Washi Stories

Asakusagami with Melancholy
-Thinking about the Craftsmen in Edo-

Do you know that washi was being made at the center of Tokyo in the past?
Washi is usually made in the depths of the mountains.
The reasons of its location are “transportation” and “water”.
Kozo, the main material of washi, grows on the mountains.
After harvesting kozo, transport can be costly unless washi is manufactured near the mountain.
Also, “water” is essential to make washi.
Especially, pure and clean water is the best.
A variety of processes are required to make washi, such as harvesting the materials, transporting, and papermaking.
To conduct these processes in one place, and because the materials are nearby, the best place to make washi is in the mountains.
In the Edo period, however, washi was made at the center of the Edo city.
There were various kinds of washi.
For example, “Asakusashi”, made by recycling used washi, was being manufactured in Asakusa, Taito-ku.
In Koishikawa, Bunkyo-ku, the washi for the core of mizuhiki was being produced.
When we take a look at the papermaking map, made in 1875, we can find that washi was also being made in Ichigaya and Mita.

In this article, I would like to introduce the sites where “Asakusagami” was manufactured around Asakusa.
Asakusagami is recycled washi made from used account books and tissue paper.
It was not white but gray or black washi.
It was used as toilet paper or reused as tissue paper.
So, Asakusagami was not the type of washi to write something on but to use as an everyday item.
The wastepaper was collected by vendors. Then it was soaked in water and remade (called “sukikaeshi”) to be Asakusagami.
It was said that “the tissue paper to blow my nose must be from Ueda or Asakusa” due to the advanced technique of the craftsmen or because the quality of the original paper was good.
Asakusagami was first created around Kaminarimon 1-chome (the current name).
This place is written on the old map as “Kamisuki-cho”.
These are the sentences written in “Asakusa-ku Shi” (the history of Asakusa-ku), published in 1914: “Tawara-machi 1-chome and 2-chome used to belong to Senzoku-go, Haketa-ryo. While Hirosawa and Nitta were the lords, these places were rice fields and property of Sensoji Temple. However, the farmers made paper to make their living during the off-season, so the area was called Kamisuki-cho (papermaking town).” Currently, Tawara Elementary School is built there. We can’t find any ruins, but there is a sign that says it was previously Kamisuki-cho.

Papermaking in this area was the most flourishing in the Genroku Era.
Also, in the explanation of the old place’s name, it is written that people were making paper.
During the Edo period, the places around Kaminarimon were gradually urbanized and became more tourist friendly as time went by. Consequently, the papermaking town moved to Yamaya, the backside of Asakusa.
We can find the place’s name came from washi making in Yamaya even now.
That is “Kamiarai-bashi” (paper washing bridge).
This still remains as the name of the intersection. There was a monument for the bridge used from the Edo period to the beginning of the Showa period, but now it has been renewed after construction.
Yoshiwara is near Yamaya.

Do you know that the origin of “hiyakashi” is Asakusagami?

 When I saw her, I thought I wanted to be with her.  But I’m going home after looking at prostitutes.  In this sleepless town, the sound of beating kozo comes from Yamaya.  When the play of Japanese harp stops, I hear this sound from Yamaya.

From this senryu (a humorous poem), we can imagine the scene that the sound of beating paper materials is echoing intermittently, making this man feel lonely.
By the way, a lot of paper was used in Yoshiwara.
This wastepaper was collected by ragmen and recycled to Asakusagami.
The craftsmen bought the wastepaper at higher prices than other ones, so ragmen in Yoshiwara made a lot of money.
However, people in other places did not like the paper because to them it seemed unclean, so the paper was returned to Yoshiwara again.
It is not difficult to imagine. (from Kyodoshi Tokyo, Vol. 2(12)).
(By the way, the head family of Shinoda had been running a licensed quarter “Osahimero” in Iida, Nagano until the beginning of the Showa period.)
Various histories can be seen on just a piece of paper, which makes me think about the Edo period.
(Rakugo also has a unique story “Kamikuzuya” (wastepaper ragmen).)
Sumidagawa River is near Kaminarimon and Yamaya.
It is clear that water was always important for papermaking.

“Chic” or “Gauche”? What is “Hiyakashi”
-An Anecdote with Washi-

Do you know that the word “hiyakashi” (only looking and not buying things in the store) came from “Yoshiwara” and “washi”?
In the Edo period, it was common all over Japan to reuse washi.
Washi is traditional Japanese paper, which was really expensive at the time.
It was reused for luxury goods or “otoshigami” (toilet paper).
This was the same in Asakusa.
As shown on the map, people were making paper around Asakusa and Tawara-machi during those days.
The area around Kaminarimkon 1-chome, Taito-ku was called “Kamisuki-cho” (papermaking town). The place gradually moved to Sanya and Hashiba, which were located behind Sensoji Temple, and later moved to Senju and Adachi-ku.
The paper made in Asakusa was called “Asakusa-gami”.
Craftsmen were tearing up the used paper and soaking it in water.
This process was called “hiyakashi” (cooling down).

It took a long time (24 hours) to complete this process.
The craftsmen didn’t have anything to do until it was finished.
Then they went to Yoshiwara (the red-light district near their place) to kill time.
However, they didn’t have much money.
So instead, they would just look at some oiran (prostitutes) and fantasize relationships with them.
The Oiran knew about this, so they made fun of the craftsmen, like “Oh, here come the ‘hiyakashi’ people!”
This is the origin of the word “hiyakashi”.
How did oiran know who were craftsmen? It was clear when they looked at their feet.

In the Edo period, Yoshiwara was surrounded by rice fields.
Rich people and lords usually went there by ship, so their tabi (Japanese socks) and kimonos were white and clean.
However, the craftsmen didn’t have enough money to ride on ships.
They always walked to Yoshiwara, which made their feet dirty.
This is why oiran knew who craftsmen were.
Even now, “hiyakashi” is used to express attitudes such as just criticizing the things in the store even though they won’t buy them or making fun of someone for something embarrassing.
This story makes us feel familiar to washi, doesn’t it?