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Takashi Ueda's Kinkarakami

Takashi Ueda's Kinkarakami
Takashi Ueda's quest to carry on the craft of gold-embossed wallpaper


Mr Takashi Ueda first came to know of the craft called Kinkarakawakami (gold-embossed wallpaper) 19 years ago in 1983. It was at a paper museum in Hachioji, Tokyo, one of the birthplaces of Japanese paper. What he discovered there were wooden rollers made from single blocks of cherry wood into which had been carved intricate arabesque and other designs. These rollers were for the woodblock decoration of wallpapers that were made in Japan to mimic gold-embossed calf-skin wall coverings from Europe.

The craft so captivated Mr Ueda that he immediately ended his career of nearly 30 years in art book publishing and threw himself into replicating gold-embossed wallpapers made of washi (Japanese handmade paper). In Feature 008, I would like to introduce this rare craft of gold- embossed wallpapers which reveals a little known relationship between Japan and Europe. Let us also lend a sympathetic ear to a question of critical importance for Mr Ueda now that there is no more renovation work left to be done on the old wallpapers of Japan -- just how he can carry on the techniques of this craft for future generations.

Even on the walls of Buckingham Palace

Let us trace how Japanese craftsmen imitated European calfskin wall coverings in paper and how these were eventually exported to Europe only to fade into oblivion after a decade. Calfskin wall coverings first came into being as a means to stop the bitterly cold drafts entering the stone edifices of the European aristocracy and monasteries. These wall coverings came to be decorated by fixing a metal film on the calfskin, pressing a design onto the skin, fixing it with glue and painting it with gold in a technique known as Spanish leather.

Nobody knows exactly when Spanish leather first arrived in Japan, but the oldest reference to it is contained in a 1662 document called the Tokugawa Jikki. The feudal lords and powerful landowners of Japan, who loved anything novel, started to have their saddlery, scabbards and small cases for personal items made from gold-embossed leather and it was not long before the wealthy, fashion-loving townsfolk of the Edo Period adopted the craft for such accessories as tobacco pouches. Many examples of these can be found in museums and even antique shops in Japan. The person who first tried to adapt the technique of calfskin embossing to the manufacture of wallpapers using washi paper was the talented mid-18th century entrepreneur Hiraga Gennai. Unfortunately it appears that he eventually failed to improve the techniques to the point that would allow for mass production. But in1877, at Japan's first domestic Exposition, it is recorded that some nine manufacturers were making gold-embossed leather- lookalike wallpapers using washi. By this time Japanese artisans had refined the crafts of making very fine strong paper, of carving and printing wood blocks (for ukiyoe), of making very fine gold leaf and of urushi lacquering, finally allowing the craft to become commercially viable.

The 10 years from 1880 were the golden age of kinkarakawakami, as this craft of gold-embossed wallpaper came to be known. At the time, Europe had a paper shortage and British ambassador to Japan, Harry Parkes was assigned the task of surveying paper manufacturing in Japan. Parkes's search resulted in the dispatch of a massive batch of Japanese paper samples back to England, among them kinkarakawakami. The product subsequently made a huge hit in Europe. To keep up with demand the Finance Ministry's printing bureau sponsored the craft, taking over all production. This was the start of the craft's golden era. But it was a short-lived one that lasted a mere 10 years, until about the time that the government finally handed over production to the private sector. From this time on -- at the end of the Meiji Era -- machine-made paper started to be used in the craft, resulting in a drop in quality and a subsequent lack of interest from Europe. Before long kinkarakawakami disappeared from the market altogether.

After the Second World War kinkarakawakami made a brief reappearance, but this time only as wallpaper for official and upper-class establishments in Japan. It was used, for example, in the Diet building (Japan's parliament house) and the VIP rooms of corporations related to the zaibatsu industrial conglomerates as well as the homes of the very wealthy. There was not enough demand to make an industry out of it and few common people even knew it existed. Now, in modern times, Takashi Ueda is the only person who has done anything to reproduce kinkarakawakami or endeavor to preserve its techniques. To this end he continues to devote all his energy.

How is it made?

The process is first to adhere tin foil to washi paper and spray with water. The paper is then wound onto a woodblock roller. One person stands at either end of the roller and together they beat the paper with a pig's hair brush for four to five hours until the design is firmly and evenly applied -- a job of real dedication. All one can hear from the workshop is the constant thwack, thwack, thwack of this work going on. The paper is then dried in the shade. Two layers of backing paper are applied and the surface design is tinted with colored urushi lacquer. A final coating of clear varnish makes the tin foil shine just like gold leaf. In some cases, real gold and silver leaf are actually applied. In such cases the gold leaf is not gaudy, but quiet and elegant, while the silver leaf can be treated to acquire a stylish tarnished look. It takes two weeks to complete a piece of wallpaper of 60 sq cm. At Present Mr Ueda is doing this work with the help of three graduates from the Tokyo University of Arts, Kazuhiro Ikeda, Hiroshi Goto, and Yuhei Nagira, who were each drawn by Mr Ueda's enthusiasm for this craft. Returning briefly to the subject of the cherry wood rollers (diameter about 20cm, length 120cm) that first piqued Mr Ueda's interest, Mr Ueda has since attempted the creation of new designs of his own. This required him first to visit timber yards to search for just the right type of cherry wood for the woodblock rollers and then to commission a shrine carpenter-trained transom carver to carve them. The cost of one roller is no less than 5 million yen. In most cases, however, he borrows the old rollers - of which there are 117 - from the paper museum.

Restorations around Japan

Mr Ueda has been involved in several wallpaper restoration projects until now, including the reception room of the NYK Line Co, Ltd.'s Otaru branch office in Hokkaido (1985), the former Hayashi Home in Okaya City, Nagano Pref. (1991), the Kure Irifuneyama Memorial Pavillion in Kure City, Hiroshima Pref.(1995), Ijohkaku Pavillion in Kobe City, Hyogo Pref. (1999), and the former Iwasaki Home (2002).
Of all of these restorations the most interesting is perhaps the pure Japanese hanare (detached room) of the former Hayashi Home in Okaya, itself a precious legacy of the glory years of the early Japanese silk spinning and weaving industry. The gold-embossed wallpaper is applied to a feature wall and the ceiling of the second floor of this structure. It is open to the public and anyone wishing to visit should call the Education Committee of Okaya City at 81- 266-23-4811.

For Mr Ueda's three apprentices such restoration projects have not been just a matter of acquiring techniques, but a precious opportunity to examine old examples of karakami and try to reproduce them. However there have been very few people interested in having kinkarakawakami made for newly built structures. Two of Mr Ueda's commissions for modern structures have been the VIP room of an arts complex, the Tokyo Geijutsu Gekijo, in West Ikebukuro, and the director's office of the Children's Education Center, but neither place can be viewed by the general public. There is something very special about the beauty of white plaster or cracked earthen walls, and being in a room surrounded by the elegant perfection of Kyoto-style woodblock-printed wallpaper is also a very special feeling, but I wonder if there are no architects interested in applying Mr Ueda's kinkarakawakami to the interior of modern structures. They may find the contrast extremely effective.

The future

Mr Ueda calls the wallpaper he makes using techniques gleaned from the sparse sources available and from his own research and trial and error, kinkarakami, shortening it from the original kinkarakawakami. But if there is no one who wants to use it there is no way to continue making it. It is thought that all the renovations using kinkarakawakami in Japan have now been completed so Mr Ueda's big question is how he can carry these rare techniques on for posterity. He sells small boxes and scrolls and framed examples of kinkarakami at such outlets as the Edo Tokyo Museum shop, but this provides far from enough work for the young apprentices who wish to carry on the trade. All Mr Ueda can do is wait and hope that a chance will come for renovation work overseas or to put the techniques to use in new buildings. Mr Ueda would like to talk to anyone who is serious about acting as an agent for kinkarakami overseas.

(March 2003, Yuko Yokoyama)


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