Thursday, November 27, 2014

The mother lode

I landed back in Seoul late last night after a flight delay. I was too tired to explode, but I was indeed bursting with great fulfillment. Here's a recap from the days I was internet-less (and happily!). On Monday, I took the train up to Niigata Prefecture to visit two paper mills. The first was Oguni Washi, headed by Imai-san (pictured above at city hall in Nagaoka where you see washi panels all made by his mill with snow-bleached kozo from the area).
Here he is at the sake plant with my very able interpreter, Kazuhiro. Where would I be without the many many friends and colleagues and new friends and new colleagues who translated for me?
Both of these mills make handmade paper for sake labels. This is a HUGE portion of their income, and very stable.
But this was the big treat: Imai-san's kozo field! He was literally running everywhere from the moment we met, and we ran through the field so he could show us the stacked kozo that hadn't made it down to the mill yet.
They had just finished the harvest, so he was able to spend this time with us. Can you see how tall his kozo is?! I got tons of advice on turning the soil, good fertilizer, pruning tips, and so on.
He is so proud, rightfully so.
The city hall commission took two years of the harvest (after pulling what he needed for regular production). It was a ridiculous amount of fiber.
For the deckled edge on the large sake bottles, they have to form all these tiny sheets and dry them separately, too!
They use almost all tororo, natural formation aid, stored in a freezer. There are sources for this in other papermaking areas of the country. I wish we could just order roots like this.
His naginata was here before he even came to work at the studio. The lid is attached to a rope, so not as hard to pull up as some others.
His stamper.

Wonderful vats to soak screens. I am also very envious of all of the stainless steel they have all over the Japanese paper mills and classrooms!
Instead of threads: ribbons! SO SMART.
After an interview at his shop and my purchase of snow-bleached paper (half made by him, half by his wife, whose father revived papermaking at Oguni), he took me to the inn where I would be eating, run by Kobayashi-san, the father figure for all papermakers in the area and beyond. This is the inn where I slept, an older version. Both have straw thatched roofs.
Trinkets inside one of the inns. So many of these everywhere! There is another side story where the Korean documentary team followed me to Japan and showed up very rudely to insert themselves into my research. My interpreter did a good job shielding me from this last-minute weirdness and at the inn, it was made very clear that they were unwelcome, so I managed to escape. But when I return to the U.S., I'll have to look into martial arts training or something to help me fend off the creeps.
Otherwise, Japan was the opposite of Korea: I met 100% good people and got so much amazing research done on so many levels. In particular, the sweep and trajectory of my itinerary turned out to be perfect, starting from a teacher who educates children about washi to a venerated papermaker who is also a remarkable philosopher. He had left 15 minutes of kozo harvesting just so I could watch. Here, Kobayashi-san sharpens his knife by hand before we go down to the closest field (he has more than one field, but this is right behind the mill. Oh, and more than one mill!).
Also very tall and healthy!

Afterwards, he took a break to chop up greens for the chickens (you can glimpse a few behind and below him).
Here, his 28-yo son is hard at work steaming bundles from the harvest (which he has already trimmed to the right length). He will inherit the business next year, as his father is retiring.

Making sake labels. She laughed at me when I took pictures of a small hammer that wedges in a block of wood to secure their couching guides, which are beautifully compact and efficient.
Across from her vat, a male colleague has just added more fiber to charge the vat and started with a quick whisk by hand before turning on the automated maze (comb).
It's moving on it's own! Also terribly efficient and gives him a chance to rest. See the counter at right?
They click every time they make a sheet. Whew! And actually, the labels have to be thick, so they laminate all of their sheets (his are large sheets cut to fit smaller sake bottles).
Izhar Neumann, who was a wonderful guide to me as well as the 12 Israelis with him, trained with Kobayashi-san for a year, many years ago, and took kozo from Kadoide to Israel. He started with 10 plants and now has 300.
Shifu kimono at the shop above the mill (this is the newer location. The other mill has three vats).
Kamiko blazer, lined with fabric.
They have a whole array of lovely lamps made from kozo cores and paper. Everything was lovely, of course.
After stripping, the cores are also rebundled just as neatly as before.
This is all they were doing all day. Hard work.
Another male worker transports these to hang dry. The bundles are secured with rice straw.
The walk from the inn to the mill is winding and pleasant, even in the rain we had the entire time I was there.
Some of the tour group ahead with umbrellas. Plenty of umbrellas to go around at every location!

His box of shifu treats.
A large paper mat covered in kakishibu and lined with fabric from Indonesia, where Kobayashi-san went to teach washi making.
From a HUGE book of samples of washi from all over Japan.
Shifu woven from old calendars.
The book, which was fat and satisfying.
Izhar explains the heat dryer to his group.
The final picture before he drove me to the station, insisted on buying my train ticket as a present, and buying me a box of treats to bring back to Korea. More about this deep and beautiful journey later—I am filled with enormous gratitude for this opportunity, and for all the people who made it possible. The generosity I faced was astonishing. For now, I have to prepare for another flight tomorrow: I spend a long weekend on Jeju Island. To re-visit a persimmon dyer, an artist friend, and possibly another teacher (if she allows it). And maybe get a wink of rest.

Sunday, November 23, 2014


Lunch, out of order, with old childhood friends. It's so nice to be able to reconnect.

Also out of order, a second visit to Richard and Ryoko in Tokyo. I leave now for Niigata. Will pass the earthquake's epicenter but I think we'll all be just fine. Can't wait to return to a countryside! And real mills.