The awesomeness of Echizen
I’m just going to say it – I love Echizen.
Yet it has been really hard for me to write this post. I think it’s because the place is just beyond words. Visiting this papermaking village (Washi no Sato) was the absolute highlight of my trip to Japan.
When I think of my time there, I get overwhelmed by warm fuzzies and my brain turns to mush. And then I get sad. I wonder if I’ll ever get to go back there. I feel a loss for having not having been there longer. I long for the warmth and kindness of the people I met there.
I first became aware of Echizen back in the early 90’s when I worked at Paper Source (back when they actually sold paper). The store carried a variety of papers from the area, but at the time, I didn’t understand that Echizen was a place. I might have thought that it was a brand name (embarrassing). It was later on that I realized that it was an actual location in Japan.
When I started doing research for our trip to Japan and rediscovered Echizen, I knew in my gut that I had to go there. The official village website offers the following as an introduction to the area:
There are now about 70 factories that use either handmade, industrial, or processing methods, with about 500 people working in Washi related jobs in the Imadate area “Goka”.
“Goka” is called by five villages of the town, Oizu, Iwamoto, Shinzaike, Sadatomo and Otaki, in all together. This area have been producing Japanese paper since 6th century and constitute “Echizen Washi no Sato”.
There used to be lots of paper villages every where in Japan, but it is very unusual to see an area like Echizen only making paper through all the year, whereas the others used to make paper only in winter when they didn’t produce rice. As a result, Echizen is one of the largest handmade paper industries in Japan along with Tosa in Kochi and Mino in Gifu Prefectures.
It amazes me that Echizen played such a vital role in the history of Japanese paper. Its reputation as the producer of fine, high quality paper is well-deserved. Echizen washi was used for printing both the first paper currency in Japan and official court documents. It is believed that Rembrandt used Echizen washi for his etchings.
According to The Association for the Promotion of Traditional Craft Industries, the area has 26 government recognized Master Craftsmen. On top of that, a number of artisans in Echizen have been certified as Living National Treasures.
So yeah, the place is fantastic.
Aside from papermakers, the village offers several paper-related destinations:
- Papyrus House
- Udatsu Paper & Craft Museum
- Paper & Culture Museum (closed for renovations through 3/31/17)
- Okamoto Otaki Shrine
We were lucky enough to be able to visit each of these places, except for the Paper and Culture Museum (me = sad). I’ll share those experiences in future blog posts.
Everywhere you go in Echizen, you can see the influence of paper on the community. We had lunch at a restaurant and handmade paper was all over the place.
And the postal service in Echizen is in on the paper fun too. If you go to the Okamoto post office and ask for fukei-in, the postmaster will hand stamp your letter with a special postmark – it includes an image of the Okamoto Otaki Shrine and a woman making paper. I’m still kicking myself for not sending myself a postcard.
We were lucky enough to have access to bicycles during our stay, so it was easy for us to get around.
Yep, I rode around with my paper tube on my back. Getting paper home safely was a priority!
As we rode our bikes, we became more and more aware of what was going on inside the buildings we passed. Sometimes we’d hear the whirring of machinery coming from a building that looked like a residence. Other times things were out in the open.
I know that we didn’t even scratch the surface of what there is to learn about Echizen and its rich papermaking history. If I ever return to Japan (fingers crossed), I’d love to go back there.
I’d like to take this opportunity to give a shout out to photographer Katz Hata, our Echizen host and guide. He was beyond awesome. It was embarrassing just how many times we got lost and he came to our rescue (FYI – Google Maps is not much help in this part of Japan). Without him, we wouldn’t have had such a rich experience.
So, now you want to visit Echizen, right? Go – you won’t regret it.
Here’s the scoop:
- Address: Google Map
- Phone: 0778-24-0655 (tourist information about Echizen)
- Public Transportation: Take a train to JR Takefu Station. After exiting the train, you’ll see the bus stop (sheltered area). Take the Fuku-Tetsu bus for the Nanetsu line (heading towards Akasaka) – it’s about a 20 minute ride. Get off at the Washi-no-Sato stop.
Total sheets of paper purchased to date: 29 (trust me, that number’s going up)