticky glue-like liquid made from mashed aibika root and stirs a generous amount into the pulp mixture. Now that the milky pulp concoction is prepared, it is time to move on to shaping the paper.

The instructor hands each of us a paper mold, called “sugeta” in Japanese, made primarily of wood. There are many different kinds of paper molds; the ones we use are around 15x25x3 cm and have two layers: the bottom is a thin mesh screen with a wooden border, and the top is only a wooden border with a thick wooden strip down the middle. This arrangement creates two pieces of paper. Then the instructor demonstrates the method of molding the paper: First we hold the mold firmly and dip it into the pulp mixture, scooping it up. Then we carefully shake the mold until all the water drips out. We repeat this process once more to make a thicker sheet. Then we remove the top part of the frame and walk over to our table where a drying paper is already prepared for us. We turn the mold over and out come two wet sheets of paper!

We are not finished yet, though. We are handed a small basket with scissors and asked to roam the grounds of the workshop, searching for flowers and grasses to press into our papers. I notice that while I am searching for flowers, they seem much more abundant than if I were not looking for them at all. It is more and more apparent to me that the true beauty of Japan can be found everywhere, even in the weeds of a parking lot, if we stop and look closely. I find some lingering hydrangea blossoms, a few momiji leaves, and a large quantity of diverse weed-like flowers, the names of which I do not know. Some grow from the wall, some from the ground, and some on vines off of other trees. It is such a wild array! So beautiful!

Once everyone makes their floral selection, we return to our table to decorate our papers. It is slightly difficult to get all the little pieces of nature to stick to the paper, but everyone’s finished product turns out great! Even with all the flowers in place on our papers, we are still not quite finished. We need one more thin layer of paper on top of the flowers to keep them in place. So we go back to the basin and dip the frame in the mold once, without scooping. This layer is so thin that it is invisible against the mesh. We press the thin film on our paper and lift the frame. Now we are all finished.

We wash our hands to remove the sticky pulpy residue and take off our aprons. Then a friend serves us a picnic lunch while the instructor turns on a short film about the history of the work done in Akiruno Furusato Kobo Workshop. When the film concludes, we are each allowed to select a handmade paper bookmark to keep.

The papers we made are all assembled but still need to dry completely, so we will not take them home today; the kind staff will mail them to us. It seems the papers need quite a lot of drying! But the results are definitely worth it. Now we each have two pieces of durable, decorated paper—handmade by us! The perfect Japanese souvenir!

For your convenience, here are a couple websites containing useful information on the Akiruno Furusato Kobo Workshop:
Akiruno Furusato Kobo Warkshop
Akiruno Furusato Kobo (in Japanese)

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