Snapshot 12: Souvenir

Souvenir—At the risk of repeating myself, true lacquer is a remarkable material.  It is a finish, an adhesive and a decorative medium, too.  But that is not all.  In China many layers were built up so that it could be carved.  In Japan a more practical and less time consuming method was developed in order to create the same effect.  First a core of wood was carved and then finished with lacquer.

In fact, the better types of true lacquerware all have a wooden core.  But cloth can also be used in combination with a mould or former to obtain a desired shape.

That is how this cigarette case was made.  It was produced in an attempt to tap in to a niche market in occupied Japan after World War Two.  What U.S. GI could resist one of these fine souvenirs.

Smoking paraphernalia spawned a universal demand for all kinds of artefacts and gadgets the world over.  All that has now more or less gone and has never really been replaced.  Nevertheless, I would still like one of these, which could easily be put to another use.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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On the Way Home

This is Andaibara....
Excursion to the Unexpected
Back at the beginning of June when I was in Noto, I spent a glorious day visiting various people who had been recommended to me, relying on the SatNav in the car that I was using to get me to my destinations.  I had already become quite attached to the voice of the young lady giving directions and, for the most part, had found her instructions in very polite Japanese to be clear and easy to follow.

It helped to have looked at a number of maps beforehand and having a good sense of direction anyway, I nearly always had a pretty good idea of what direction I was supposed to be heading. Later during my stay, however, the inadequacies of the SatNav were exposed and were made worse by my false assumptions.  But that is another story, or two.

Newly built and old can hardly be distinguished.
There are not many main roads on the Noto Peninsula, so even without the prompts of Ms SatNav I was beginning to find my way around fairly comfortably.  In the circumstances there was, after all little chance of getting lost.  If I was unsure I could always knock on a door or ask someone, that is if I could find someone to ask.  Apart from the main tourist centres the Noto Peninsula as a whole is very sparsely populated.  In fact, the numbers of people moving away from the area is of great concern—depopulation with a vengeance.

It was late afternoon and I was now heading back to Wajima to my guesthouse; home for the duration of my month-long stay.  I was on Route 249 moving northward.  This major route follows the coast up from Kanazawa in the south west and then turns sharply eastward and runs through a wide valley, passing close to Shojiji temple and the town of Monzen.  It was a scene of much damage as a result of the earthquake which struck the area in 2007.  There is now little sign of what happen, except at Shojiji Temple, which is still undergoing restoration.  Many of the older buildings in Monzen were spared, others have been rebuilt but in a sympathetic style, so that it is sometimes difficult to say from when they date.

Although the SatNav was guiding me dutifully along Route 249, I was already so familiar with the route I decided to ignore my attentive guide and make a detour.  Taking a left turn at some traffic lights I began to follow a narrow lane between rice paddies and stands of conifers steadfastly arranged on the steep slopes of the flanking mountains, or were they hills.  By definition a mountain is steep and as far as the UK is concerned is over 600 metres high.  So here “mountain” is perhaps the right word—steep slopes and at least the required height.

As the way in front of me began to climb the SatNav fell silent and gave up trying to redirect me. The surroundings were almost completely silent too.  No bird song, no traffic noise—I was the traffic—and no people.  The only sounds were the occasional croak of a frog and the faint murmuring of water trickling into the stepped paddies that filled the ever narrowing and inclined valley.  It was a very fine day.  Not too humid and a blue sky decorated with a few puffy clouds.

The stepped paddies here were nothing to rival those in Thailand or indeed other parts of Japan.  Nevertheless, they were worth photographing.  Their regularity and tidiness alone made them memorable.

Although there were two or three houses near to were I was standing looking down the valley, there was no one to be seen.  All the houses could have been uninhabited for all I knew, except that the small gardens were well tended.  Surely there was someone around.  Indeed there was.

The peace and quite was broken by the sound of an engine starting and almost immediately a light truck driven by an elderly man appeared out of a side road and came to a stop by where I was standing.  Konichi wa. Ii tenki desu ne.  We exchanged greetings and even commented on the weather, before discussing the location.  This was Andaibara, a small community of twelve households of mostly elderly people who were doing their best to tend the land.

Fortunately this local did not have a strong accent, or he was being kind enough to speak his mother tongue in its more standard form.  I therefore had no trouble understanding him.

It seems that just as in other parts of the Noto Peninsula, depopulation in Andaibara has meant that fewer and fewer people are farming the land and there seems to be no end to the problem.

“Of course, there were plenty of people living here in the past—farmers, foresters and their families.  Now all the young people have moved away to Tokyo or other big cities to find work and mostly only come back at the New Year”.  This I had heard before but his next statement was something of a surprise.

“When there were more people living here, some of the men went off to fight in the Russo-Japanese War”.  Pointing to a mound by the road a little way back down the valley he said, “That’s a memorial to them”. Of course, such memorials can be found in small villages all over rural Britain, especially honouring those that fell in the First World War. 

The realities of the Russo-Japanese conflict, which started in 1904, could not have been further from my thoughts.  I was standing in a little haven of peace and tranquility where nature predominated and even people were so scarce as to have no real presence.  It was nature’s domain.

I suddenly felt very privileged to be were I was and to be completely absorbed in what I was doing.  I was a spectator of other people’s lives in an idyllic location with not even the slightest sense of responsibility.  Or would it be more true to say that I was an observer benefitting from a sense of happy detachment.

As our conversation began to dry up, I asked if I might take a photograph of my new acquaintance and, out of courtesy, I asked too if I might have his name.

“My name? I’m not someone who is worthy of a name.”  There was no sense of any spitefulness or anger in his voice.  He was, however, clearly surprised but perhaps no more surprised than I was by his answer.  It might seem to some people that anonymity for the Japanese is something to hide behind.  Being publicly recognised with a name, however, does for some Japanese seem to be something they feel they must have earned rather than a given right—there is a sense of honest modesty.

My short detour into the mountains had been uplifting and interesting.  I resolved to take more excursions of the beaten track.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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Kyomi and Kazuyuki Toumi—Noto Nigyo Handmade Paper

Mother and son team—the makers of Noto Nigyo Handmade Papers
Paper in Paradise
Forty or so years ago “real ale” made its appearance in British pubs.  It was the result of a reaction against the kind of rather bland beer that was being produced at the time by big breweries up and down the country.  Their beers were just simply uninteresting.  British beer has always been described by critics as “warm and flat”.  What this really means is that it is only slightly chilled and not carbonated.  Traditionally brewed real ale or what is sometimes called cask beer was kept in a pub cellar and in wooden barrels, just as it had been for hundreds of years.  Yes, it was slightly chilled and also flat but it was full of flavour.  In fact it had a deep rounded complex flavour.  It really tasted good and this is what sealed its success.  Nowadays, real ale is still holding its own and is available along side a staggering number of different beers, produced either in the UK or overseas.

Is it too fanciful to suggest that some comparisons can be drawn between real ale and handmade paper?  I don’t think so.  Reputably beer dates back more than three-thousand years, and paper making began some two-thousand years ago.  So both beer and paper have been made by hand much, much longer than they have been manufactured by a continuous automated process.  Handmade papers were the norm just as cask ales were before mass production took over and, let’s face it, in both cases something was lost when both became an industrially manufactured product.  Just as there was a resurgence in interest in more flavoursome beers in the UK all those years ago, so too has there been a upsurge of interest in handmade papers all over the world.

Not tracing paper but drawn on a fine handmade Japanese paper.  A detail of a scheme for a tea ceremony area in an apartment block.
Before I went to live in Japan I had never seen paper made and I had certainly never used any either.  My first real encounter with a handmade Japanese paper was when I was doing a design for a Japanese tea ceremony facility to be housed in an apartment block scheduled to be built in Kanazawa, south-west of Wajima.  I had been given some very thin handmade Japanese paper, on which I decided to draw up my plan, simply because it seemed to have a quality and finish completely in keeping with the project—a modern take on a traditional pursuit.

Charging a mould for pulp.  The culms of bamboo above provide a little spring
to make lifting the mould a little easier.
Despite being very thin and translucent, the paper I used was strong and had a fine texture.  Strength is one of Japanese handmade papers, well eh….strengths, which is acquired during its making.  Simply speaking, the fibres in the pulp used to make a piece of British handmade paper settle in a more of less random fashion.  Japanese handmade paper, on the other hand, is actively formed—the mould is charged with pulp and mostly rocked back and forth and only occasionally from side to side, so that the fibres line up and interlock giving the paper a grain and hence strength.

When I arrived at Kyomi Toumi’s workshop, that is exactly what her son, Kazuyuki, was doing—charging a mould with a pulp containing some adzuki bean husks.  Imbedding other natural fibres, dried flowers or leaves to add a decorative quality to the already fine papers is one of their specialities, although this mother and son team also produce a lot of plain papers for calligraphy.

The rhythmical charging of the mould help the fibres to interlock.
In a sense, these decorative papers are a memorial to Kyomi’s father-in-law, Shusaku Toumi, from whom she learned the craft after she married into the family while still a teenager.  There was no tradition of paper making in the district of Mii where Kyomi is based and where Shusaku began work back in 1949, initially using wild kozo—paper mulberry.  But that was only the beginning.  Shusaku later started imbedding his papers with such things as seaweed as well as other plant fibres to produce some unique and highly appealing papers.  One of these was a paper incorporating strips of cedar bark, a tradition inherited by Kyomi and Kazuyuki, who now also makes lampshades using some of the engaging papers they produce together.

The adzuki bean husks add to the character of the paper.
They even utilise waste material—those parts of harvested local Japanese cedar which the sawmills usually discard.  The Toumis, however, turn it into a robust handmade paper full of character with a resplendently warm tinge.  They also make use of waste timber from old houses, which have been demolished, by using it as a source of heat for a paper dryer.

The fibrous nature of the cedar bark here is obvious.
After a sheet of paper has been formed, it is allowed to stand in a post—a pile of sheets which are allowed to drip over night.  The next day they are pressed to squeeze out more moisture before each sheet is thoroughly dried.  In many places where handmade Japanese papers are produced sheets are brushed out onto a wooden board and stood outside to dry.

Where Kyomi has her workshop, however, that method is impossible because, in the narrow mountain valley where she works, wind blowing down the valley would soon release the finished paper from its board and ruin it.  Instead Kyomi uses a stainless steel dryer, which is warmed by burning waste timber.  The smoke rising from the small chimney at the end of the building only serves to add to the atmosphere of the location beside a river and surrounded by idyllic tree covered mountain scenery.  There is a sense that the paper is a product of its surroundings, made by dedicated people with care, skill and love.  Everything is just perfect.

When I returned to Wajima that evening and began to recall all that I had seen that day, I smiled with deep contentment as I remembered the welcoming warm-hearted reception Kyomi and Kazuyuki had given me, the beautiful paper, the unspoilt rural setting and the balmy early June weather that day.  “Where have you been today?”  I was asked.  “I’ve been to paradise”.

Just part of the process of forming sheets and drying follow below.

The bamboo screen on which a sheet is formed is lifted from the mould and....

....the wet sheet of newly formed paper is laid on a heap of sheets to drip before pressing to reduce the moisture.

A still very damp sheet is lifted on a flat strip of wood and....
....transfered to the warm face of the dryer.

The sheet is brushed out flat on the warm surface of the dryer.

When dry, the finished sheet is flung dramatically like a bed-sheet on to a pile of dry sheets.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

Do feel free to pass on the address of this blog to anyone you think will be interested.  Should you wish to leave a comment, please do so by clicking on the comment mark at the bottom left of this or any of the other posts.   If you have found this blog interesting, why not become a follower.