Japanese CRAFT tour

A heron flaps along the stream at the bottom of the ravine. We watch it go past the tall, gnarled pine framing the view of hills where a temple rises above surrounding trees, and then we scan the sky for weather clues. After a sound sleep encased in futons on the tatami-matted floor, we are ready for another day of visiting craftsmen at work in Japan.

Our inn at Yamanaka Spa provides us breakfast of steaming rice with a raw egg to break over it (the heat of the rice will cook the egg) and a dab of miso, thin sheets of toasted nori seaweed to dip in shoyu sauce, and pickles. Afterward, the staff lines up outside the inn to wave us on our way. We bow and wave, too, from the bus as we depart.

The road winds through hills and out onto the narrow coastal plain, then follows the shore for some miles before we turn inland again for Imadate in the Echizen district of Fukui prefecture.

Tradition says that in the seventh century AD the farming was so poor in this western part of Honshu that a goddess appeared to show the people how to make paper so they could earn a living. A shrine dedicated to this goddess, who declined to reveal her name, still exists as an integral part of village life. It is likely that the art of papermaking came to Japan from China along with Buddhism, but the Japanese used their own native plants rather than rice straw. They have continued, however, to use the ancient methods to produce long-lasting paper of many different types. Echizen washim, paper made in Echizen, is some of the best.

We penetrate deep into the hills until our road ends in a village at the head of a valley. We stop at the washi-kaikanm, the paper museum, to get an idea of the many kinds of paper produced here and their manifold uses.

Among the cut and folded prayer papers, fusuma, shoji, and so forth, are photographs of the largest sheet of paper ever made and how it was done. Heizaburo Iwano, the first in a line of three craftsmen taking the name Heizaburo, created several sheets of paper 5 1/2 meters on each side in 1925 for Waseda University. The previous day, we had seen one of them, now kept as a treasure at Eiheiji Temple, and had marveled at even the possibility of making such a huge piece. At the museum sales desk, some of us find our own treasure, a book about Echizen washim printed on and bound in some of the fine local papers.

From the washi-kaikanm we go to the end of the shop-lined road where huge cryptomeria trees surround the paper goddess's shrine. But we postpone investigation, ducking instead into an alley where there are quite a few potted shrubs outside the buildings. The plants turn out to be specimens of the various types used for handmade paper.

A woman from the Tamakyu Paper Mill tells us about the plants while we note the three-leaved growth pattern of mitsumata, the pinnate leaves of ganpim, and the three-lobed leaves of kozo (paper mulberry and the most commonly used plant). Not all of them are cultivated; some grow wild in the district. Our guide shows us a newspaper-size sample book of pressed specimens before we enter the paper mill.

Inside, we understand immediately why our guide was wearing rubber boots. The floors are wet and slippery from all the water sloshed about in the papermaking process. We look at inner bark from kozo, which has been stripped from mulberry cuttings after steaming for several hours, then dried until needed. We see it boiled with wood ash or caustic soda and then washed to remove all the impurities before men wielding big square oaken clubs rhythmically beat the pulp to bits. The next step is to wash the pulp again, separating out even more bits of bark or other impurities. Now someone dumps it into another tub of water, to which a worker adds a clear gooey mess called nerim. Nerim is a mucilaginous extract from the tororo aoim root, a substance which keeps the fibers from clotting or sinking so that they disperse evenly throughout the solution.

Two men lower a huge screen mold into the solution, deftly swish it back and forth to get a film of pulp evenly distributed across the whole surface, tilt it to drain off excess water, and practically shoulder us out of the way with profuse, polite, and urgent requests to please make room for them to pass. We skitter in all directions as best we can in the crowded space, sloshing after them.

They lay the sheet of water leaf, released from the mold frame but still on its screen, on a very large table where several women place what look like giant cookie cutters all over it. The women squeeze colored pulp through tubes similar to those used for decorating cakes, adding different colors in different sections of the cookie cutters onto the basic paper until the designs are complete. Once the cookie cutters are lifted off, we can see an appealing, little white dog with black spots and a red collar sitting in the midst of each square.

A man dips a chopstick tip into a pile of sequinlike silvery bits, picking up one and depositing it neatly on the dog's collar. He repeats the action till all the collar studs are in place, and then another person takes a brush and ink to draw whiskers and a little detail around the eyes for finishing touches.

Once again we are in the way as we gawk excitedly over this picture made entirely of paper in the pulpy stage. We slither aside to let the men very carefully move the sheet of dogs to a stack ready for the press. Big, heavy wooden beams counter-weighted with a boulder are slowly winched down onto the waiting stack, which by now has a board cover. Water oozes everywhere.

Several workers gingerly peel sheets off screens from a stack that has been in the press for 24 hours. Starting at one end, they lay them on smooth ginkgo-wood boards, brushing out air bubbles and any possible wrinkles as they proceed down the length of the sheet. The boards disappear into a drying area, and we head for drier ground ourselves. But before we go out, our guide tears a sample from a dried sheet by moistening and folding along the lines of thinnest paper, then pulling away a dog's square from the large piece.

The sales room is full of goodies, not only the charming pups which are the symbol of the present year, but many other items. Tissue-thin colored papers, papers with multi-colored fibers, writing papers, painting papers, scrolls, heavy gilt-edged cards, wrapping papers, mountings, albums, fans - you name it! We can only hope to find suitable accommodation for our purchases tonight in our suitcases, meanwhile looking rather like bag-ladies and -men.

Amidst cries of ''Sayonara!''m, and ''Domo arigato!''m we tumble out into the street, thinking now of a bowl of noodles or photographs of the village. The shrine beckons. There, an extraordinarily beautiful large moth flutters out of nowhere to land on the hand of one of the photographers, and we crowd around to admire this apparition. No one has ever seen such a moth before. We wonder if the goddess ever takes on a beige-and-pink winged form.

Smoke from a leaf bonfire in the shrine compound billows around us, catching the slanted sunlight and scenting the air. Time to move on. We reluctantly climb into our bus and roll back down the valley toward the seashore.

The noodles come with a roadside stop, and then we are on the way again, snacking on tangerines and pear-apples as we go past hills and rice paddies, past shipyards and industrial areas, past fishing villages and on to one of the most scenic spots in Japan, Amano-hashidate.

We catch a glimpse of pine-studded islands before we arrive at one end of a two-mile-long sand spit connecting the two sides of a wide bay. River silt meets sea-borne sand at this point, forming a barrier across the water. Windswept pines cover its length, a barge canal severs it at one end, and along the canal stretches our inn.

We gather up our purchases, lurch from the bus and out of our shoes into slippers at the inn's entrance, then shuffle along corridors to our waterside rooms. The ones on the ground floor open onto little gardens, complete with ceramic tables and seats in the Chinese style. Wooden clogs wait on the stone step should we wish to explore. However, the maid offers us a sweetmeat, so we relax for awhile on the cushions by the low table. Shortly we shall soak in a hot bath, don yukatasm, and dine banquet-style together before tucking ourselves into futons for the night.

Only halfway through our three-week trip in the back country of Japan, we can dream of adventures yet to come. We have already visited weavers and dyers, woodworkers and furnituremakers, lacquerers and a stenciler in their homes and workshops; now we look forward to visiting potters and other craftsmen as well.

For craft tours to Japan, contact Makuson Mingei Inc., 827 Maxwell Street, Suite E, Boulder, Colo. 80302, telephone (303) 447-1947, or Tamaki Tours, 826 Pearl Street, Boulder, Colo. 80302, telephone (303) 443-2251 or (303) 443-2251 or (303) 442-7171.

To get to Imadate on your own, take Japan National Railways to Takefu and a local bus from there to the village of Otake in Imadate. For transport details, consult the Japan National Travel Bureau, 630 5th Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10111, telephone (212) 757-5640.

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