Koyasan- a town in the mountains southwest of Kyoto dedicated almost entirely to Kobo Daishi, a Shingon buddhist monk who went into a shrine to meditate in 836, and still is to this day (as far as esoteric buddhists are concerned).
Eko-in (the monastery where we stayed)
We stayed in a small monastery there. Paper walls protecting us from snow, up at 7 for morning prayers and the fire ceremony, daily rituals that esoterics practice. Then vegetarian breakfast, (and dinner) some the of the best food we've had thus far, beautifully prepared and arranged onto small plates-- the monk's diet.
Snow and cemeteries, temples, temples, and more temples, Buddhas, and monks everywhere. A truly sacred place. I have never been more cold inside of a building, and I have never been more thankful for heated toilet seats.
All in all I made about 150 sheets of paper. Way more than I was expecting and enough to last me while at the same time really allowing me to absorb the process. Making beautiful paper is a skill and while I am definitely still a novice, I have so much more respect for papers than I did before, and I have so many new ideas about how to use paper than I ever would have otherwise.
What an honor to work at the Awagami paper factory for eight days and to learn from the master himself, Mr Fujimori, a true lover of the arts and a true master of handmade and machine made washi papers. He has had artists from all over the world come to his factory to make art and is a world renowned paper master. I hope someday I will get to return as an artist in residence and make unbelievable art and paper in a wide variety of manners.
the stack of paper as it is being made
The last full day we spent learning different dying techniques to use with Japanese Washi. We learned a technique specific to Awagami that's a lot like tie dye, made by folding the paper in various ways then dipping certain areas in dye to create patterns.
We also learned how to dye paper with indigo, a tradition that has been happening for centuries. The color is amazing and its so refreshing to see such a beautiful color coming from a totally natural process. They grow indigo in the area on the fertile silt flats along the river where they can't grow rice because of flooding. Indigo is harvested before flood season, whereas rice is harvested after and so cannot be planted so close to large rivers. I would really love to come back and learn more about indigo, the plant and process-- its such a pungent powerful plant.
my sheet of indigo dyed paper rinsing in the bath
vat of indigo dye
indigo papers drying
Day 1: We arrive in the cold early morning to a small field on the mountainside about the size of a baseball diamond. It's a Kozo (mulberry) field where we harvest two rows of trees that will become our paper. All the trees have only one year of growth, meaning that kozo is a pretty sustainable material for making paper.
We cut the branches into specific lengths and walk down to a large log cabin surrounded by bamboo where we steam them until the bark falls off easily. We move inside where we then begin scraping the outer layers of bark off revealing only the natural fibers beneath. This is what will become our paper.
Day 2: Scraping, scraping, scraping. Wet hands and sore backs we scrape all day long sitting on stumps in a big circle around buckets of wet kozo. The end of the days arrives, and we finally walk down to the handmade paper factory, a beautiful, small building where only special commissions and the actual, really truly handmade stuff is made.
Day 3: The morning consists of Chiritori: the process of picking out all the teeny tiny black stuff we didn't scrape off with our knives.
In the afternoon, we beat the fibers on wooden blocks to separate all the long strands into something that looks like omelet, but feels like weird soft and gooey paper.
Day 4: The making of the paper begins.
Each team of students gets a sue and a kata: the sue is a handmade bamboo mat with the tiniest pieces of bamboo you have ever seen. the kata is the frame that holds the sue. The entire machine gets dipped into a vat full of water, fiber and neri (an eggwhite like substance made of hibiscus flowers that holds the paper together) and then as the water filters through it leaves the fibers behind. This process gets repeated again and again until you achieve the desired paper thickness. The sue comes out, and you press it down on the felts leaving your paper behind. And then repeat, and repeat and repeat. Two and a half more days, as much paper as we can make, and it will all be ours :)
Class begins. It's interesting to think everyone else at RISD is in class right now. Me too, I guess, but it feels like something out of a strange dream, a dream filled with endless skylines of tall buildings, Japanese art, cute anime characters and flashing lights.
The emperor's palace is only open to the public two days a year, on the emperor's birthday, December 23, and on January 2 for the emperor's new years blessing. So through the exotic pines, security lines, and gates of the palace we went for the 11:00 viewing of the emperor behind bullet proof glass. I'm sure whatever he said was good luck.
Then off to Ofuna to check out the Buddhist caves carved by hand from 1170 to 1720 full of imagery of Buddha, stories, and ancient wisdom unknown to us. Small candles lit our way along passages too short for anyone over 4 feet and the sound of running water everywhere... quiet contemplation among the craziness of technicolor signage and accosting tones of musical shopping districts....
In Kamakura, one of the Giant Buddhas, a gentle giant cast in bronze, looking down on the gawkers, gaijn (foreigners) and Japanese alike. How did they cast bronze in 1290? How idd they cast bronze in 1290 the size of a two story building? The sunlight cast a glow upon his smiling features... red bean filled pancake buddhas for sale outside.... temple books with calligraphy for each visit you have... always the tinkling sound of japanese in the background...
Hacedera. Temple in Kamakura, set back in the hills, over looking the ocean... Incense swirls in the air and the coy ponds are filled with cold fish, colorful and barely moving. Blue skies, cold and clear winter days.
Arrived on time... Perfectly easy train navigation from the airport to Shinjuku... Clean and oh so quiet for a huge international city.... Serendipity put Laura and I together at the train station by our hotel purely by chance, I turned around and there she was.... Then we walked into a world made of cute things and little people. Our hotel was perfectly fitted to someone my height, I can't imagine being much taller (or longer trying to sleep in one of those little beds)
Rallied hard from no sleep and too many sappy movies on the plane to a New Years party of street beer and juice boxes of sake (no open container laws here)... Brought in the New Year under the Tokyo Tower, then wandered around Rappongi, people watching and finally settling into some karaoke before falling into bed around 4 am. Woke up to a sign next to my bed that read-- No smoking in the bed... you got it.
The toilets all have bidets and more buttons than I know what to do with... Vending machines with hot, tiny cans of coffee, menus with delicious ramen, rice, met and fish but no idea how to say anything except thank you. I just pick one that looks good and hope for the best-so far so good..... Sitting in my capsule now, planning our next day, already New Year's Day is turning into night whereas the US has just celebrated.... I hear rumors of big snow in Flagstaff, a few flakes here and a stiff breeze remind that's its still winter.
Here's to 2015, whatever it may hold for you, me, and everyone in between:)
As for Japan, I am enthralled.