Chopsticks and folding fans are some of the most common items visitors to Japan take home as souvenirs. While these may be nice gifts why not take something home that is a bit more original, a washi paper product. Washi is handmade paper that is typically made from the fibers of domestic bushes such as the paper mulberry bush.
The designs printed on washi are often quite intricate and the paper itself is surprisingly tough and usually stronger than paper made from normal wood pulp. Washi is used in a variety of items, all of which would make a nice gift for friends or self, including goods like kites and woodblock prints. There are even some items of clothing made from washi.
Washi production is often done near a river as it requires a large quantity of very cold water. The icy water prevents the growth of bacteria that causes decomposition of the wood fibers. To make washi the bush’s branches are boiled and the bark is stripped from them before boiling them in lye to remove the starch. Once the boiling process is completed the fibers are beached then beaten into a pulp. The balls of pulp are placed into a vat containing water and the sticky liquid derived from the tororo plants.
Once the pulp is thoroughly mixed the paper maker dips a finely meshed screen into the vat until the surface of the screen is covered with a thin layer of pulp. The sheets of washi are then lifted from the vat and placed one on top of the other in a pile. The liquid from the tororo plant keeps the sheets of washi from sticking together in this pile. Once a sufficient number of sheets of paper have been lifted from the vat the paper maker carefully lifts the sheets off one by one and placed on a dryer to complete the washi making process.
There are places visitors can go to see the complete washi making process. One of these places is Washi-no-Sato (washi village) in Higashichichibu in Saitama. They have an English website for information and directions. (http://www.sainokunikanko.jp/eng/experience/053.html)
You can buy readymade washi products such as framed artwork, furoshiki (large wrapping cloths), letter sets, or just sheets of beautiful paper for decoration or gift wrapping at shops in Tokyo and other cities around Japan. One such shop is Isetatsu near Sendagi subway station. URL: www.isetatsu.com. Tokyo Hands, with branches around Tokyo, also sells some washi products.
Washi is light, easy to pack, and most any washi product would make a nice gift or reminder of Japan.