In Japan, paper making is treasured as a craft that is both practical and decorative.
Handmade paper, called washi, is used in a variety of ways, ranging from functional sliding doors and screens to festive kites and lanterns.
Hand-printed sheets of paper in thousands of decorative patterns can be used to transform plain boxes into elegant containers.
Durable heavyweight paper is shaped into handsome wallets and chests. Lighter-weight paper can be used for letter writing and formal calligraphic arts. Or it can be folded into dolls and other toys and, in origami, into tiny creations of birds, frogs and swans.
The rich array of Japanese paper products can be seen throughout Tokyo, in large department stores such as Mitsukoshi and Seibu, in small souvenir shops around the Ginza and Asakusa areas, in subway kiosks and even in airport shops. However, the most complete selections are found in Tokyo’s traditional paper shops, off the beaten tourist path.
Washikobo, at 1-8-10 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku, is stuffed with handmade paper objects of all descriptions and colors. Kites decorated with bright portraits of samurai, tigers and other creatures (from $10 to $50) are suspended from the ceiling. Beautiful hand-painted fans range in size from miniatures to those large enough to serve as bed headboards. Legions of paper dolls and masks of Kabuki characters and geisha peer down from high shelves.
More functional desk accessories--sold in matching sets or individually--include calendars, note pads, pencil holders and hexagonal nesting boxes. There are lovely tea caddies and paper chests with delicate locks for securing jewels or precious papers.
Washikobo also features paper lamps (from $60) with contemporary designs by Isamu Noguchi and other Japanese artists, but the place to go for traditional Japanese lanterns is Kashiwaya Shoten at 2-3-13 Shintomi, Chuo-ku. This is the shop that provides the Kabuki-Za theater with its supply of lanterns, marked with the theater’s symbol.
Japanese 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, in round or cylindrical shapes, with handles or hooks of black lacquered wood. They are mostly made to order, and cost about $50 and up. Even window shoppers will enjoy watching the fragile paper being carefully attached to the delicate wooden ribs.
Haibara, in a centuries-old building at 2-7-6 Nihonbashi, Chuo-ku, is a good source for writing paper of all sorts. Exquisite stationery with subtle floral design costs about $6 and up, and wonderful cards decorated with Japanese designs are priced from $2. Sturdy covered address books, in pocket or desk-top sizes, have bold patterns in vivid colors.
There is an astonishing array of unusual napkins with floral designs or Japanese motifs sold in packets of six (from $2), with or without matching or contrasting coasters.
Sturdy and attractive paper wallets, some with note pads included, can last for years and cost as little as $5. Decorative paper bags, small with seals for gift wrapping or large with handles for carrying purchases, are also good buys.
Best of all, Haibara features catalogues filled with hundreds of samples of decorative wrapping paper (from $1 to $40 per sheet) for do-it-yourself covering of boxes, doll making or gift wrapping. The shop also offers a fine selection of high-quality calligraphy supplies, including brushes, ink blocks, water dishes and illustrated books of instruction.
Visiting Tokyo’s paper specialty shops will give you greater appreciation for the art of paper making, as well as an opportunity to purchase some unusual and easily carried gift items at about half of what they would cost at home, if you could find them.
When traveling to these paper shops, take a taxi. Many of Tokyo’s obscure addresses are hard to find. Ask your hotel concierge to write the name and address of the shop in Japanese on a piece of paper for you to hand to the cab driver. Get the name of your hotel, in Japanese, on the other side for your trip back.
Prices quoted in this article reflect currency exchange rates at the time of writing.