Over the past couple of years, nearby Sakaiminato Port has become for a host for a number of cruise ships, and as part of the day tours available for one or two of those lines, there is a visit to the Abe Eishiro Memorial Museum which includes a brief paper making experience. It’s something big groups can accomplish quickly, and they get an easy to carry souvenir that will likely outlast their own lives (or at least, I feel that’s a good guess because this paper can last a thousand years). I went along to help interpret and move these workshops along smoothly and make the most of everyone’s time, and thankfully I had the chance to jump in and try it myself between tour groups.

You start with a frame on top of a screen, with which you scoop the mulch, and then shake a little to even out the material and drain the water from the edges.

Once the material is pretty settled, you drain out the rest of the excess water from the corner.

After that, you remove the frame and transfer the blocks of mulch to a dry piece of cloth. Even if you hold it upside down the mulch won’t fall off, but with a little press it transfers very easily.


After that, you fold up the excess cloth over them, and blot out the water as you flatten the two square piles of mulch.

Next, we had everyone write their names on little tags to press into the wet material, which could be easily pulled off later when the paper is dry. I liked to personalize mine a little more than that.

The paper is then quite simply peeled off the cloth.

The staff then takes the wet papers and applies them to the hot drier, where they are made crisped for about twenty minutes while everyone enjoys the rest of the museum.

And that’s it!

Now the question is how to use these papers, but I suppose I have my whole life to figure that out.

In my time here in the San’in region, I’ve often heard of the Abe Eishiro Memorial Museum out in the Yakumo area of southern Matsue, but I never prioritized going because I figured I had so many other things to do besides go look at paper. But it was worth it for more than just the paper itself!


abe-ei

The memorial museum is tucked in a quiet neighborhood along the mountains, and the rice fields on a drizzling day in spring are just as much as sight as the tourism facility itself.





There was an array of wildlife around the area, including a giant dragonfly that I rescued when it got in as someone was opening the screen doors. Just outside of the main entrance there was a little tray of guppies, and another little fellow who many of us thought was just part of the pottery.

As for where that dragonfly got confused? Here in the main lobby and gift shop, in the gentle atmosphere created by the washi (Japanese paper) screens.

But what is that on the screen? Another confused bug?

Nope. Just paper! One of many decorations along the butterfly-laden window.


Of course, there is also plenty of paper for sale to oogle at, as well as crafts made out of said craft paper.

And it besides the gift shop and museum, there is also a workshop for visitors to try out making paper themselves. This also has its own rustic charm.



My last entry about this spot will focus on the paper making experience.

Paper: one of those simple parts of life that gets more impressive the more you think about it.

Sure, we all know at some level that these sheets strewn about us are made of trees, and that there’s some sort of mulching process that goes into it, and that once the sheets are done you can print on it, cut it, or fold it to bring forth and array of shapes.

But what if I told you paper can hold water, last a thousand years, and remain aesthetically pleasing?

You can enjoy a nice read about the value and craftsmanship of paper on this Japan Times article by Mark Brazil. This, of course, this is a San’in region blog, and the San’in region is not the only one with a strong paper tradition. However, it is home to Abe Eishiro (1902-1984), the first washi (Japanese paper) maker to be designated as a Living National Treasure. Although the washi traditional existed many centuries before he did, he is credited with the creation of Izumo Mingeishi: Izumo region folk craft paper.

Although I say Izumo, I’m referring most specifically to the Yakumo area, which used to be its own village before being merged with Matsue in 2005. The Abe Eishiro Memorial Museum is one of many charms tucked around the Yakumo mountains, and in addition to the museum space and visitor workshop area, the Abe family continues to produce Izumo Mingeishi according to Abe Eishiro’s methods.



Throughout Japan, washi is typically made of different types of mulberry bark, and here in the Izumo region it is made with three types: Ganpi, Mitsumata, and Kouzo.


Ganpi: Considered king of paper materials, this materials won’t have color changes, wards of bugs, and repels water, but the bark takes 20 years to mature.


Mitsumata: paper made with Mitsumata can be used for many purposes, including printing.

A Mitsumata plant on the premises.

Kouzo: most commonly used washi material, as it is very strong–a key characteristic of washi.


Kouzo on the premises.

The article linked above goes into more detail about the length process of turning this bark into paper, which is dependant on the cold, clear water of this region to wash the materials of the various softening agents added to the boiling and mulching processes. Eventually, the bark is ground into mulches like this one that has no color added.

However, when you add color to the paper, it makes it look like the water itself is what holds the dye. This is an illusion, as even when making black paper, the water comes out clear.

They typically take orders for paper, which will determine how much material they use. Here, they are working on an order of black paper, and the craftsman is paying attention to the thickness of the pile as he works. The ingredients are measured out for a particular number of sheets, so if he’s only made a quarter of the sheets and used half the material, he knows he’s been making them too thick (though I’m sure he probably notices sooner than this). He works with mesmerizing rhythm, but still smilingly explains he work to onlookers.


The company workshop is around the corner and a short stroll among the neighborhood and rice fields from the museum, and I’ll focus more of the atmosphere on the museum and surrounding area in my next entry about this topic.

Yes, that’s Abe Eishiro up on the wall, and Izumo Mingeishi all over the window. There are more surprises on that window…

(Note: This article was also published on the official Shimane tourism website, Shimane: Explore Unfamiliar Japan. All photos were used with permission.)

As much as I have always loved clear mountain streams, green forests, and fresh air, I never thought I had much of an interest in straw. The bright green rice paddies this time of year are charming and Shimane’s rice is delicious, but their dried remains? Although I expected to enjoy the nature, cuisine, and onsen of Iinan-cho, I was taken by surprise by how fascinating long strands of dried rice plants can be. Granted, the 16 meter shimenawa at the Kagura-den of Izumo Taisha has always been my favorite part of the shrine, so perhaps I should have taken an interest sooner in the amazing things that can be done with simple materials.


We started our visit to Ohshimenawa Sousakukan, where the shimenawa at Izumo Taisha is constructed, by making small shimenawa charms to take home. In my daily life I mostly do computer related work or create two-dimensional art, so it was a step outside of my usual activities which required me to pour my energy into a material I had always overlooked.

Even more engaging was when we all worked together to weave a giant shimenawa destined for a shrine in Hiroshima. I literally felt the full weight of the amount of work that the artisans there had already poured into assembling so many individual straws! I may have broken a sweat twisting the ropes (which I could barely fit my arms around), and carrying them back and forth as we wove them together and it took shape. The hard labor made the finished product all the more satisfying. It was one of the most unique and memorable experiences I have had in Japan yet.


The little shimenawa I was so proud of is now hanging in my room, a reminder to step away from my digital life, breathe fresh air, and note the wonder in simple things.

On my summer vacation to the Oki Islands last year (which was fantastic in so many ways), I took two half-days to try out an art project: mud dyeing.

It was something I decided rather randomly. I showed up on Nishinoshima having only decided that I wanted to see horses (and I saw lots of horses), but I had no plan for the next day. The tourism information office directly across from the ferry port was extremely helpful, and has lots of information lined up to answer my “what shall I do?” question. Not only did they give me suggestions, but they made all the reservations for me. That’s also how I suddenly wound up SCUBA diving the following morning.

Following my dive and my seafood lunch, I went out to start my art project. Mud dyeing starts with bright red rocks like this, one of the many, many geological features in this UNESCO Geo-Park.

It’s broken up into even brighter pieces like this, which we use for the dye. You can also make it into clay for pottery.

It can be used to dye many differents of fabrics, I was sticking with a very simple weave that would make the color show up really well for a tie-dye effect. I enjoyed trying out a bunch of different ways of folding and tying the cloths so that I could see what sort of effects I’d get, but if I were ever to do this again, I’d probably start with a pattern in mind and attempt to stick to it. As you can see in these charcoal tie-dyes, you can do a lot of cool stuff with it if you have some clue what you’re doing.


After binding the parts of the cloth you want to leave undyed, you work the mud water into it…

…and then hang it out to dry.

The following day, I returned to finish up. Usually, in order to get a very deep color, you’d want to leave them out longer before giving them a salt water rinse, but in the interest of time we sped up the process a bit. Off to the beach we went!


The water was super clear and you could see lots of tiny fish until you rinsed the cloths and the muddy color clouded about. While out there in the sun, the lady who taught to do this and I had a fun conversation about her sudden decision to move from Gifu to the Oki Islands after seeing a segment about them on TV, and about how pleasant it is to live among both mountains and the sea. (Later, she also made me lunch, drove me to the port, and just when I thought we had said good-bye, she came back and asked if I wanted ice cream. So we had ice cream together, too.)


While giving them a little more time to dry in the sunshine before packing them up and taking them with me, I took a stroll around the area to see the greenery, the flowers, and the water.




My “designs” turned out kind of cool, but very uncoordinated.


That’s okay. I went to the islands to enjoy going with the flow and doing things in the moment instead of trying to stick to a plan.

Matsue’s neighboring town of Yasugi is most famous for the renowned Japanese style garden at Adachi Museum of Art and the bumbling but endearing Dojou-sukui folk dance, but got Amago-clan samurai history to boast of, as well as a number of traditional crafts. I had originally heard about the indigo-dyeing classes, but I wound up trying Yasugi-style weaving (Yasugi-ori) first, one of a handful of local styles.

I was invited to the home of a family that produces Yasugi-ori, a style of picture-weaving that originates in the Edo era. After getting to see a handful of their completed projects, I went to the workroom next to the house to try it out myself.

They had one of the looms set up with basic white warp threads (the ones pulled taunt on a loom that you weave through), and had dark indigo and white weft threads (the ones you weave with to fill the pattern) ready for me. They are not limited to these traditional colors in their weaving, nor are they limited to the thick cottony threads prepared. Yasugi-ori was originally made in silk, but today you can put in whatever ribbon you think would have an interesting color and texture–theoretically, anyway. Most people would be surprised when if they went to buy Yasugi-ori and didn’t see the traditional face of Kannon in white and indigo! Another characteristic of Yasugi-ori is that the picture gets stronger and more distinct as you use and wash an item.

To make the picture-patterns, they start by preparing the weft threads for indigo dyeing. It starts with a number of spools of white string…

…which is hung from the ceiling…

…then woven around this thing.

I was told that this is where they divide portions to make a picture. Being easy overwhelmed by crafty things (I’m more comfortable with two dimensional art, thanks!), I can’t really fathom how this process actually works, but the result is that the areas that are to remain white are bound tightly so as not to left any dye seep through.

These threads are long are you can drag them across the room or make a large pile of them, but if you arrange them correctly, the picture-pattern begins to emerge.

Ta da!

In this piece (something to drape over a mirror when it’s not in use), the warp threads are all dyed indigo so as to soften the effect of the white blocks. In other styles, they might dye both the warp and the weft to result in a more stark contrast. You could also use different shades of indigo on a singe thread if you’re patient enough to dye one, bound again, and then dye again… but I am not this patient, so I can say nothing else about the process.

I did finish a little cloth of my own, though! It’s too big to be a coaster for a cup, but I can put it under flower vases and stuff to be decorative. I was so focused on not getting tangled up at first that I was stuck with a very, very simple pattern, but once I got going I regretted that. Once I got the flow of the loom, I could have gotten so much more creative in my pattern! Oh well. I suppose I could always go back and weave more, though I don’t expect to reach Kannon-levels of details.

My first attempt

When someone visiting me in Matsue says they want to go drink tea, I usually drown them with a list of options for places to go enjoy some wagashi (traditional Japanese confectioneries) and matcha (powdered green tea, the type used in the tea ceremony). To say it has a thriving culture here would be a bit of an understatement.

That said, most places that cater to casual visitors don’t have any expectations of the recipients knowing the formalities of tea or the complex taxonomy of wagashi. They are served as simple hospitality; a way to relax. Usually this takes place within view of beautiful garden or within a tranquil temple, but the weekly Matsue Chafe takes places within an old-bank-turned-craft-fair. Welcome to Karakoro Kobo!

In addition to handmade works and other souvenirs on sale throughout this public gathering space, this place is known for workshops such as making magatama jewels (also a big thing in the Izumo region, worth touching on another day), making silver wedding bands, or making your own wagashi. The Chafe is held every Sunday with two servings of matcha and wagashi for 500 yen, including serving it with the whisk if you’d rather try frothing it up yourself.


The name 茶ふぇ (“Chafe” (chah-feh) ryhmes with the Japanese word for cafe, “kah-feh”) is a play on words, as 茶 means “tea”. Relaxed hospitality is of prime importance to hosts. While there is a seasonally decorated tea room to observe and ladies in kimono preparing the tea in back, guests mingle at benches and tables, and engaged in conversation. This too is a pun: the Japanese word for chatting is しゃべり (shaberi), but they use the term 茶べり (chaberi). Chit-chat or tea-talk, however you want to spin it.

I had my first cup of tea served warm, and it came with a freshly prepared Karakoro wagashi original.

This is a namawagashi, a malleable, moist type typically made with plant ingredients and molded around a sweet, smooth azuki center. They typically come in motifs that mimic nature, and this is based on a loquat, called “biwa” in Japanese. (It just so happens there is similarly shaped lute-like musical instrument with the same name.) They dusted some cinnamon on the end of this wagashi–it was a nice touch that offset the sweetness a bit!



The cup featured good old (or should I say new?) Izumo Taisha.

It is hard to walk into Karakoro Kobo without walking out feeling a little more arts-and-crafty, especially when the hosts come by with bamboo leaves and say, “Let’s make sasabune!”



Tada! It’s a little toy boat. There is a little fountain to float them in, too.

Or you could use them to serve the higashi (dried sweets) with the second cup of tea. I had mine served cold in this crab cup. Ironically, I had spied a bunch of river crabs on my way there that morning.


From now until the end of the rainy season (the end of July), they are holding a special Enishizuku Chafe. Many bars and clubs around town are also participating an Enishizuku Cocktail Collection, offering limited time cocktails on rainy days and sunny days throughout the month of July. My interests lie more in tea than in alcohol… then again, I didn’t become a tea drinker until I was 19–the first time I had matcha it was so bitter I could never imagine growing such a taste for it. Come to think of it, I didn’t develop a taste for coffee until very recently. Maybe my taste for alcohol is coming soon.

Back to the Chafe, I was soon joined by a pair of twin two-year-olds. They were at that cute stage when they’re talking, but with baby-talk pronunciation. When I asked how old they were, they said “Nisshai!” instead of “ni-sai”, and as they shared their second of helping of higashi with me, they said “Oneechan, doJO!” over and over (instead of “Oneechan, douzo”—“Here you go, Big Sister!” It’s so nice when I’m still referred to as ‘oneechan’ instead of ‘obasan’…). What really surprised me was how they drank the matcha with such relish! The bitterness doesn’t bother them at all, and when I asked about the caffeine, their mother laughed and said they’ll still usually go right to sleep. They’re obviously better adjusted than I am.

As if sharing higashi wasn’t cute enough, when I was headed elsewhere I pass by them on one of the many bridges throughout where you can catch a glimpse of the Horikawa Yuuransen, the sightseeing boat that goes through the canals of the castle town all year long. They were waving and shouting things likes, “Where are you going?”.

The passengers on the boat found them just as adorable as I did. By the way, that’s Karakoro Kobo in the background.

As I continue to flirt with starting real tea ceremony lessons in a city steeped in tea culture, I’ve nonetheless been enjoying lots and lots of tea. I am especially fond of the flavor of matcha, a powdered form of green tea picked and processed in such a way that it has a higher concentration of amino acids than its steeped counterparts, and since it is ingested instead of left in a tea bag, it delivers a greater antioxidant punch. That’s not to mention the taste–though it may be more fiercely bitter than other forms of green tea, it has a deeper and more complex flavor profile. As you can imagine, it is an aquired taste, but once acquired life gets that much more enjoyable.

Matcha’s partner in presentation is none other than wagashi, handmade Japanese confectionaries, which Matsue is a well-known producer of. Despite how much I like sweets, these were also an acquired taste for me, as I didn’t exactly grown up eating sweet bean paste. But now I’ve acquired that taste and can appreciate their wide variety of shapes, colors, and ingredients! Not to mention the combination of intense sweetness and bitterness when paired with matcha–it really wakes up the senses.

While I still can’t call myself a formal practitioner of wagashi or tea, I can still try. On a bit of an impulse a few weeks ago, I finally bought myself some matcha for personal use and the tools needed to keep and prepare it (and while I was at it I got a set of napkins and a utensil for eating wagashi so that I wouldn’t be caught without them again!). This was brought on by a brief wagashi-making workshop I participated in, and it also gave me a chance to use the dorei pottery I made in Izumo last fall!


My first homemade tea ceremony! Except that I was both the host and guest, so it wasn’t really a ceremony (not to mention all the tools and steps I skipped). It was simply nice to be able to combine the matcha and wagashi flavors at home.

First, this is the tea bowl I’d like to say I made myself when the other Shimane CIRs and I were having a training period last fall, but it was mostly me making a mess and the far more talented Sensei fixing it for me. The little carved design was my own doing, at least.





This is more so where my brand of creativity lies…

Furthermore, I made the wagashi myself! Well, the shape of it anyway–in the short class I took part in, the sweet red bean paste and soft colored fondant were already prepared by the people who know what they’re doing. There are longer classes available at the Karakoro Art Studio, which I’m sure I’ll try out at some point. This particular wagashi is modeled on a tsubaki (camellia), which is one of the flower symbols of Matsue.

Click for photo source–this variety isn’t blooming quite yet! There are plenty of another couple varieties blooming around town, though.

I could see myself making wagashi more often than making pottery.

The one in the middle (a chrysanthemum, I think, if not a peony) was prepared by the pros ahead of time, but I made the tsubaki and sakura (cherry blossom). They’re not perfect, but they were pretty anyway~

Since I had a couple more wagashi to work with, the next morning I made it again with the cup I bought at the Watanabe open house late last fall.

It was also nice to already have matcha and a few tools on hand when someone gave me gave me a local brand of wagashi, known as 湖の雲, or “clouds above the lake,” a rather sweet interpretation of the famous sunset scenery at Lake Shinji.

Informal though this little tasting experience was, it was worth a haiku:

In warm hues and tastes
Daylight sweetly melts away,
Consumed in brief time.

One of the specialty products of Matsue is 八雲塗 (Yakumonuri), aka Yakumo Laquerware. Laquerware has been popular in Japan since the Edo era, as the craftsmen typically were hired to make speciality dishes and utensils for the samurai (the top of the social food chain–though not always the most wealthy!). Around the start of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), one such craftsman named Sakata Heiichi invented the Yakumo method (named after a town south of Matsue, which has since merged with Matsue).

This method requires a series of applying laquer layers and decorative powders (such as gold or silver), and polishing said layers. It requires about ten years to learn. One of the things that makes Yakumo laquerware special is that with time, the gloss becomes more translucent and the colors become more vivid. In 1982, it was designated as a Shimane Traditional Local Craft.

Not that I can tell you much more than that! I’ve found that my talents lie more in 2D art than in 3D art, so I’d best leave this to the masters. While I can’t tell the difference between someone who has mastered the art of laquerware and someone who is simply much better than I am, there are plenty of laquerware artisans in the area.

On an outing to Hirata (an old town facing the Sea of Japan that has since merged with Izumo), I stumbled upon the Shitsugei no Watanabe monthly art show. While Mr. Watanabe himself has been producing laquerware since he was a youth, Mrs. Watanabe gathers works from several local artists and hosts these shows from their home/workshop.

The entrance and welcome sign

The garden in late November

This is the true meaning of an open house, isn’t it?

A selection of chopstick rests

Lots of art to welcome the Year of the Snake

Watanabe-san even had coffee, tea, and a few fine dishes to serve her guests! Sweet red beans, daikon radish, konyaku (a gelatin-like block made from potatoes), fish cakes, and orange peels might not sound appealing to Western palates, but I found it rather nice and a step above everyday fare.

There were more dishes to be found in Hirata than just that! All around the neighborhood, there are lifesize displays of scenes from the Kojiki, sculpted out of dishes!


Look! It’s Izanagi and Izanami being creative!

That’s enough about dishes for now. For now!