Experience: Making Washi (Yame, Fukuoka)

Last week, washi (handmade Japanese paper) was recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage product. I’m a fan of this beautiful paper and purchase it for special occasions whenever I can but I had the chance to try my own hand at making washi earlier this year on a trip to Yame in Fukuoka Prefecture.

Washi is most commonly made from the fibers of the paper mulberry tree. It’s a long and laborious process to break down the tree into fibers that can be used to make a decent paper. The process was once exclusively carried out in the winter, as cold water is an essential ingredient in the rinsing step (the cold inhibits the growth of bacteria). Prior to that, however, branches must be boiled, stripped and dried. Sounds complicated, right?

Thankfully, I didn’t have to deal with that part of the process. My hand in the paper making started with a vat of mulberry pulp mixed with water. Taking a tray with wire mesh, I swished it back and forth three times in the mixture before lifting it straight out. The thickish residue was caught in the wires.

My dear friend demonstrating how to make washi
My dear friend demonstrating how to make washi

I had chosen to make a fan and was given the opportunity to choose a variety of dried flowers with which to decorate it. Given that my toddler was along at the time, our fan’s design more resembled the face of a bear but sometimes you have to cater to the crowd. 😛 We carefully picked up the pieces with tweezers from our dish and laid them on the screen in the design we wanted.

Selection of dried flowers for decoration
Selection of dried flowers for decoration
Our fan's design
Our fan’s design

The screen was then hung up vertically and an electric fan was aimed at it. When we returned an hour or two later, the paper itself was just “crisping up”, so to speak. You could clearly see the mulberry fibers running through the creamy surface but it made for a unique and attractive pattern.

We still have that fan, I must say. It’s taken a slight beating (3-year-olds will do that) but the paper is remarkably resistant. All in all, it’s one of the more unique souvenirs I’ve acquired in my time in Japan and I’d love to return to Yame to make more. For those not heading to Fukuoka, a quick search of the internet will reveal a handful of other locations where you can make your own washi, including the washi “village” of Echizen.

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