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…


I’ve been seeing these manjuu (sweet dumplings) everywhere since arriving in the San’in region.

Turns out they’re a souvenir based on the Dojou Sukui, a 300-year-old comical dance about digging for loaches, but the silly fisher is distracted by things like mud splashing in his face or getting bitten by a leech or his loaches getting away. It’s a well known folk dance all over Japan, but it’s strongly associated with the city of Yasugi. The dance is usually performed with the cries of a-ra-essassa! from “Yasugi-bushi” (“The Song of Yasugi”) as an accompaniment.

Yasugi in relation to Matsue

There is a performance hall in Yasugi where you can watch this dance (and get lessons, I think), but when getting there is a little difficult, there’s always Youtube:

This is just one example. While the basic elements of the jolly dance remain the same, the expressions vary depending on the performer. One very famous performer is Yasuo Araki-san, a very spirited 86-year-old man who has performed this dance all around the world. He speaks at least Japanese, English and Russian, and you can read his English blog intro here. He also shakes hands at any opportunity! I lost count of how many times we shook hands in the two times we’ve met, and when the car I was in was driving away and he couldn’t reach my hand through the window like the passengers in back, he flashed me a peace sign.

I had the pleasure of learning this dance from Araki-san, as well as a short zeni-daiko (coin drum) dance–this is a local instrument that’s bit like a decorated paper towel roll with tassles and filled with coins. Learning the basics of the Dojou Sukui dance didn’t take long, but it requires a little silliness.

We're going on a loach hunt, we're going on a loach hunt!

We’re going on a loach hunt, we’re going on a loach hunt!

Dump the mud out of your basket to find those tasty loaches!

Dump the mud out of your basket to find those tasty loaches!

That silly loach, trying to get away!

That silly loach, trying to get away!

I'm bringing home so many loaches! Won't my mommy be so proud of me! ...Hmm. "Loach" doesn't fit in this American rhyme very well.

I’m bringing home so many loaches! Won’t my mommy be so proud of me! …Hmm. “Loach” doesn’t fit in this American rhyme very well.

Araki-san said my footwork was really good. I wonder what that says about my loach-catching abilities? He enthusiastically encouraged me to go over at any time for more lessons, and I received his official letter of recommendation, as well as a couple pieces of supplies for performing this dance when I leave Japan someday. If I could put together the outfit, it might be fun. We didn’t use them this time, but the dance is performed with a 5-yen coin tied under your nose! …I have no idea why. It seems I still have much to learn from Araki-san.