Fri, Mar 6, 2020

Nao Washi: Traditional handmade Japanese paper of Saga, now with a modern twist

Japan’s beauty in the eyes of CIRs

Nao Washi is an important intangible cultural property of Saga Prefecture.
By Hannah Winters / Former CIR for Saga Prefecture

The small Nao region of Saga city lies nestled in the mountains, far to the north of the city’s center. Here, manufacturing of the traditional local craft, Nao Washi (Japanese paper), is carried on by just one family. Each piece of Nao Washi, is made by hand, and it is known for its strength and durability. Nao Washi was designated as an Important Intangible Cultural Property of Saga Prefecture in 1982.

Nao Washi is made by hand, and is known for its strength and durability.

Being a hilly region, Nao is not as fit for agriculture as the flat areas of Saga. Looking for a way to supplement the lives of the local people, a local man named Nodomi Yoshisuke went to the Chikugo Mizoguchi region in the late 1600’s to learn the art of paper making from a Buddhist priest named Nichigen Shonin, who was traveling the country and teaching people how to make paper. After learning the process, Nodomi returned to Nao to share the techniques with the locals, and many households then began to produce paper.

Manufacturing of Nao Washi is carried on by just one family.

Papermaking was a perfect fit for Nao, as the region has clean flowing water and the main material used in Nao Washi, kaji (paper mulberry), is found growing naturally here. The kaji plant, a relative of the kozo plant more commonly used to make Japanese paper, is what gives Nao Washi its characteristic strength. Compared to kozo and other materials used in washi making, the fibers of kaji are quite long, allowing them to wrap around one another and create a very strong final product, even if thin sheets are made. This trait put Nao Washi in high demand, as it was ideal for lanterns and shoji doors, and during the Edo period it was used by the domain for official documents and for printing hansatsu (domain-issued currency).

Nao Washi is ideal for lanterns.

The process of making Nao washi remains virtually unchanged to this day. First, kaji saplings are harvested in January, and steamed for about one hour. The bark is peeled, dried, and then stored until it is needed.

When it comes time to make paper, the bark is first rehydrated in water for two days, and then cut into easy-to-handle lengths. This is boiled along with caustic soda for two hours before being placed in a tank. The bark then spends the next few days under the sun, with ground water running over it and washing away the soda and impurities. The end result is clean, white kaji fibers.

The fibers are pounded to break up and soften them, and then cut into 2-3 millimeter-long pieces. These pieces are next put in a basin of water and combined with a starchy substance made from a plant called tororo aoi, and then formed into sheets using a paper mold (a screen attached to a wooden frame). The resulting sheets of paper are stacked and excess water is squeezed out with a press. Last, the sheets are stuck to a drying board and carefully brushed, ensuring each piece dries quickly.

A once strong industry, demand for Nao Washi went into decline beginning in the Meiji era due to competition from mass-produced paper. Manufacturers left the industry one by one until eventually only the Taniguchi family’s workshop remained in business. Just like those that came before them, the Taniguchi family continues to carry out every aspect of the paper making process, from raising the kaji themselves and processing the fibers, to forming and drying the paper.

The sixth generation manufacturer, Yujiro Taniguchi, saw the need to create new demand for this traditional product. This has led to new, never-before-seen styles of paper that maintain a distinct Japanese feel. The Nao Washi line up now includes not only traditional paper, but also paper in a myriad of colors, shades, textures, patterns and with pressed flowers, not to mention products such as floor lamps, business cards and cases, which make use of the paper’s durability. Using this new style of Nao Washi on fans and shoji doors also brings a modern twist to traditional Japan.

(Photos courtesy of Nao Handmade Washi Co., Ltd.)

(Cooperation: Council of Local Authorities for International Relations)


Hannah Winters

Hannah is an American who worked for the Saga Prefectural Government as a Coordinator for International Relations (CIR) from 2014 to 2019. She enjoys learning about the traditional crafts and history of Kyushu.



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