White or off-white
A medium of communication
Common consumer good
Recyclable on certain days of the week
Those are the qualities that sprung to mind when I used to think of paper. Perhaps your mental list is similar to mine. Missing from such a dour and unimaginative list are any words concerning beauty, art, playfulness and craft. But if like me, you walk down the roads of rural Imadate district in oft-forgotten Fukui Prefecture–central Honshu, facing the Sea of Japan–your vocabulary and image of paper will broaden like an ever unraveling scroll.
The end of a long narrow road, flanked on both sides by traditional Japanese wooden houses, leads to the origin of the unique cultural heritage of the Echizen Paper Village. Shaded by tall, straight cypress trees is the jewel of the area, Okamoto Otaki Shrine, dedicated to the paper goddess Kawa-kami Gozen. Though there are thousands of shrines in Japan dedicated to the Yaoyorozu no Kami-literally “eight millions gods”, but figuratively meaning “countless gods”- which are venerated in the ancient Shinto religion, Okamoto Otaki Shrine is the only one honoring the spirit of paper making. Its unique multi-gabled roof–deemed one of Japan’s 100 best shrine roofs–seems to unravel delicately, accentuating a gentle beauty.
Legend has it that around 500 A.D. the paper goddess taught the art of paper making to the villagers because they lacked the ability to properly cultivate rice. A young prince from the area, who later became Emperor Keitai 26th emperor of Japan, asked the woman who she was, and she replied simply, “someone who lives upriver,” which is how she was bestowed the name Kawa-kami Gozen which means Upriver Goddess.
If the shrine is the jewel of the area, then the artisans of the area are the radiant light emanating from it. Currently there are several paper makers, including Living National Treasure Iwao Ichibei, who continue to make 100% handmade paper. Each piece of paper has a unique texture and depth due to the fibrous swirls embedded within. While holding up a sheet, one can see and feel the connection between the paper and the natural world, something that has been lost with the mass production of the spotless, uniform paper that we use for work and school.
Then there are artists, such as Fukuda Tadao, who use the exceptional paper as a medium for their visually stunning art. Mr. Fukuda uses ink tipped brushes to put wild, wave-like color patterns on water which he later transfers to paper. With his nimble fingers, he makes it looks like the brushes are dancing atop the water.
Visitors can drop in on several different workshops as long as prior reservations are made. A visit to area Paper Museum showcases the proud history and various uses of Echizen Paper. It has been used for some of the earliest bank notes, diplomatic messages, lamp shades, woodblock prints and more. You can also try your hand at making your own paper at the nearby Papyrus House shop, which sells various paper goods from artists in the area. At the end of the journey, I hope you can develop a fine appreciation for a most common, but not unimportant part of our lives.
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