Edo karakami paper is a government-designated traditional craft made by adding designs and decorations to washi, Japanese handmade paper. As the name implies, it was developed in Edo (today’s Tokyo), and reflects a townspeople’s culture established by craftsmen and merchants who worked in the city during the Edo Period (1603-1868). The craft features free and fluid designs, many depicting familiar objects and scenes from daily life at the time, as well as natural subjects that give a rich sense of the seasons.
The origins of Edo karakami can be traced back to the Heian Period (794-1185), when patterned mon-toshi paper was introduced from Tang dynasty China. This paper was used as a model for the first karakami paper, which was handmade using wooden blocks engraved with designs and decorative materials such as mica powder or gofun, a whitewash made from ground shells. At first, this paper was used as eiso – paper for transcribing poetry, such as short tanka poems or haikai linked verse – but as time passed, its use spread to wallpaper, byobu room partitions, fusuma heavy sliding doors and shoji, traditional light-weight sliding doors with translucent paper screens.
As the city of Edo grew under the Tokugawa government, both demand and uses for karakami paper expanded. As need for the paper increased, the various decorating techniques and designs of Edo karakami came into being, developing into the unique and original forms that came to distinguish the art.
There are two key traditions of Edo karakami decoration, each building off an ancient style. One is a technique that embellishes works such as Buddhist scriptures with gold and silver powders, used since the Nara (710-794) and Heian Periods (794-1185). The masterpiece of this style is known as the Heike Nokyo, a series of 33 Buddhist scrolls dedicated to Hiroshima’s Itsukushima Shrine in the hope of bringing prosperity to the Heike clan. The other technique is that of ryoshi writing paper decoration, which centers around a wooden karakami block that adds decorations to eiso paper. Its masterpiece is said to be the Nishi-Honganji Collection of Thirty-six Anthologies (Nishi-Honganji-bon Sanju-rokunin-kashu), a collection of the work of 36 waka poets assembled at the end of the Heian Period .
Today, the traditional decoration techniques of Edo karakami are still passed on even as they continue to evolve. There are many galleries that display this traditional craft in Tokyo, offering plentiful opportunities to examine its beautiful forms firsthand.
Tokyo Regional Specialty Stores
Tokyo Metropolitan Government Bldg First Building 2-8-1
Edo Tokyo Museum
1-4-1 Yokoami Sumida-ku Tokyo