Japanese Have an Appreciation for Paper Work

Merin is a New York City free-lance writer.

We hardly think of paper as important--except when we can't find a scrap to jot a phone number on or a tissue to dab a nose. We seldom contemplate paper's influence on the development of civilization.

In Japan, paper-making or molding, is an ancient and highly treasured craft. Both the practical and decorative properties of paper have been fully developed. Handmade paper, called washi , is used in a vast variety of ways, ranging from functional sliding doors and screens to festive kites and lanterns.

Hand-printed sheets of paper come in thousands of decorative patterns, and are used to transform plain boxes and cans into charming containers for personal treasures or attractive desk-top pencil holders. Durable heavyweight paper is shaped into handsome wallets; lighter weights are used for letter writing or formal calligraphic arts. Paper is folded into dolls and other toys and, in origami, into tiny birds, frogs, swans and other creatures.

Until several years ago, the large Japanese department stores carried large stocks of handmade paper items. They still have a limited selection, but the best, most complete supplies are found in paper specialty shops throughout Tokyo and in other Japanese cities.

Off the Beaten Path

These shops are often off the beaten path, and Japan's erratic address system makes taking a taxi advisable. Ask your hotel concierge to write the name and address of the shop in Japanese on a piece of paper that you can hand to the cab driver. Get the name of the hotel, in Japanese, on the other side.

Here in Tokyo, Washikobo, at 1-8-10 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku, is stuffed with handmade paper objects of all descriptions. The shop's small space is a riot of color. From the ceiling are suspended variously sized kites, with bright portraits of samurai, tigers and other creatures ($8-$30), and delicate mobiles with dolls or fans ($4-$8). There are fans large enough to serve as bed headboards ($25) and others that fit comfortably in the hand ($4-$30), hand-painted with flowers and other patterns. Masks of Kabuki characters and geisha peer from high shelves ($12 and up) and there are brigades or paper dolls ($2-$15).

For the desk, there are calendars (from $5), note pads ($8 and up), pencil holders of various sorts ($6) and hexagonal towers of boxes to hold small essentials ($5). Caddies for teas have close-fitting lids ($4 and up) and delicate locks are used to secure lovely boxes and chests for jewels $15-$30). Washikobo also features a fine line of paper lamps by Japanese designers, notably Isamu Noguchi ($45 and up), that fit over light bulbs and diffuse their light.

Handmade Lanterns

Kashiwaya Shoten, at 2-3-13 Shintomi, Chuo-ku, is the place to find handmade lanterns, most made for special order. This is the shop that provides the Kabuki with its supply of lanterns, adorned with the theater's symbol. Families order lanterns to commemorate birthdays, anniversaries and weddings. The lanterns are usually white, with red and black accents, or red with black and white accents, and come in round or cylindrical shapes, with handles or hooks of black lacquered wood. Made-to-order, the lanterns cost from $25 to $60 and up. Even if you don't buy, it's fun to watch the delicate paper being carefully attached to the lantern's fragile wooden ribs.

Haibara at 2-7-6 Nihonbashi, Chuo-ku, is a source for fabulous writing papers of all sorts. Exquisite stationery with subtle floral designs costs $3-$6, Christmas cards with Japanese motifs cost $2 and up, pocket-size address books with bold-patterned covers cost $3 and up.

There is also an array of paper napkins (50 cents to $1 for a packet of six) and coasters ($5 for a packet of five). Sturdy and attractive paper wallets with note pads cost $2 and up, and large paper bags cost $12. Best of all, there are a dozen catalogue books filled with sample sheets of decorative wrapping papers ($1 to $25 per sheet, and up) for do-it-yourself covering of boxes, doll-making or gift wrapping. Haibara, which occupies a two centuries-old building, also sells brushes, ink and other calligraphy supplies.

Visiting these shops will give you greater appreciation for paper, as well as an opportunity to buy unusual and easily carried gift items at about half of what they would cost at home.

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