The Karakami Paper of Karacho

What is the Karakami Paper of Karacho?

Karacho and Kira Karacho were founded in Kyoto in 1624. We are the only karakami studio to continuously remain in business over the last four centuries since the beginning of the Edo Period, preserving and disseminating the culture of karakami paper as we hand-press sheets of washi paper one at a time onto the woodblocks handed down over generations to produce traditional fusuma sliding doors and wallpaper, restore the cultural assets of shrines and temples, and even create contemporary art.

Today, karakami artist Toto Akihiko and his wife, Senda Aiko, the 13th studio master, carry on the legacy of Karacho culture in Saga, Kyoto (Arashiyama). With a distinctive esthetic, we create the time and space in which people can partake of the three essentials of food, clothing, and shelter. Seeking to enrich people’s lives through the beauty of colors and patterns, we engage in our craftsmanship, presenting products made with materials besides washi paper and in collaboration with others.

The History of Karacho

Karacho was founded in Kyoto in 1624. It is the only karakami studio to have continuously carried on the techniques and traditions of karakami paper over the last four centuries. Karacho’s first studio master, Choemon, was originally a samurai warrior from the north. As a warrior, he was tasked with guarding the palace of a retired emperor, but he renounced his samurai status to become a karakami-shi (a karakami craftsman). While working with Honami Koetsu, who established an art village, he also got involved in the production of the Saga books (Sagabon), together with Suminokura Soan and Koetsu, who lived in Saga. Choemon’s descendants inherited and carried on his work with karakami paper. In 1681, while Choemon was still alive, the third studio master took up his residence in Higashinoto-in Sanjo-sagaru, and for the next three centuries and 10 generations of studio masters, up until 1970, Higashinoto-in served as Karacho’s production base.

We relocated our base from Shugaku-in to Saga (Arashiyama), Kyoto in 2022, where we have carried on our mission of preserving and passing on the karakami culture.

What is Karakami Paper?

Karakami is the beautiful decorative paper made by using woodblocks to hand-print patterns onto Japanese washi paper. It is said to have originated in the Heian Period (794 – 1185) when it was used for writing poetry, and there are descriptions of karakami paper in texts from the period such as The Pillow Book and The Tale of Genji.

As architectural styles changed in the Kamakura (1185 – 1333) and Muromachi (1336 – 1573) periods, karakami began to be used for interior decorations such as partitions (tsuitate), byobu folding screens, fusuma sliding doors, and wallpaper. During the Edo Period (1603 – 1867), the use of karakami developed into a culture widely appreciated not only by shrines and temples, but also by samurai warriors, the court nobility, merchants, tea masters, and others.

The beauty of the shades of karakami paper is worthy of special mention, and the Kokinwakashu and Sanjurokkasen, which were made using techniques such as kirabiki and kirazuri, have transcended the ages as treasures of Dynastic Period (8th – 12th centuries) art and shining examples of Japanese beauty.

600 Woodblocks Handed Down Through Generations

More than 600 woodblocks have been handed down over the many generations of Karacho’s karakami makers. A large fire destroyed most of the woodblocks in 1788, but the studio continued to operate while running other businesses, such as a medicine wholesale store, and the woodblocks were remade. A precious woodblock carved immediately after the great fire remains to this day, with the inscription “11th month of the third year of Kansei” (1791) written on the back in ink. According to old documents, 13 karakami studios existed in Kyoto around 1839. Many of their woodblocks were destroyed by fire in the Hamaguri Gate Rebellion of 1864, but Karacho miraculously managed to protect its woodblocks from the infernal violence, and they have been carefully passed down ever since as a legacy from the Edo Period (1603 – 1867), passing through many additional hardships of war and natural disasters along the way.

The First Karakami Studio,
Master Choemon, and the Saga Books

The Saga books (Sagabon), also known as the Koetsu books or Suminokura books, were published in Saga, Kyoto in the early Edo Period with the aim of reviving the culture of the Dynastic Period. The result of cooperation between Suminokura Soan, who contributed to the development of the economy and culture of the early modern period, Honami Koetsu, who was considered to be the founder of the Rimpa school of painting, and Tawaraya Sotatsu, the books are early examples of publications printed with movable type.

Characterized by the flowing elegance of the text and the shades of the karakami paper, the Saga books are considered the most beautiful books in the history of Japanese publishing. As a testing ground for original designs featuring waves, running water, bamboo, ivy, pampas grass, butterflies, and deer, the Saga books enabled the development of karakami culture to make dramatic leaps forward in terms of both quantity and quality. Both the first karakami studio master Choemon and Karacho are said to have been involved with these Saga Books.

Karacho, which passed down the karakami techniques developed in the production of the Saga books, still retains many of the patterns connected to Koetsu and the Rimpa school, and the making of karakami in Saga was a groundbreaking activity that influenced later generations. We also feel a mystical connection with the fact that the current Karacho is based in Saga.

Karakami-shi—The Artists/Craftsmen

Having inherited Karacho in Saga, Kyoto, karakami artists Toto Akihiko and Senda Aiko have been sharing the beauty of karakami with the modern world in a continuation of the family business that has carried on for 13 generations.

During the Edo Period, Karacho was based in the Higashinoto-in Sanjo area, where karakami craftsmen enthusiastically displayed their talents. Records from the Tenpo Era (1830 – 1845) show the names of 13 karakami studios, and a Kyoto shopping guide published in 1833 mentions three karakami craftsmen, only one of whom—the one from Karacho—received the honorific prefix “Go.”

Karacho maintained its position as Kyoto’s foremost karakami studio even in the Meiji Era (1868 – 1912) by protecting its woodblocks from the fires of the Hamaguri Gate Rebellion in 1864, and continued its work, including producing karakami for the Imperial Court. The market for karakami declined as Japan modernized and people’s lifestyles changed. Many karakami studios went out of business, and the names of karakami craftsmen faded away. Even in Karacho, the notation “karakami-shi” (karakami craftsman) gradually disappeared, but in July 2011, Toto Akihiko, who aims to restore karakami culture, restored the title with a new meaning  of “karakami artist.”

The Heisei Reiwa no Hyakumonyo Project
(the 100 Patterns of Heisei and Reiwa)

The Heisei Reiwa no Hyakumonyo Project (the 100 Patterns of Heisei and Reiwa) aims to create a history of tradition and succession—as well as circulation and rebirth—by spreading karakami culture and Japanese culture. It seeks to be a sustainable cultural project that will be meaningful to Kyoto 100 years from now. We believe that tradition is not only about inheriting the past. True succession can only come about if one plants seeds for the future. We are working with various creators and brands to create 100 new woodblock pieces to add to the 600 woodblocks that we have received from past generations. Each one of these new contributions will tell a story of our prayers and wishes for the present.