Karacho: an introduction

In special company; Toto (far left), I, Aiko, and Interpreter: Karacho staff member Mayo Ishii (far right) in front of a contemporary and very personal work by Toto. The work is at home within Goo Shrine, Kyoto.

It has taken me some time to reflect on and prepare this post (and the series of posts) about meeting Karacho and spending time with Toto and Aiko. This is because I had an experience that is hard to put into words. Here is Part 1 of my attempt…

Karacho is Japan’s last maker of Karakami. Karakami is wood-block printed paper. The Senda family have been printing karakami since establishing their workshop in Kyoto in 1624. The tradition, along with 650 hand-carved wooden blocks, have been passed down in an unbroken line within the family for twelve generations. Karakami traditionally graced  Fusami screens (traditional sliding doors to open and divide space)  but now is made more available through textiles, furniture and tableware at Shijo Karasuma, Cocon Karasuma building in Kyoto.

The karakami Karacho make today continues to preserve and echo the traditional process that is 400 years old. It is within the materials, care/intention, mood and a delicate quiet beauty that the union of motif and washi lives.

The materials all originate from nature.

The washi (wa Japanese shi paper) is made from living trees and bushes.  Kyoto washi is known to be of the best quality; it is smooth with natural fibres subtly scattered throughout.

The circular frame Furui after pigment and pattern transferred, mortar and pestle with colour mixed, the natural brush below and Mica to the right side.

The colour is mixed from natural pigments. Only three pure colours are combined; red, blue and yellow. There is no recipe. These are mixed at the moment of printing. They are mixed with Mica; a shimmering mineral that is ground into a powder for this purpose. The final colour is inspired by a personal moment from the day; like the colour of flowering blossoms seen that morning or the colour of the sky from that afternoon. No two prints will be the same.

The woodblocks or Hangi are mostly carved from Magnolia or Honoki wood (Magnolia Hypoleucaea or Magnolia Obovata). Honoki is a non-resinous wood that has a subtle grain and is not subject to warping and cracking.

The Crane with The Nine Stars original wood block underneath

The patterns or motifs carved into the Hangi come from many different sources. They are all however carefully considered, and continue to live through Karacho. One of Karacho’s patterns originates from the Alhambra, in Spain ( a place I had hoped to visit on my travels but was too pressed for time). The pattern records the concealment of the mark of Christianity; the cross. The cross was simplified to a circle and square to escape persecution from other religions at the time. The pattern made its way to Japan, on the Maritime Silk Road through traders, as an exported silk yoke previously worn by Christian priests. While that is the origin, in Japan, the circle in this arrangement is an important pattern as it embodies ever-growing, ever-expanding happiness.

A contemporary installation of ancient Karacho karakami patterns at Karacho’s Shijo Karasuma

Many of the patterns are inspired by and celebrate the beauty of Japanese nature and season. The breath and character of the Dragon in the form of the cloud, the fertile Hyotan (Gord), the hope for longevity of Kikko (the tortoise carapace pattern), the growth and importance of Asanoha (hemp in Japanese every day life through weaving), and Edasakura the cherry blossom in full bloom on branches…

Some of these patterns re-occur in other cultures including China, Turkey and Northern Europe (the Celtic people). In this way they are universal patterns that have transcended time and culture. Each culture has subtle differences in the meaning assigned to the patterns, their application and use,; but all are linked to the exchange of knowledge through trade along the Silk Road.

Just as the materials used in Karakami all originate from nature, they are all linked through the life given by water. And like water Toto and Aiko breathe life and bring together these elements with the contact and touch of their hands. They see their role as breathing life into these elements; the washi, the hangi, the motif, the nature, the colour; through the moment of Karakami.

Toto’s delicate touch

Karacho Karakami

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