Japanese Stab Binding

The Land of Washi — A Visit to Mino City in Gifu Prefecture, Japan

Last month, my fiancee and I decided to take a whirlwind tour around Japan’s Kansai area. Taking advantage of the relatively weak yen and the affordable JR Tourist Pass for Takayama-Hokuriku region, we had great fun traversing long-anticipated historic and picturesque cities such as Nara, Kyoto, Kanazawa, Gifu, Nagoya and of course, Osaka.

The journey would not be complete without making the necessary pilgrimage to shops selling washi paper and chiyogami. There are big established stores such as Tokyu Hands in most cities selling a wide range of decorative paper products. Fellow bookbinder, ST Leng of Bukurama has a comprehesive blog post on where to look for bookbinding materials and papers in Tokyo.

However, it is also satisfying to look for the source where these papers come from. That reclusive village where great masters gather to make papers in the traditional methods. There are a few such villages / towns in Japan. One of them is Mino City. It is one of the three communities in Japan which still carries out the traditional craft of hand-making paper. The other two being Misumi-cho in Hamafa City and Ogawa Town in Saitama Prefecture. The art of paper making is an elaborate one. It starts from soaking the mulberry plant in clear river water. Through many processes, it concludes with the setting of a thin layer of  fibre on a bamboo screen to make washi paper. This technique is so intricate and well-preserved through generations, it was inscribed in the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2014. Fresh from the exuberance of having a world recognised skill in the old city, there are congratulatory banners everywhere in the city.

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Knowing that Mino City will definitely be worth a visit, we took the route prescribed by the JR pass. Taking a bus from Kanazawa City to Takayama, we passed through the World Heritage Site of Shirakawago Village. The detour was well-worth the effort as the mountainous village still retain its traditional thatched roof architecture. The temperature there was also much colder than the lowlands, which meant that while sakura flowers were in full bloom in Osaka and Kanazawa, there was still snow everywhere in Shirakawago. From Takayama, it was another 1 hour train ride to Mino City.

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The attraction of Mino City is doubtlessly its well-preserved architecture. Due to the success of Mino Washi production, the downtown area flourished to include many large homes lined with Udatsu (decorative fire wall). This area, known as Mino-machi, is located on top of a hill which made it resistant to floods and earthquakes but put it at a distance to the river in case of a fire. There fore, people constructed Udatasu firewalls on both sides of the roof, widened the street and enshrined hibusegami (god of fire prevention) on the roof. Each Udatsu is decorated with the family crests and Mushiko windows (small windows designed to look like butterfly catchers). In the evenings starting mid-October till the end of November, the Udatsu streets are lined with lamps made from Mino Washi. Spotlights shine on the homes while the street glows with the warmth of washi lanterns.Though I missed the lanterns, there are some permanent washi lanterns at the train station as well.

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Almost every other shop in the town sells something related to washi paper. The most comprehensive however, must be the Mino Washi Paper Museum located about 8km outside the city. It contains two main hall, the first hall introduces the history and technique of washi paper made in Mino vis-a-vis those made in other parts of Japan/the world, while the second hall showcases the varied uses of washi in Japanese culture, from screen walls to lacquered paper clogs.

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The other attraction of the museum is the opportunity to learn how to make mino washi. Participants simply had to buy a package ticket from the museum which included admission, hands-on workshop and lunch at the museum restaurant. The total cost per participant is merely 1500 yen and the delicious lunch definitely cost more than this price in bigger cities.

The paper making workshop itself took about 30 min and it involved moving the bamboo sieve (keta in japanese) in a suspended mixture of mulberry fibres over a fine bamboo screen (su). The completed washi paper is then carefully removed using a soft brush and transferred to a hot surface to dry.

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The museum also serves as a showroom of washi paper made by grandmasters. Each of these speciality papers are labelled with details of the master and where his or her workshop is based. Apart from traditional washi, the museum also sells decorative patterned washi as well as tools for paper backing and calligraphy.

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If you are a paper lover and connoisseur, Mino City in Gifu Prefecture is a must-go destination during your next Japan trip!

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Weaving and Binding Pages of History — A Cultural Mapping Approach to Bookbinding

In August 2014, I had the privilege to collaborate with National Arts Council (Singapore) and Georgetown Festival (Penang, Malaysia) to launch a series of art exploration workshops which use cultural mapping techniques to rethink the format of classroom based craft learning.

Weaving and Binding Pages of History was envisioned to bring participants, particularly locals, closer to where they stay and to discover nuggets of history in their neighbourhoods. These nuggets of information are grouped within an umbrella theme (e.g. nature, history, culture, sports, etc) which also serves as the inspiration for them to create personalised covers and structures for the book.

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4 workshops, 2 in Singapore and 2 in Penang were created after a period of research and experimentation with potential book structures and art mediums. These 4 workshops are “Glorious stained glass and tiles in Bras Basah”, “Sacred tree and green spaces in Toa Payoh”, “Stories cast in stone, exploring Georgetown’s Chinese architectural symbolism” and “Penang and its world of spices”. 

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The format of the premise is straight-forward. Participants are first bought on a guided tour around the neighbourhood, understanding the history and culture of the vicinity. Thereafter, the theme for the day was announced and participants are given some time to collect found objects or raw materials to create their unique book. With the gathered items, everyone heads back to the classroom, discuss what and why they had gathered these objects. Then using suitable art mediums, participant create personalised designs on the covers and the book before finally binding the covers and text block together. Each workshop lasts about 4 – 6 hours and there is nary a dull moment in the workshop as each activity component actively engages everyone’s mind and hands. The required energy and input may be much higher than a typical bookbinding workshop but it definitely doubles the satisfaction level as well!

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By engaging participants to immerse in the community, the community will reciprocate by showing its vibrancy. Learning becomes interactive and the workshop becomes a two-way flow of information between the instructor and participants. Without venturing out, participants would not have realised the potential of their surroundings as a form art inspiration and likewise, the instructor would have underestimated the potential of each participant in creating works of art within a short time.

These four workshops have truly opened my eyes to the potential of using cultural mapping techniques even in 1 day craft and bookbinding workshops. In fact, I believed strongly in the potential of art as a community changemaker that I even gave a talk on the potential of simple art and craft as a way for everyone to create “mental maps” and “visual time capsules” for their surroundings!

For more pictures and information, visit my facebook album and see the Bookbinder and Flaneur presentation.

A Set of Rebound Newsletters

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I recently had the opportunity to rebind a set of newsletter from a defunct political party in Singapore. The Barisan Socialis was formed in 1961, and was led by Dr Lee Siew Chor until 1988 when it merged with Workers’ Party. More information can be obtained from Wikipedia if you are interested.

I will not delve much into the party’s history as I would like to focus on the rebinding of the set of newsletters. It contained 100 issues of the party’s newsletter spanning from 1961 to 1964. The newsletters were bound in four sets of soft Kraft paper covers and secured with three metal staples along margins of its long edge. As expected, the staples rusted over the years and the metal oxide deposits had caused the surrounding paper to be stained with a ring of orange rust. The punctured areas had also became friable and in some newsletters, the holes were enlarged and no longer held by the metal staples.

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Other defects included frayed edges along the fore edge of the bound volumes and damaged book spines. Cellophane tape was also used to hold the volumes together and these had become stiff and stained over the years.

The first step in rebinding the volumes involved removing all the metal staples and cutting away the damaged spines, leaving loose sheets consisting of individual newsletters and original volume covers. Cellophone tapes were then removed carefully, particularly in areas where tape was used to patch long tears, in order to prevent further damage to the pages. These were then backed with a thin almost translucent Kozo paper. Thankfully there were few tears and the tears appeared on volumes which were printed single sided using silkscreen.

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Volumes were then bounded with new cards with colours complementary to the original covers. The two new cards, one on either ends, serve as end papers to the new book block. The entire stack was then bored through using a fine 0.5mm drill bit. The new holes were made about 1cm adjacent to the original staple holes. Reusing the previously stapled holes was not an option as the surrounding paper had became friable due to the rusting.

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The newsletters were then stitched up in Japanese Stab Binding style. The perforations followed the original positions of the staples in the new exposed binding along the long edge. Two styles were adopted. First, the binding was left exposed on the end papers. Second, the stab binding was covered by end papers.

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Four original cover designs

A new buckram hard cover was then attached to the completed book block. Similar to the end papers, colours of the buckram was chosen to complement the end papers and the original soft covers. To differentiate between the four volumes, an embossed pattern was made on each of the covers. The pattern consist of the defunct party emblem and the sequence number of each volume from 1 to 4. All these embossed patterns were drawn and cut by hand.

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After each of the four book blocks were cased in, they were left in the nipping press overnight to ensure that the end papers have been firmly attached to the covers.

It had been a hectic March for me with the two bookbinding workshops and other work activities. It did affect the progress of rebinding this set of rare newsletters. Nonetheless I am glad it is completed and the four volumes will hopefully be kept in good reading condition for a long while more.

Bookbinding Workshops in Feb!

Interested to learn Japanese Stab Binding? Join The Thistle Bindery‘s Feb workshops. Learn a new skill and contribute to a good cause at the same time.
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Proceeds from [A Bookbinding Cause] series of workshop will be donated to Loving Heart (http://www.lovingheartjc.org/).

For more information, refer to:
15 Feb (Sat) Exposed Japanese Stab Binding:https://www.facebook.com/events/411104112368258
16 Feb (Sun) Hidden Japanese Stab Binding: https://www.facebook.com/events/244849042343365