Julia’s journey to Japan

In March this year I applied for the ICCROM and NRICPT Japanese Paper Conservation course, which has been held for the past 20 years. I was overjoyed when I found I had been selected as one of the ten students from around the world to attend the course in Tokyo. Reading the accounts of past participants online including Elizabeth Hepher and Emma LeCornu, I was intrigued by how useful and practical their experiences had been. The amazing programme is relevant to anyone preserving and caring for a collection such as the Chester Beatty Library.


Participants watching a demonstration, and Julia enjoying the first days of the course.

The Japanese Paper Conservation course is known amongst paper conservators internationally as one of the best opportunities available to learn traditional Japanese conservation techniques and the proper use of Japanese tools and papers. It is exceptionally well organised and has been refined over the years to give participants a truly amazing learning experience.The main practical component of the course was the opportunity to make a hand scroll (makimono) from start to finish. Each step of the process was carefully demonstrated by the teachers (Senior Conservator Makoto Kawabata, Chief Conservators Atsushi Ogasawara and Keigo Hotta).


Tutors of the course, Atsushi Ogasawara and Makoto Kawabata, with our translator Michiko Matsubara.


Atsushi Ogasawara using a Uchibake pounding brush.

The two honshi (main art works) selected by the organisers to make our model scrolls were printed pages from the famous Ogura Hyakunin Isshu (an anthology of 100 poems by 100 poets). To mount them in a scroll format we attached three different linings to the honshi before joining them together. We did the same on the tail paper which attached to the honshi and later attached to a bamboo roller. An indigo-dyed cover was attached to protect the scroll and tied around it with a silk plaited ribbon. Each step is crucial to making the hand scroll. The use of lining papers with their different properties and different glues (aged paste furu-nori or fresh paste shi-nori) was essential to understanding the construction process of these objects and therefore their deterioration. Furu-nori has a weak adhesion power, however it is commonly used in scroll construction because of the flexibility it imparts to the lined paper. Careful pounding of the paper with uchibake is required after using the furu-nori to help the bond between the papers.

Having spent a week at the Restorient studio in Leiden in August 2013, I was familiar with the low tables Japanese conservators work on, the lining technique using the hikkake bamboo stick and some of the tools that we used during the practical work in Tokyo such as the karibari drying board. However, watching the elegance, the grace and most importantly the precision that went into the tutors’ every movement at each step of the process helped consolidate and deepen my knowledge of the Japanese approach to conservation. It was really special being able to enjoy all the demonstrations executed before us and have each of the processes broken down and explained in detail by masters in the field. I now have a far better understanding of the construction of these complex structures.


Preparing to attach the indigo-dyed cover, and the finished scroll.

The respect the Japanese have for their material is obvious and I have also learned a great deal about caring for the tools that surround us daily. Cleaning and taking care of brushes (bake) and paste bowls (noribon), using the spatula against the sieve the correct way to avoid widening the fine horse hair structure when sieving the paste, cooking paste and sharpening knives, all need great care and patience.


A nadebake brush and roll of the coarse hemp bristles it is made from.

On the penultimate day of the course the Tanaka brush makers gave us an in-depth lecture on Japanese hake brushes used in conservation, the specifics of each type of hair (goat, deer, horse, badger and many others!) and how to take care of them properly.

It takes ten years of training to become a conservator in Japan so I am far from being an expert after my three weeks on this course, but it will certainly help with my conservation choices regarding Japanese objects and when applying Japanese techniques.

It was also a real treat to visit the town of Mino during our study tour, which is widely known as one of the best paper producing towns in Japan. Japanese paper is used daily in most conservation studios around the world and has been for some time. Mino paper has recently been added to Unesco’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.


A beautiful demonstration at Minotakekami Kobo papermakers.

The visit to Minotakekami Kobo papermakers gave me great insight into the art of papermaking. I had seen a number of short films on Japanese papermaking over the years but watching the process live in front of my eyes was really special. The papermakers discussed bamboo screen fabrication, the traditional preparation of the kozo bark into paper pulp and the sheet formation (movement of the pulp on the screen) and finally demonstrated the drying process on wooden boards.


A freshly formed sheet of paper, and sorting the finished sheets by quality and weight.

I was particularly interested in the upstairs room where the paper was stored on shelves in batches and the quality and weight checked before it was sold. Sadly we could not see more of Mino because a typhoon was threatening to come our way and it was decided to leave for Kyoto sooner than we had previously planned.Kyoto is a beautiful and fascinating city and spending more time there was not a problem. There are more temples in this city than you can imagine and they are all worth a visit. The Kinkaku-ji temple, or Golden Pavilion, was absolutely breathtaking in the bright autumnal light.


During our organised tour I particularly enjoyed the visit to the knife shop. Kanetaka Hamono Shinise’s knives are handmade in their workshop at the rear of the shop. The business and craftsmanship has been passed down through a number of generations and I could not resist buying a handmade marubocho knife. We had perfected the use of this knife to cut lengths of paper during the course and I brought one back to our studio in Dublin.


In the workshop of Kanetaka Hamono Shinise.

On my very last day in Japan I spend a few hours in the Tokyo National Museum before dashing off to the airport. As I reflected on my three weeks in Japan I realised how privileged I had been to be involved in this prestigious curriculum. I have learned so much that I can re-use in my work, met incredible people (both organisers and students) and hopefully will visit Japan again in the near future. Someone from the course said that if you see Mount Fuji once, you will return to Japan seven times. I didn’t see Mount Fuji during my travels but I would happily return seven times!

Julia Poirier, book and paper conservator

If you would like to learn more about Japanese conservation techniques, join Sydney Thomson from the Restorient Studio who will give a lunchtime lecture on Thursday 15th October at 1.10pm in the lecture theatre at the Chester Beatty Library on the conservation of the Tale of Oeyama.