Washi, traditional Japanese paper
Washi is a type of traditional Japanese paper. It is characterized primarily by its texture and its appearance: it is made of mulberry fibers, or other types of wood, of varying thickness. It's often called "rice paper" or "tissue paper", incorrectly, as it is not made from the white mulberry tree, on which silkworms are raised, but from the paper mulberry, a different species.
Washi has been used in Japan for more than three hundred thousand years. The manufacturing technique was introduced to the islands in the seventh century AD by Buddhist monks from China.
Today, washi remains a speciality of the Gifu region, where mino washi (its local name) is still made.
There are a large number of different washi (at least four hundred), some white and smooth, other colored and decorative. They are primarily used to make greeting cards or invitations, for origami, calligraphy, and the art of printmaking. Washi also has a special place in Japanese interior design as kakemono (a hanging scroll displaying an image or calligraphy) of shoji walls (perforated panels composed of washi whose structure is wood), or lamps.
To find it, go to any Japanese stationery store.
In the shadow of washi
Washi is part of traditional Japanese aesthetics, its main quality is that it lets in light while hiding what lies behind it: only shadows are visible through this area.
Both crude and refined, transparent and opaque, fragile-looking but strong: the beauty of washi is in its paradoxes, as described in "In Praise of Shadows", an essay on aesthetics by Junichiro Tanizaki, whose principles are still relevant in modern Japan.
Washi is therefore an art material: a simple, poetic and everyday art, visible in the walls and furniture of Japanese houses. It even inspires contemporary designers such as Isamu Noguchi, who uses it to create strangely-shaped lamps inspired by Japanese lanterns, chochin.
There are at least two washi museums in Japan, the first is in Tokyo and the other, lesser known, is in Tsuwano in Yamaguchi Prefecture.
Washi has been recognized as part of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage since November 27, 2014. The authorities hope that its inclusion will help keep alive some parts of Japanese culture that are slowly being abandoned by younger generations.
Japan is also rich in historical and natural world heritage sites classified by UNESCO, which you can find the list of here.