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Masashi Sawamura: Paper out of Liquid

, 2010/08/14

The first of a three-part series on Mino Washi

There was a time when all the paper in Mino was made collectively by the hands of Mino. Every part of the process– the stripping of bark from Kozo (Mulberry) branches, the boiling of the bark with lye in huge ovens, careful cleaning of the bark with cold river water, the pounding of the resulting Kozo pulp with pine hammers– each action was performed by the entire town; children, mothers, grandmothers and farmers all participated in the transformation of wood into ‘washi’ (Japanese paper). But only one person, would be responsible foractually drawing the wet paper out of a liquid bath of dissolved Kozo pulp and Tororo-aoi roots (Japanese mountain yam– used to help bind the Kozo). Today the paper makers in Mino undertake all of those old, once collective actions by hand.

Eighty year old Masashi Sawamura, a national living treasure and 15th generation Mino paper maker is one of the few who still make paper in much the same way as it was made hundreds of years ago. “It is very difficult work” he says, pointing a large hand towards bundles of dried Kozo bark; waiting to be boiled, cleaned, boiled again and pounded before being dissolved into a watery mixture. It might be trying work, but Sawamura feels that doing everything by hand, using the body in carefully honed movements, makes the work “tender.” Sawamura leads us to his darkened workshop, and to the ‘fune’ (wooden bath) where the paper will be drawn out of the liquid bath. He picks up his ‘Keta’, a wooden frame which holds a thin bamboo screen, called a ‘Su,’ and begins dipping it into the bath, splashing the cloudy liquid over the screen again and again in a procession of movements– side to side, forward and backward ending with a rapid flicking of the remaining liquid from the screen. “Today we are making 30 gram paper. Eventually you learn to tell the exact amount of liquid required to make a 10 gram difference to your paper.”

Intuiting the weight of paper is not the only seemingly supernatural thing about Sawamura’s handmade paper. Behind him rests a small tower of recently made, white washi, still wet. “How can you be sure the paper won’t stick together?” we ask. Sawamura stares at the washi and asserts, “It is alive, the paper. It knows what it should do.”

Original text and photography of this entry appeared in Paper Sky No. 33 (Switzerland, 2010)

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Masahi Sawamura
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Sawamura Masashi Kobo
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