The little town of Uchiko in Ehime is known for its pure wax candles and the extravagant homes of the merchants who produced them. Meanwhile, nearby Ikazaki flourished with the production of paper. In 2005, Ikazaki became part of an enlarged Uchiko, although the two places are separated by a ridge of hills.
High quality washi paper is still produced in Ikazaki by a company called Ikazaki Shachu. Hiroyuki Saito came from Kanagawa nine years ago to manage the development of the company after he married the daughter of a family of brewers. Chiyo no Kame moved its operations into a modern, state-of-the-art brewery a few years ago, and today Saito-san uses the old brewery for his gilding business. The washi paper is still produced in the original Meiji-period factory.
Entering a mysterious world
Making washi by hand involves pulping the bark of a kind of mulberry, picking out the impurities, and vigorously mixing it with water and nori, a kind of gloopy coagulant made from a somewhat rare vine. A tray holding a reed screen is dipped into this emulsion several times to collect a thin layer of fibrous material which becomes the paper. This is then transferred to a pile of sheets, air dried, pressed, and then dried completely on a steel drum heated with steam. Each step requires practised skill, but the artisans work very quickly with deft movements.
Just like making sake, this kind of papermaking also requires a lot of pure water. Surrounded by high mountains, Ikazaki has abundant rain and snowfall, feeding the aquifers that keep the factory supplied year-round. The old building is full of the sound of running water. According to Saito-san, if washi is made with poor-quality water, its colour changes over time. With its streams of water and strange, antique machinery, visiting the factory is like walking into a scene from a Miyazaki animation.
Even though the paper factory is home to six cats, mice are abundant, and they eat the materials, particularly the nori coagulant. The cats feature prominently on Saito-san’s Facebook page and in his gilding work.
Master and apprentice gilders
Some years back, the Uchiko Chamber of Commerce came up with the idea of adding gilding to complement Ikazaki’s washi industry. Gilding is a craft where gold, copper and other colourful metal leaf is pressed through a silk screen onto paper. A thin application of glue keeps the leaf metal in place.
In order to transfer the craft of gilding to Ikazaki, the Chamber invited Gabor Ulveczki, a Hungarian living in Paris, to teach Saito-san the method. Saito-san calls him “my master”. Gabor lived in Uchiko with his family for four months.
Now Ikazaki Shachu produces a wide variety of gilded products including greeting cards, various sized screens, wallpaper, wall-hangings, stationery, objets d’art, and shades for interior lighting. The designs are produced by the team at Ikazaki Shachu, as well as by contact designers. While the designs are invariably bold and eye-catching, it’s amazing how richly detailed each design is. The cat’s whiskers and each filigree petal is rendered crisply in colourful metal. Recently, the company has started collaborating with popular manga, like Snoopy, Moomin, and Galaxy Express. The old familiar characters look surprisingly sophisticated in gold.
Ikazaki Shachu has a little gilding showroom and a large paper shop onsite. Both are fascinating places to browse, and to purchase gifts and craft materials. The shop has washi made at Ikazaki as well as other areas, and a range of other fancy coated papers.
You can also visit the washi factory and try your hand at making paper yourself. There’s a little workshop where you can try gilding a greeting card. I’ve made washi and gilded it myself, and I found it immensely satisfy. It wasn’t as difficult as I expected. You’ll need to make a reservation for paper-making and gilding.
If you’re not able to visit Ikazaki, you can also purchase gilding kits in Mitsukoshi department store in Matsuyama.
Opening times: Weekdays 9:00 to 17:00
Address: 1592-1 Hiraoka, Uchikochō, Kitagun, Ehime 795-0303
Tel: 090-3226-5002 (English spoken)
Originally from England, I came to live in Ehime in 2001. I’m interested in the history of the Suigun, seagoing clans who dominated the Seto Inland Sea for two centuries. I find it very relaxing to photograph the beautiful scenery and the wildlife. I hope people will visit Setouchi and enjoy exploring this unique area. To help visitors make the most of their time here, I offer travel services at ShikokuTours.com. Be sure to try the excellent sake when you visit!
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