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It is very important to experience Karakami within space and time through the sequence of arriving and discovering the work, and experiencing the change of light in its surface. Toto and Aiko directed me to places that feature ancient Karacho Karakami with later editions of the Karacho patterns, as well more recent commissions of their artwork. One important example sits within Yogen-in (very near Sanjusangen-do officially called Rengeo-in, Kyoto).

Yogen-in gate
Path leading from gate to Temple
Entry to Main Temple
The mon or Family Crest of the Tokugawa shoguns – Maruni Mitsu Aoi (Mitsuba api) or three holly hock leaves inside a circle

Unfortunately photography is forbidden inside the temple. It was beautiful to see the very very old Karakami Fusami featuring the Dragon (protector of Buddhism). Karacho had recently installed new panels of the same pattern to sit next to the historical screens. One has to imagine being in the space by candlelight and seeing the glimmer of the golden dragon as it clutches the pearl.

Visit design boom to see photos of another example of Karacho’s karakami within Katsura Imperial Villa (Katsura Rikyu). Beautiful!

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Cocon Karasuma Building, in Kyoto
Shijo-Karasuma Store

After my very personal experience with Toto and Aiko at Karacho’s Saruyama Salon  we visited their Shijo-Karasuma store, at the Cocon Karasuma Building, in Kyoto (designed by architects Kengo Kuma and Associates). On arrival I was struck by the building’s facade. Karacho was commissioned by Kengo Kuma to re-interpret Tempyo Ohgumo (big cloud) as large printed glass panels applied to the facade. In fact this motif features throughout the building at different scales and in a range of materials. Each iteration has been carefully considered and responds directly to the surrounding space.

Within the Shijo-Karasuma store there is Karakami in traditional and non-traditional forms; cut to match the size of cards and letter paper; special mounted artworks in different formats (circle, square) as well as Lamps, Screens and Fusami.

Karacho is the last maker of Karakami in Japan. Working in this new way Karacho makes their art accessible to a wider audience and ensures the continuance of this gift for future generations to enjoy!

Shijo-Karasuma Store
Friendly Karacho Staff with Tempyo Ohgumo (big cloud ) and Kado Tsunagi (connecting angles) Fusami behind
Large mounted artworks (top) and Washi Lights using Karakami
Mounted Karakami including Tempyo Ohgumo (big cloud), Hyotan (Gourd), Shunran (spring orchid), and Kado Tsunagi (connecting angles)
Karacho’s Tempyo Ohgumo (big cloud) 

Karacho’s Saruyama Salon with Hyotan (gourd pattern) on the entry Fusami

On arriving at Karacho’s Saruyama Salon I was greeted by my special interpreter for the day (Karacho staff member) Mayo Ishii. Ishii modestly introduced Toto and Aiko, the twelfth generation of Karacho Karakami artists.

Toto first presented the Karacho Fusami screen samples. The patterns were very spatial and present in time; especially the white on white Kado Tsunagi (connecting angles). It was like a spider’s web at night catching the smallest amount of light with its silvery thread; a shimmering transient moment.

The hangi (wood blocks) are a particular size to match the largest size of washi produced in the early times. On the Fusami screens the patterns are set out to form a continuous pattern. Many of the patterns that looked contemporary were in fact the very oldest.

There is a special ritual that Toto performs to prepare for Karakami. This is personal and spiritual. Toto selected a wood block with the pattern of a wispy cloud (or for me like the moment when the sun glows on the lining of a cloud). It was very soothing to watch Toto work. In Karakami the colour is applied with a furui. This application is gentler on the woodblock than a brush and ensures the hangi’s longevity.

Preparation: combining the pigments to the desired colour mixed with mica; then applied to furui (fine circular sieve) with the natural brush; a selection of prepared hangi

Toto gently transfers the colour to the prepared hangi

Gentle touch as washi meets hangi through pattern

Checking, then adding colour

Gently the washi is lifted from the hangi and karakami placed face up

Toto informed me that it was now my turn! I was a little reserved as it was such an honour to experience the making of Karakami. Toto guided me through the process and told me that watching someone make Karakami gave an insight into a person’s nature…

The hangi Toto selected for me was asanoha (hemp leaves). This was a block that had been carved anew as the original was very often used.

…Come close and let me whisper something. There is a moment when the furui meets the hangi for the first time, that is like breathing.  Delicate and fleeting and very personal.

The feeling took my breath away.

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