Hokkaido washi crafts experience: ORITO’s Studio Tour



Sapporo, City of Art and Culture

 Sapporo, a vibrant and dynamic city on the northern island of Hokkaido, Japan, is not only the region’s capital and largest city but also a unique blend of modern urban life and natural beauty. Offering an array of experiences, it has become an enticing destination for travelers eager to explore the distinctive charm of Hokkaido and northern Japan.

The city’s history dates back to the late 19th century when it became the administrative center for the newly established Hokkaido Prefecture. Sapporo’s grid-based design, unique among Japanese cities, provides a modern yet charming layout. Amidst the urban landscape, green havens like Odori Park and Maruyama Park offer tranquil spaces at the heart of the city.

 Having hosted the Winter Olympics in 1972, Sapporo consolidated its status as a thriving center for winter sports, attracting skiing and snowboarding enthusiasts with its proximity to ski resorts and snow-covered landscapes.

 Renowned for harmonizing nature and urban life, Sapporo has earned the moniker of a ‘city of culture.’ It hosts various cultural events, including the globally acclaimed Sapporo Snow Festival and the Sapporo International Film Festival, bringing the streets alive with music, art, and film. In addition to its cultural richness, Sapporo continues to evolve with modern architecture, art galleries, and a bustling atmosphere reflecting its cosmopolitan character.

Sapporo’s Artistic Landscapes

 On the northern outskirts of Sapporo lies the distinctive Moerenuma Park, designed by the world-renowned sculptor Isamu Noguchi. This creation seamlessly blends ‘art’ and ‘nature’ into a singular experience, conceived with the idea of transforming the entire area into a unified sculpture. The park offers a diverse appeal for each season: cherry blossoms bloom in spring, lively fountains and water features grace the summer, cycling through colorful leaves delights in autumn, and the snowy landscape sets the stage for cross-country skiing and sledding in winter.

 Within the park, a prominent glass pyramid stands as a symbolic monument and a central hub for cultural activities, hosting various art exhibitions. Notably, the pyramid incorporates an innovative cooling system utilizing the natural energy of the region—snow. Originally repurposed from a waste disposal facility, the park is recognized for its commitment to environmental conservation.

 Heading south, the Sapporo Art Park awaits, serving as a vibrant center for the arts with museums, studios, an outdoor stage, and music practice rooms. As the emblem of the “artistic and cultural city,” the Sapporo Art Park Museum, established in 1986, aims to cultivate new art and culture in the northern region.

 Integrated seamlessly with nature, the art in the Sapporo Sculpture Garden harmonizes with the changing seasons. It allows visitors to wander through a refreshing forest while appreciating 74 sculptures crafted by 64 sculptors. These include works by leading Japanese and foreign contemporary sculptors, pieces by the Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland, and contributions from Sapporo’s sister cities.

 Craft workshops, offering experiences in woodworking and glassmaking, are scattered throughout the forest. Additionally, the park provides facilities for musical instrument practice, theater rehearsals, and even accommodation. Dedicated to nurturing individuals through art, it not only offers viewing opportunities but also encourages active participation in creative endeavors.

 In addition, Sapporo boasts a dynamic artistic scene with a range of artist-operated studios and well-established artist residencies contributing to the city’s vibrant cultural panorama. Among them, places like Naebo Art Studio, run by artists who have chosen Sapporo as their creative hub, and Sapporo Tenjinyama Art Studio, which supports artists involved in creative pursuits both locally and internationally, represent a diverse array of long-standing artist residencies. These spaces offer artists the freedom to express themselves, consolidating Sapporo’s global recognition as a hub where artists can engage in uninhibited creative activities. These examples are merely a glimpse of the artistic and cultural city of Sapporo.

 In this article “Sapporo, City of Art and Culture,” I’m excited to introduce another distinctive artistic endeavor: ORITO’s tour, featuring the use of the exquisite Japanese paper known as washi.

What is ORITO? Who is ORITO?

 Originally hailing from Sapporo, the washi artist known as ORITO returned to her hometown after an extended period outside Hokkaido. Her inspiration for working with paper stemmed from the mesmerizing snowfall and delicate snowflakes characteristic of Hokkaido. In 2013, she embarked on a self-taught paper art journey. Since 2017, ORITO has been adopted as her artist name— it is a term she coined, meaning ‘fold person’ in Japanese. Diverging significantly from traditional origami, she crafts her creations with a distinctive perspective.

 While Japanese paper often evokes thoughts of origami, ORITO, who turned paper folding into her profession, has consistently maintained the sentiment of ‘not just origami.’ Her commitment to her folding style has driven her to diversify her activities, which encompass the design of residential lighting shades and the creation of meticulously crafted accessories and art pieces.

 A pivotal encounter with washi artisan Wataru Hatano significantly influenced her creative trajectory, marking a turning point in her artistic journey. This meeting introduced her to washi, a thin yet sturdy and delicate material, transforming her art. Beyond her creative work, ORITO actively shares the beauty of washi, conducting workshops at local elementary schools and universities.

 In her folding process, there are no specific predetermined diagrams. The spontaneous urge to fold paper often surpasses cravings for food or sleep. She simply folds in the direction she desires, and the sequence of these moments leads to the creation of the artwork. ORITO considers this act akin to meditation, where only her hands and paper exist, devoid of a sense of time and sound. In this state, she can fold for 7 or 8 hours, and sometimes even for more than 15 hours. During these times, she believes she transcends her human self. Viewing it as a special and valuable gift, she seeks to give back to society in various ways, one of which is through ORITO workshops.

 “Folding washi feels like a form of prayer, bringing a profound sense of calm to the heart. As you concentrate quietly on folding washi, you will experience a refreshing sensation through the tactile feedback and soothing sounds. And you will discover the beauty of washi when you see the finished pieces after the workshop,” says ORITO.

 ORITO’s artwork graces various locations across Sapporo, including art galleries, office reception areas, cafes, and even prominent places like Hotel Niseko Hakuunso in the renowned ski resort town of Niseko. Furthermore, she has recently expanded her presence on a global scale, with her unique lighting designs being incorporated into spaces in a special accommodation facility in Onomichi, Hiroshima Prefecture. This facility is known for its association with the renowned Indian architectural group, Studio Mumbai. This recognition and collaboration have allowed ORITO to broaden her artistic horizons and reach new audiences.

 ORITO’s Studio Tour with Washi Magic

 Situated near JR Hoshioki station, ORITO’s studio is located in a tranquil residential area on the outskirts of Sapporo. While it may be hard to fathom amidst the current urban setting, this locale was once an expansive wilderness during Hokkaido’s early settlement. Immigrants from Honshu initiated farming; however, the sandy and marshy terrain posed challenges to crop cultivation. As a side venture, they utilized papermaking skills brought from their hometowns, ultimately founding a paper mill in 1899. Considering that the plants essential for washi didn’t naturally thrive in Hokkaido during that era, the mill operated as a facility collecting used paper to produce handcrafted recycled paper.

 The happenstance of ORITO’s studio being situated in such a historically significant place adds an extra layer of charm. The studio’s coincidental placement in a location with deep ties to one of the oldest papermaking traditions in Hokkaido is truly delightful. ORITO’s studio, situated in the house where her grandparents lived, has been beautifully self-renovated to create a unique and nostalgic space. Stepping into her studio, I found myself enveloped in a wonderful nostalgic atmosphere. At her workplace, ORITO’s grandparents’ furniture seamlessly blended with her artworks.

 “This furniture has been here for 80 years,” ORITO mentioned, referring to her grandmother’s trousseau brought when she married her grandfather. Various kinds of washi paper collected from all over Japan, her tools, and her art pieces complemented the furniture and the old house. “I sometimes feel that gentle lights through washi lamp shades and mobiles harmonize with the Showa-era fixtures and furniture, making me think, ‘This place might be a nostalgic future,’” she shared. ORITO envisions a future where washi becomes an integral part of our everyday life, and she believes it has already begun in this very place.

 Far from the popular image of a difficult artist, ORITO is truly amicable and affectionate. She led us into her cozy atelier adorned with numerous lights and art pieces on the upper floor. With a laugh, she remarked, “Some people joke that I’m 90% made up of washi.” This playful statement truly reflects her profound connection and attachment to the art of using washi. She delved into an explanation of her artworks, showing the raw materials of washi. Colors and textures can vary based on the type of washi, allowing you to get a real feel for it by seeing and touching the materials.

 I would strongly suggest taking a stroll through at least twice, once during the day and once at night. During the daytime, her artworks appear tidy and well-structured, but in the evening, the space transforms with the soft glow emanating through the washi papers. The thickness of the folded washi adds a unique dimension, making the same art piece look entirely different in the gentle evening light.

Unveiling the Essence of Washi

 Do you know what washi is, by the way? As a Japanese individual, my understanding of washi was quite limited until I had the chance to visit ORITO’s studio. Washi is traditional Japanese paper meticulously crafted by hand, utilizing fibers from the inner barks of three native plants: paper mulberry (楮 kozo), Oriental paper bush (三椏 mitsumata), or gampi shrubs (雁皮). These plants are uniquely indigenous to Japan and play a crucial role in the art of making washi. The inner bark of these trees serves as the raw material for washi, often referred to as ‘Shirokawa’ (白皮 white bark) due to its whitish color. Approximately 80% of washi is made from kozo, with ‘Gampi’ being the least common type of paper.

 The roots of papermaking in Japan trace back to the 7th century when the technique was introduced from China. Initially used for writing scriptures as Buddhism took root across Japan, the papermaking process has evolved, leading to a more refined and perfected form. Washi has been a versatile material for centuries, fulfilling various roles—from writing and everyday items like umbrellas and lanterns to serving as a construction material for shoji (障子screens) and fusuma (襖 Japanese sliding doors).

 It’s not just versatile; it’s eco-friendly. Unlike industrially produced paper, the process only uses new branches cut from trees, which doesn’t require felling the entire tree. Washi is renowned for its longevity, with claims that it can last for a thousand years. Preserved in the Shosoin (正倉院) repository in Nara is the oldest existing Japanese paper, which dates back to the 7th century, showcasing strength and durability unparalleled around the globe. “Essentially, anything written or drawn on Japanese paper with ink will endure for a thousand years into the future,” she explained.

 ”Washi boasts UV resistance, making it perfect for curtains, and it won’t lose its color when exposed to sunlight,” she explained. “Think of it as thin wood – it breathes, avoiding sogginess in high humidity. Remarkably, it’s heat-resistant, capable of withstanding temperatures up to 1200 degrees. While it can’t endure direct flames, I often use it for pot stands and holders. Surprisingly, it doesn’t burn even when a hot pot is placed on it. With these unique properties, I believe I can create anything using washi.”

 Washi proves to be an outstanding building material, as seen in features like shoji screens and fusuma. Not only do they allow in natural light, but they are also UV- resistant, lighter than traditional wooden doors, and adept at insulating against both cold and warm air. Interestingly, it came as a surprise to learn that fishermen in the Tohoku region once wore jackets made from washi. These jackets offered warmth during the winter months and kept them cool in the summer, showcasing the versatile and adaptive nature of washi in the past.

 “I’m very proud of the Japanese washi culture that has been passed down over the years,” ORITO said.

UNESCO Recognition

 As Japan strides into the 21st century, marked by the dominance of modern technologies and machine-made paper prioritizing efficiency in mass production, the demand for washi has unfortunately dwindled. The number of skilled artisans has dropped to fewer than 400 families in the 2000s.

 Despite these challenges, the traditional methods and tools passed down in each production area have seen minimal changes over the years. The “tesuki (手漉き handcrafted)” technique, involving handcrafted papermaking that yields sturdy and beautiful washi, received UNESCO recognition as an Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2014. This acknowledgment brings the dedicated artisans who have preserved this tradition into the spotlight.

 UNESCO granted Intangible Cultural Heritage status to three communities: Misumi-cho in Hamada City, Shimane Prefecture; Mino City in Gifu Prefecture; and Ogawa Town/Higashi-Chichibu Village in Saitama Prefecture. This designation underscores the deep pride these communities take in their tradition of washi-making, considering it a symbol of their cultural identity.

 Even among washi not registered with UNESCO, an exceptional array of rich varieties exists throughout Japan. Echizen paper, Mino paper, and Tosa paper, collectively known as the Japanese Three Great Papers, are specifically certified as traditional crafts by the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry. The registration of washi as an intangible cultural heritage undoubtedly reaffirms the remarkable skills of these artisans, who are the guardians of a tradition dating back to the 8th century, showcasing their wisdom in harmonizing with nature.

 Today, washi is not only esteemed for its resilience but is also admired internationally for its aesthetic appeal. In European art museums, notably thin washi paper is utilized for the intricate restoration of precious paintings. During the 2021 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, one traditional washi was used for certificates, sparking discussions. Furthermore, mitsumata, one of the ingredients in washi, serves as the raw material for Japanese banknotes, demonstrating such resilience that it remains intact even after a cycle in the washing machine.

Hokkaido’s Original Washi, Fukigami

 In ORITO’s workshop, you’ll discover Hokkaido’s unique handmade paper, Fukigami (富貴紙), meticulously crafted by pounding the outer layer of butterbur stems. Even among Hokkaido residents, awareness of its existence has been relatively limited. This mixed paper combines 40% kozo and 60% giant butterbur bark, a local specialty of Onbetsu (音別), a town now part of the Hokkaido city of Kushiro. Giant butterbur grows naturally to a height of 2 meters in this region, which only has a population of 2,000. The outer skin of the butterbur stem, usually discarded when people consume its inner stem, was discovered to possess excellent qualities suitable for crafting unique local washi. Unfortunately, due to profitability concerns, production came to a temporary halt, only to be revived a decade later through the collaborative efforts of the local community.

 “The distinctive characteristics of Fukigami include its elegant thin texture and a beautiful light green color with fibers,” she explained. ORITO is actively involved in promoting the resurgence of this traditional paper.

 She continued, “And this will be the material for today’s workshop. Let’s head downstairs!”

ORITO’s Workshop Journey

 Step into ORITO’s workshop and immerse yourself in the art of crafting lantern shades, earrings, and washi paper flowers that double as diffusers. No worries if you’re not a seasoned crafter—her workshops cater to participants of all ages, including elementary school students, offering projects ranging from simple to intricate, allowing you to fold at your own pace.

 Typically lasting between one to two hours, the working sessions transport you to a different space and time, surrounded by vintage furniture and engaged in serene concentration—a brief escape from the daily hustle and bustle.

 Among the workshop challenges, crafting earrings involves delicately folding a two-centimeter square with tweezers, making it ideal for those comfortable with intricate tasks. Concerned about wearing washi paper earrings outdoors? Fear not—Washi’s excellent durability eliminates worries about outdoor accessory use.

 A personal recommendation is the lantern shade designed for smaller table lamps. While the folding process itself may not be complicated, the enjoyment lies in figuring out how to combine the folded pieces, akin to solving a puzzle. Depending on the folding technique, pieces with varying thickness reveal entirely different expressions when illuminated, casting a gentle light reminiscent of candles. Additionally, ORITO provides battery-powered lights of the perfect size for shades, ready for immediate use upon returning home. This one has become my favorite!

 ORITO’s creations aren’t singular pieces; they comprise several folded components assembled together. After completing the folding process, she provides a small amount of rice and a mini spatula for grinding grains to make rice paste, known as “sokui (続飯 glue).” Historically used as an adhesive for wooden products like Buddhist statues, hanging scrolls, furniture, and architectural elements, it boasts notable features like safety and environmental friendliness. Moreover, the rice paste seamlessly integrates with wood, resists peeling even with changes in temperature and humidity, and is known to last up to 300 years, all attributes which showcase its exceptional qualities. Every piece crafted in ORITO’s studio is composed of materials that return to nature.

 Around the working table, her artworks are gracefully arranged, showcasing the stunning beauty of the pieces. Depending on the materials, some may not be immediately recognized as paper creations. Drawing inspiration from nature, such as snowflakes, flowers, and stars, her creations offer unique expressions from different angles. This includes combinations of several one-centimeter square papers that are meticulously crafted.

 Neatly arranged on the shelves are beautiful items of Japanese pottery and porcelain. With a joyful smile, she mentions, “I sometimes exchange works with other artists.” Visitors often remark that “ORITO’s studio always smells delightful.” After completing the work, she takes pride in brewing delicious coffee in lovely cups, fostering a laid-back atmosphere. Drawing from her previous experience at a renowned coffee shop in Sapporo, she undoubtedly adds a distinctive touch to the studio, creating an inviting space where you can relish shared moments amid a soothing ambiance. Accompanied by a pleasant fatigue, you’ll possess your one-of-a-kind creation.

 The elegant and beautiful creations stemming from her work with washi are beyond imagination. Yet, from all her works, warmth emanates. Sharing the gentle touch of folding washi and immersing yourself in tranquil moments with ORITO and fellow enthusiasts will surely be refreshing and healing. As ORITO mentioned, the time spent folding washi with concentration is a sensation really close to meditation.

 Escape the everyday and dive into the extraordinary. I wholeheartedly encourage you to experience this profound journey and discover the artistic city of Sapporo—a gateway to a new world.