Echizen-Washi at Dai Nippon Insatsu

It should come as no surprise to anyone that I really dig paper. All kinds of paper. It's fascinating to me; the feel, the color, the texture, even the smells of it. What may be surprising though, is that until now I haven't gone out to see the paper being made or to meet the people who make it.

Back on February 26, I took a small first step to make up for being so lax. My wife's boss's husband works for Dai Nippon Insatsu (DNP), one of the biggest commercial printers in Japan. Now, just by itself DNP is an impressive visit for a paper fanatic. On this particular day however, DNP was hosting an exhibition of Echizen-Washi, one of Japan's oldest and most beautiful "brands" of hand-made paper. My wife and I were very kindly invited to attend.

Echizen-washi is more of a culture than a "brand". From as far back as about 1500 years ago, the craftsmen and women of Imadate-cho in Fukui prefecture have been transforming plants such as kozo (楮 paper mulberry), mitsumata (三椏), and gampi (雁皮) into some of the most exquisite and beautiful papers you've ever seen. Some of my favorite papers are created by layering two pieces of paper with a special glue; the bottom layer is opaque and provides the color, the top is translucent white and often patterned. Together, they create a delicate, shimmering and utterly beautiful paper which I have used in numerous projects.

Since the invitation had been so last minute, my wife and I were expecting to just have a quick, casual look through the exhibit. Little did we know the whirlwind of a day that lay in wait for us. It was a good thing I didn't wear jeans.

As soon as we arrived, we were greeted by a small, friendly army of DNP employees including my wife's boss's husband and Wada-san, the enthusiastic lord-of-all-things-paper (a more fitting title than "paper specialist"). Now, keep in mind that at this time I was keeping some pretty odd hours preparing for the Heart Tokyo show, so I was a tad groggy to begin with. And I hadn't had my coffee yet. So, by the time we had been issued security passes and figured out how to get through the oversensitive front gate, my head was already spinning.

When we tumbled out of the elevator, we were met by a number of representatives of the Echizen-Washi group, who proceeded to give us a tour of the exhibit starting with a fantastic explanation of how the paper is made. An explanation which, sadly, I probably missed alot of due to my shaky grasp of japanese. Nevertheless it was fascinating. The washi itself was beautiful, in a dizzying array of types. I did manage to understand how true watermarks are added to the paper, before there even is proper paper. We were then introduced to a woman (whose name, sadly, I don't recall) who creates unique and gorgeous paper art. Imagine being able to make paper art without the cutting; by laying out the pulp and the dyes in the exact right way that, when the paper has been dried and the process finished, it is already a complete piece of art. I've never seen anything quite like it.

After a very pleasant and informative lunch with the DNP employees, we went back to the exhibit where we expected to have a leisurely wander through the rest of the paper before heading back home (and to some much-needed caffeine). But an ambush had been set at the elevator (again), and we were hustled into a side room where we were plied with tea and asked to wait on a very comfortable sofa.

I'm no VIP. Oh, I can talk a good game sometimes, with the right folks around and a twinkle in my eye. And I'll be the first to admit that my ego can be a formidable thing when I'm in the mood. But I have no illusions about my place in the firmament. I think I'm pretty good at what I do, but I'm a far cry from famous (today).

So, it was a pretty big surprise when nearly a dozen DNP employees came into the conference room where my wife and I were sitting and sipping, followed by the head of the Echizen-Washi association and a few of his associates. I can't really remember much of what happened next. It was all a blur. If I was smart, I let me wife do most of the talking. Bringing my portfolio along had been a last-minute decision, and a very fortuitous one. Along with some very kind words, I received more paper samples and catalogs than one man can carry.

All in all, it was a fascinating day where I was stunned by the overwhelming kindness of my dual hosts. I've already had the opportunity to use some of the washi papers I've received in a few pieces. One of these days, I hope to be big enough to merit working with a company like DNP. Most importantly, I have a better appreciation of what goes in to making some of these papers which I use every day.

Here are some links for those interested in learning more about Echizen-washi than I could ever properly explain: