In southern Ehime Prefecture is a place with perfectly preserved traditional townscapes and unparalleled paper craftsmanship: Ikazaki. Born from the area’s untainted natural blessings and boasting thousands of years of tradition, Ikazaki’s refined Japanese washi paper served the arts of calligraphy and “shoji” screen making through the centuries, becoming one of Japan’s most prominent washi before suffering from decline in recent years. In this nook of rural Japan fighting to keep such amazing artistry alive, I visited Ikazaki Shachu, a company manufacturing washi paper and promoting its charms to the world, where I could learn about their innovative approaches and try my hand at gilding washi, which can only be found here in Ikazaki!

Uchiko Ikazaki: Step Back in Time in Ancient Towns that Once Were Some of Japan’s Most Prominent Washi Paper Production Centers

Traditional townscapes, beautiful craftsmanship, and rich nature all welcomed me in Uchiko’s Ikazaki, a charming rural area in southern Ehime Prefecture. Blessed with abundant water from the pure Oda River and surrounded by untouched mountains covered in forests, Ikazaki naturally had all it needed for Japanese papermaking, creating a tradition so old and prized that it is even mentioned in different Heian-period (794 – 1185) books and documents.

Among the area’s ample natural resources is not only the extraordinary clean water, fundamental to produce beautiful paper, but also the abundance of “kozo” Japanese mulberry and “mitsumata” paper bush, which are used as raw materials for Japanese paper, allowing generations of local artisans to craft superior washi. Its delicate and soft feel, unbelievable thinness yet excellent durability, extraordinary smoothness and absorbency made it one of the most sought-after calligraphy papers in Japan!

Passed down through the centuries, the local papermaking wisdom and techniques were further developed during the Edo period (1603 – 1867) under the patronage of the feudal lords of the local Ozu Domain, who used washi paper to increase their fortunes. Their efforts to promote the local washi and export it nationwide were such that it earned Ikazaki washi the moniker of “Ozu washi” and Uchiko grew into a bustling center of trade and water transport, bringing the area unprecedented wealth. Traces of the town’s glory can still be admired in Uchiko’s Yokaichi and Gokoku Districts that were selected as Important Preservation Districts for Groups of Traditional Buildings as they beautifully preserve a multitude of historical townhouses from the Edo and Meiji periods, enveloping visitors in the atmosphere of old Japan.

Ikazaki’s paper business further expanded during the Meiji period (1868 – 1912) with over 400 craftspeople involved in the local washi manufacturing and the area becoming one of Japan’s leading producers of washi paper.

After the Second World War, due to the spread of machine-made paper and the shift in lifestyles and housing to more Westernized styles, the demand for handmade washi paper gradually decreased, causing the local washi industry to decline. Although Ikazaki washi was selected as a Nationally Designated Traditional Craft by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry in 1977, the number of businesses involved in its production steadily shrunk, worsened by the lack of younger artisans who would continue Ikazaki’s precious paper traditions.

The situation was tragic to the point that locals feared that handmade washi would disappear from Ikazaki and, in the attempt to save the cherished local industry, they joined forces to restore its popularity.

Ikazaki Shachu: A Prized Company Revitalizing the Local Washi Industry Through Innovative Gilding

Eager to immerse myself in the local washi culture and learn about the efforts made to preserve it, I explored Ikazaki Shachu’s Tenjin Paper Mill, the heart of the incredible regional revitalization Ikazaki is undergoing. Standing along the Oda River, and showcasing the many years of devoted work in their graciously aging figures, are the mill’s old wooden buildings – one of the few factories still handmaking Ikazaki washi today.

The paper was in the drying stage when I visited the mill. I could observe one of the artisans elegantly laying sheets of washi on some iron plates, then brushing any creases out, almost looking like a vision from the past in that steam-filled room and suffused lighting.

Guiding me through the secrets behind Ikazaki’s premium paper and its recently reconquered success was Hiroyuki Saito, the CEO of Ikazaki Shachu, who entered the world of Ikazaki washi almost as if he was led by fate and eventually becoming a key figure in the field when Ikazaki washi was selected by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the JAPAN BRAND Program as one of Japan’s traditional crafts promoted overseas to nurture the international community’s interest and understanding of Japan.

Hiroyuki is originally a system engineer from Kanagawa Prefecture and only moved to Ikazaki – his wife’s birthplace – when, after hearing about the JAPAN BRAND Program from his father-in-law, he decided to step forward and finally establish Ikazaki Shachu in 2008. Aiming to keep Ikazaki’s washi culture alive while breaking new ground, the company is now the only producer of gilded washi wallpaper in the world.

Contrasting with the sober atmosphere of the mill, the atelier was a glimmering spectacle of golden hues as its walls and stands were covered in Ikazaki’s famous gilded washi. Exhibited were a multitude of sumptuous types of washi embellished by intricate and eye-catching designs, some so fine and detailed that they almost looked like lace and some so bold that they reminded me of modern art pieces.

Ikazaki’s one-of-a-kind gilded washi is the result of an incredibly lucky encounter. Supported by the JAPAN BRAND Program, Hiroyuki got to exhibit Ikazaki washi at an interior trade fair in Paris and saw French-based Hungarian designer Gabor Ulveczki’s gilded wallpaper. Fascinated by the beautiful sparkle of metal foil applied on paper, he thought that the same technique could have worked splendidly on Ikazaki washi as well.

Oddly enough, gilding isn’t originally meant for paper, as it is an ancient European technique used to decorate picture frames and furniture pieces. Gabor’s novel style that earned his design company the prestigious title of Living French Heritage Enterprise, however, takes advantage of the oxidation and corrosion of gold, copper, silver, and aluminium to create stunning colors and particular shiny effects that complement paper so beautifully that the material almost looks like it is alive.

Gabor moved to Uchiko for a period and provided technical guidance while collaborating with Ikazaki Shachu for the development of washi products using gilding. They had to go under a long process of trial and error in order to adjust the glues used in gilding to washi paper, which is more uneven than normal paper, but the final result was a new type of washi characterized by exquisite elegance and originality without renouncing Ikazaki washi’s distinctive softness and airy feel. Over time, its production brought new vitality into the local community and businesses.

Attracting attention overseas and nationwide, the novel gilded paper today is used as decor for famous hotels, commercial facilities, and even one of Japan’s most famous hot springs Dogo Onsen or as lavish touch for art panels and boxes by companies like GODIVA and Cartier! More young people are interested in learning the art of papermaking and carrying on Ikazaki’s traditional industry.

Ikazaki Shachu Workshop: Try Your Hand at Washi Paper Gilding and Create One-of-a-Kind Souvenirs

The visit let me try my hand at washi postcard gilding and learn some basic techniques of this wonderful form of art! So, I took my seat and, as we were about to start, Hiroyuki proudly revealed to me that it has been an extremely popular workshop since they started it. Simple and fun, it has a 100% satisfaction rate among Japanese and international visitors alike!

Postcards presented eight different patterns designed and handmade by the craftspeople working at Ikazaki Shachu and Tenjin Paper Mill. Some designs were more playful such as some cute mom and cub bears while others were more traditional like “sakura” cherry blossoms. I went for Hokusai’s famous ukiyo-e “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” which is one of my favorite Japanese artworks and for a design showcasing some beautiful Japanese camellias blooming in the snow.

Glue was already applied to the design, so I just had to choose any metal foil I liked from the five jars in front of me and abandon myself to the creative flow. Pasting the foils wasn’t too difficult after Hiroyuki himself briefly guided me through the process. Each foil showed marvelous hues, creating unpredictable shimmering patterns when applied and making each postcard look different and unique, reflecting the creator’s taste and spirit. For example, I decided to go for a more dreamy approach and added gold to the wave’s crest and copper to the camellias, freely adjusting the colors to my liking.

Once completely applied and flattened with a roller, the excess foil can be brushed out, slowly revealing the final result beneath. I felt like I was digging a hidden treasure out of my washi postcards as you never know how exactly the colors will turn out and what your creations will look like in the end. As Hiroyuki promised, I brought back home not only original souvenirs, but also bits of the local culture, adding me to the ranks of the already numerous washi gilding enthusiasts!

Ikazaki Shachu Shop: Bring Back Home Charming Japanese Washi Paper Handmade by Ikazaki Artisans

My very brief moment as a gilding artisan was over, but I couldn’t leave Ikazaki Shachu without visiting their shop! Just across the mill and workshop room, Ikazaki Shachu’s shop was filled with any possible paper product I might have desired, crammed with a wide variety of colorful accessories and stationery such as letter sets, postcards, book covers, and card cases as well as interior goods such as lampshades, table mats, and coasters. It was the perfect place to stock up on local gorgeous handmade products!

Get Creative While Being Immersed in the Fabulous World of Washi Gilding

Combining thousand-year-old paper traditions and international gilding crafts, gilded washi is something that can only be found in Ikazaki. Be part of the incredible regional revitalization of the area and meet the locals who made it possible while enriching your time in Japan with this hands-on experience!