There is a season for everything and washi paper follows the rule. In winter, the weather is suitable for washi making whereas in summer, Sato-san changes job and turns into a farmer. When I visited the workshop a couple of weeks ago, it was already too hot to make washi, so I could not witness the whole washi-making process. However, I was invited to come back during next winter. What a great time I had with Sato-san and her family! Besides giving me a couple of hours of her time and sharing her story, adorable ninety-year-old Sato-san also tried to evaluate the possibilities of me marrying a Japanese man and treated the interpreter and I with nice dishes and drinks. Overall, it was more like a casual conversation rather than a formal research interview, as I usually carry out. Anyway, some interesting insights were brought up by Sato-san during our conversation, so I will share them in this article!
“Washi” is Japanese paper made by hand, piece by piece. There are various kind of washi, light to strong, white to brown, rough to soft-touch but all of them are part of Japanese traditional know-how. Yanagiu washi is of far superior quality and costs more than twice the price of factory-produced paper. Nowadays, people are more likely to buy cheap and mass-produced paper. All the other Yanagiu washi producers went bankrupt and this very workshop is the last one of its kind. Why did this company made it year after year, in spite of challenging economic background? “Because it was the biggest one in the area!”. As a result, “we get all the orders and we are busy all year around”. Sato-san is faced with all the responsibilities towards customers and passion for her craft: “I cannot die!”, she acknowledges.
Business-to-consumer is the business model, meaning that Sato-san does not sell the washi she produces to shops and retailers but instead customers come straight to this location to buy some. The beautiful house with adjoining workshop and garden makes it worth the experience of paying a visit.
On transmission and learning
What kind of tasks can be done by students or volunteers who come for one day at Sato-san’s workshop? Unfortunately, there is nothing they can be helpful with. Every gesture requires time and practice before they can be mastered. However, Sato-san welcomes local or international groups of students and helps them getting an experience of Yanagiu washi. The next guests will learn how to make postcards for instance. On the top of that, Yanagiu washi company members teach and share their experience of craftsmanship with children in schools.
Sato-san was not a washi-paper craftswoman from the beginning. When she was around forty, Sato-san started by helping her parents-in-law with their business “My parents-in-law were aging, so I gave them a hand. I tried, I imitated their gestures, I trained”… and finally mastered washi.
Both tradition and experimentation as a mindset
Not only is washi hand-made but it is also hand-dyed. Sato-san loves experimenting with techniques and pigments. She used onions and even soot to make colorful paper. “I thought the paper would turn out black when using the soot and actually it came out green!”
This positive, energetic and playful mindsets seems to be key to a long and rich life: “my mind stays clear because I talk a lot and I work a lot, too”, Sato-san joyfully claims.
Many thanks, Sato-san!