Handmade Washi Artisan Shares Traditional Techniques
Rogier Uitenboogaart came to Japan from the Netherlands in 1980, enchanted by a single sheet of Japanese washi paper*. Today, he is an artisan who crafts handmade washi. He lives in Yusuhara Town, Kochi Prefecture, where he continues to pursue the possibilities of this craft while preserving traditional production methods.
Rogier first encountered washi at the age of 25, in a bookbinding studio in the Netherlands. “When I held the sheet up to the light, I could see the fibers of plants. I was fascinated by the beauty of this unique material, which was nothing like European paper. I came to Japan driven by a desire to see the actual process of making washi,” he recalls.
He spent about a year traveling around Japan and visiting washi workshops in various regions. What impressed him the most were the sights and sounds of clear running water at each workshop he visited. He eventually arrived in Kochi Prefecture, which is famous for its production of kozo (paper mulberry) and mitsumata (oriental paper bush), the primary material sources used to make washi. Following the advice of a washi artisan that he should grow the primary materials himself if he wanted to make traditional washi Japanese paper, Rogier decided to settle in Kochi Prefecture, as it had all the right conditions for making washi. He started learning and practicing cultivation of materials and paper-making on his own, and for more than 40 years since then has honed his skills as a washi artisan. In 1992, he moved to Yusuhara Town, near the headwaters of the Shimanto River,** which is known for its clear waters, in search of an environment more suited to his vision of washi-making.
His workshop, Kamikoya Washi Studio, is surrounded by sprawling, beautiful satoyama*** scenery worthy of the description “an original Japanese landscape.” Trees and plants that produce the primary materials for washi paper grow on the property and are cultivated without agricultural chemicals or fertilizers with the cooperation of local people.
“What I cherish in washi making is the connection with nature. It is impossible to create high-quality washi without beautiful mountains, clear water, and good materials. That is why I grow most of the materials myself. I also treasure the traditional methods for making washi without preservatives and chemicals that have been handed down for more than 150 years.”
The finished texture of washi varies depending on the materials and the method used to make it. Rogier creates unique paper based on traditional washi from Kochi Prefecture called “Tosa Washi” by incorporating in the production process long-established techniques for European handcrafted cotton paper. The presence of the plants used as primary materials stands out, and the texture and appearance are not uniform, but rich and beautiful. It is this beauty of his washi that has made it the material of choice for interior furnishings and decorations in architect Kuma Kengo’s buildings4 and prominent hotels.
In 2007, Rogier was designated Tosa no Takumi (master artisan of the Domain of Tosa [now Kochi Prefecture]). Washi artisans often visit his workshop to learn from him the fading traditions of washi making. He also manages a guest house at Kamikoya Washi Studio where visitors can try their hand at washi making, and works to convey the appeal of this ancient craft to tourists who come to Japan inspired by a desire to experience traditional Japanese culture.
“The opportunities to use washi as part of the modern lifestyle are gradually diminishing, and the number of washi artisans is also on the decline. However, it is precisely because we live in such times that I want to continue to pursue the possibilities of washi and convey its appeal to a broad audience, without forgetting the original reason I was enchanted by washi in the first place.”
Going forward, Rogier will continue his quest to create traditional Japanese paper that will inspire the hearts of many people.
* It is a general term for paper made by a method unique to Japan, and basically refers to paper made by hand using plant fibers such as kozo (paper mulberry) and mitsumata (oriental paper bush).
** A river with a total length of 196km, which flows through the western part of Kochi Prefecture and into the Pacific Ocean.
*** Mountain villages and neighboring agricultural lands, forests, etc. Satoyama are intermediate zones between pristine nature and urban areas, and consist of settlements and surrounding secondary forests, mixed with farmlands, irrigation ponds, and grasslands.
**** See Highlighting Japan July 2021, “A Town Handing Down Forest Resources to the Future”