Shikishi (Paper For Japanese Calligraphy)

There are many kinds of washi (paper) used for Japanese brush calligraphy.

Shikishi, or "beautiful leaf", is a paper medium used especially for writing haiku or waka poetry, and painting. Shikishi are often brushed and given as gifts to commemorate the building of a new home, or for the presentation of a poem, an autograph, or a collection of signatures or writings (yosegaki) from a group of people bidding congratulations or farewell. Shikishi is also used by famous actors and other celebrities when giving formal autographs. They can stand alone, be created in sets, or joined together to create a set as seen in works dating back to the 10th century.

To appreciate shikishi, it helps to understand the role of papermaking in the Japanese culture. As with many elements of Chinese culture, knowledge of the craft of papermaking came to Japan by way of Korea, which was an active trading partner with Japan. In the 6th century A.D., the introduction of Buddhism and manuscripts on paper of its texts by Korean monks revolutionized Japanese culture, and writing and paper became necessities. The art of papermaking spread throughout twenty provinces by 770 A.D.

To escape the overwhelming influence of Buddhism and its powerful monks, the seat of the aristocracy moved to Heiankyo (now known as Kyoto). With the ushering in of the Heian era, the aristocracy introduced a refinement in culture. Paper became the means for craftsmen to reflect that genre and poetic mood. Paper technology began to surpass all previous methods. Mulberry replaced hemp as the fibre of choice, producing a large number of paper varieties used by nobles and monastics. By 807, the government established the Kanya-in Mill on the Kanya River. The best craftsmen were brought to the region to perfect the art of shikishi.

Shikishi was born of the traditional nagashizuki (floating of fibers) method, which perfected the former "still water on the sieve" method. With the new technique, the desired thickness of a sheet was created by the repeated lamination of very thin sheets, each formed by dipping into the fibrous mixture. The repeated dippings allowed for the overlaying of different colours and pulps. The effect produced was a vision of swirling water or clouds on colored backgrounds.

As the name "beautiful leaf" implies, leaves and flowers were included in between some sheets, as well as gold and silver leaf, mica and other decorative elements. The demand for shikishi and decorated papers grew with the blossoming of poetry and literature during the Heian era, and each province became known for its own particular papers.

The traditions of shikishi grew as papers were collected and traded for poetry writing, oftent presented as gifts among the Heian nobility.

Present day shikishi, though slightly different in size (10.8 x 9.5 inches), is stiff and thick, plain white or decorated with pale patterns, or speckled with metallic flecks. The nagashizuki technique is still in use today, allowing for the production of large sheets of paper with an even distribution of pulp.

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