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The yuton of Teruo and Tomomi Makino
The yuton of Teruo and Tomomi Makino

How the surface of the yuton gleams
Even reflecting the pillars
Takahama Kyoshi

It was after coming across this haiku poem by Takahama Kyoshi that I first started to wonder about yuton. I found out that yuton were made of paper, but what sort of paper product could have a surface so shiny that it would even reflect the pillars inside a house. I wanted to see one for myself, so I went looking.
First of all I tried to find out something more about them. The Kojien dictionary briefly defines a yuton as a mat made of sheets of paper glued together and coated in oil or urushi lacquer which is used as a floor covering in summer. The Washi Bunka Jiten (Paper Culture Dictionary) by Wagamido Publishers, says something very similar only adding that some yuton have pictures painted on them. The Parkes* Nihonshi Chosa Hokoku ("Japanese Paper Study Report") names Yamato (Nara) as a major place of yuton production. His "Trading Notes" list places where yuton were made as Nonoguchi in Yoshino, Nara Pref., Fukui City and Tojiki-gun, Fukui Pref., Chita-gun, Aichi Pref., Kitagamahara-gun, Niigata Pref., Kumagaya in Saitama Pref., and also Tokyo. So I was able to learn that yuton were once made in various parts of Japan.


*Harry Smith Parkes was British envoy to Japan in 1856. He made a detailed study of all the paper products being made in Japan at the time and the samples he collected are now held at the Victoria and Albert Museum as the Parkes Collection. The Collection also contains a small sample of a yuton.



I gradually came to understand that yuton were cooling devices used in houses before the advent of air conditioners. The yuton not only looked cool, but because of their high permeability they also actually helped bring down the body heat. But the process of making a yuton is so labor intensive, and employs such high quality paper that only wealthy families and exclusive inns could afford them. A well cared-for yuton will change color in 3-4 years to a deep caramel and from then on is durable enough to last 70-100 years. It is also one of those splendid products that just gets more beautiful with age. I felt as though I had encountered a washi craft of rare beauty and depth.

Only one shop remains in Japan that makes yuton any more -- the scroll mounting shop Beniya Koyodo in Sabae City, Fukui Prefecture. The master craftsman there is Mr Teruo Makino. His son Tomomi works with him to make yuton as a side business. I went to their shop and they showed me part of the yuton making process. The Makinos only make yuton once a year, between April and June, and I was extremely lucky to be there just as they were starting on a six-mat one -- their only yuton for the year. Yuton are a lot of trouble to make and require a large space inside as well as roof space to dry, which is one reason why the number of people making them has dwindled so dramatically. But another reason that yuton have disappeared from our lives is the unbearable nature of the Japanese summer. If you live in the city, it is like a furnace outside, with no relief to be gained by opening a window. As a result, people find they can no longer live without air conditioning. Of course we all know that this is not good for our own health, let alone being bad for the environment. But first let me give you some idea of how the Makinos transform raw sheets of handmade paper into beautiful floor coverings.



The thud of the brush

Stepping into the workshop I hear a rhythmic thudding that seems almost to reverberate through my body. Going up to the second floor I find Mr Makino's son, Tomomi, pounding the edges of a sheet of pure white paper spread out on the floor with a thick brush.
The process of making a yuton begins by coating a sheet of handmade washi paper, which acts as the base of the mat, with persimmon juice and then pasting down several layers of umbrella making paper made of 100 percent paper mulberry. This is done by joining the 70 x 50 centimeter sheets of umbrella paper side by side on the base and beating them to make each adhere firmly. The thick beating brush used for this job is made of hemp palm. Sitting on his haunches, the craftsman needs considerable strength and stamina to keep up this beating action, bringing the brush down firmly and strongly perpendicular to each sheet. The beating action forces the fibers of one sheet of paper to actually meld with the next, which is the secret behind the yuton's overall strength.

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The craftsmen paste together about 13-15 layers to make a yuton. One person applies glue while the other pastes down and beats, a job that requires skill and precise team play. And there is no room for error in the amount of glue applied to each sheet. This has been the wives job for generations. The one who pastes down the paper must stand on top of it to work. He cannot do this barefoot because any sweat would damage the surface, and he cannot wear slippers because they do not have enough traction. The footwear of choice is sandals made of bamboo skin.
There is a fine art in ensuring that each piece fits as perfectly as possible without any overlap at the edges -- a skill in which Mr Makino was trained endlessly by his father. Even with a mat as big as eight-mat size -- 360 centimeters square -- Mr Makino can keep his overlap within 3 mm. Quite an achievement. And he does this without drawing a single line to keep the paper straight, just using his eyes and his craftman's instinct to guide him. They say in handcraft that the simpler the task, the harder it is to do well, and this is certainly the case with yuton. Such precision is indeed the very basis of fine hand craft.

Red strips at the window

The number of layers of washi paper used depends to some extent on the ply of the paper but usually 13-15 are layered, after which the whole mat is coated with perilla oil by hands with a piece of cloth. The perilla oil needs to be heated and is very hot to touch when applied. Two applications of the oil on the surface while the underside is lightly coated with persimmon juice.

Then comes one of the hardest parts of the whole process: carrying this bulky 10-square-meter sheet of oil-soaked paper up onto the roof to dry. The Makinos aim for a day that is supposed to be fine and then three of them lug the heavy yuton up onto the roof. This is one reason why they try to finish making all their yuton before the rainy season sets in, in June. They have experienced having a yuton slip off the roof and becoming damaged too badly to repair. Another enemy is birds. Damage from bird droppings cannot be repaired. So they hang strips of red cloth from a wire stung up on the roof to keep the birds from landing and after that just pray that there are no droppings from above.
Even in the windows of the workshop they have hung strips of red cloth --also to stop birds coming in, since they must work with the windows open. However the Makinos tell me that now that they are getting older they have started trying to dry the yuton as much as possible indoors.
When autumn arrives people who own yuton usually roll them up and put them away until the following summer. When they are unrolled again in the summer they are likely to curl up at the edges and trip people, so special metal pieces have been devised to hold the edges down. This will not happen with a well-made yuton, however, which are made with only the very best washi paper and well soaked with oil. The Makinos sometimes repair used yuton. The yuton they have handled range from ones that are still entirely unblemished, to ones that are ragged and full of holes. The life of a yuton certainly depends on the amount of care they receive.

 

The yuton that the Makinos make fit perfect over tatami mats and do not curl up at the edges. Mr Makino showed me a yuton that has been used for 30 years. He had just brought it out and opened it up on the floor the day before I came. It was perfectly aligned and lay flat on the tatami where it reflected the green of the garden and the sunlight in its shiny surface. I had never seen a paper product like this before. Finely woven wisteria mats that have a patina of age are extremely beautiful objects, as are clear-lacquered solid zelkova wood floors but I must say there is nothing quite as lovely as the yuton for covering the floor in a tatami room.
When Mr Makino was a child his parents were always telling him never to nap on the yuton because he would catch cold, and several years ago Fukui TV did a test that showed that yuton were indeed as much as 2 degrees colder than room temperature. I am constantly amazed by the powers of washi.

 

To continue making or not

I got the impression from talking to Mr Makino and his son that they feel there is not much point in making yuton anymore now that there is so little demand for them. Of course this is partly because it is such a great deal of trouble to make them, but also because potential purchasers tend to be put off by all the trouble that is needed to care for them especially in the first few years. The yuton should be wiped down at least once every two days, ideally wiping it with a special cloth bag containing rice bran, and it should not be left out when it gets cool at the end of the summer. You cannot drop water on a yuton in the early years without drying it immediately to prevent stains, nor put heavy furniture on it, to prevent dents. But after a while, the once pale yuton turns caramel. After that you can drop water or place heavy furniture on it as much as you like without worrying. Like anything else made by hand, care of the yuton is a two-way street with the user expected to play his or her part in bringing out its true beauty through careful use. All I can say is I hope that enough people come to appreciate the wonders of this excellent craft so that it will continue to survive and prosper.


 

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