Kyo Karakami: Traditional Japanese Wood Block Printing With Over 1,000 Years of History
If you have ever spotted elegant patterns on sliding doors or wallpaper in Kyoto, chances are they're “Kyo karakami.” One of the city’s traditional crafts, Kyo karakami is made by applying paint onto wood blocks with traditional Japanese designs and printing them onto paper. To learn more about this exquisite artform, we visited Kyo karakami specialist Maruni, who boast a history stretching all the way back to 1902!
Aug 12 2022
The History of Kyo Karakami
“Karakami” is a decorative paper made using techniques imported from China by Japanese envoys during the Tang Dynasty around 1,300 years ago. At first, the extremely rare karakami paper was only used by a limited number of upper-class people to write letters and poetry.
During the Heian period (794-1185), Japan's first paper mill, Kamiya-in, was established in Kyoto, the capital at the time. Afterwards, patterned karakami began to appear in the city, considered the prototype of Kyo karakami.
Karakami first gained popularity as stationery, expanding to interior decoration as domestic production increased. It found particular popularity as paper screens for sliding doors in residences and temples. During the Edo period (1603-1868), sliding doors adorned with karakami became accessible to the general population, rapidly spreading across the country.
Nowadays, karakami is seen in a wide range of new applications, including wallpaper, lighting fixtures, and art panels in hotels and restaurants. Despite being made in modern times, authentic karakami is still hand printed using 100-year-old techniques.
How Is Karakami Made?
Karakami is a type of print made by applying paint to wood blocks carved with traditional patterns to be hand-printed onto “washi” paper. The density and hue of the paint are adjusted according to the humidity and temperature of the day.
For large prints used in sliding doors, the wood block paint is applied 12 times, making it of utmost importance to avoid misalignment and preserve the uniformity of the pattern. In addition, patterns are printed twice on the same spot to achieve a fuller finish. This means a karakami wood block is applied a total of 24 times to one sheet of sliding door paper, leaving no room for error.
Karakami is made by hand, a delicate process requiring the intuition and experience of professional craftspeople. This yields a uniquely warm, three-dimensional texture that cannot be produced by machine printing, one of its biggest draws.
The Ingredients of Kyo Karakami
・Paint (Funori, Mica, Gofun)
Karakami paints are made by mixing powdered “mica,” a type of crystal found in granite, with “gofun,” a white pigment made from ground sun-dried seashells, along with “funori,” a glue born from dried and boiled seaweed. Mica has an eye-catching luster and milkiness to it, reflecting as elegantly as pearls. Gofun, on the other hand, is favored for its matte finish.
Kyo karakami maker Maruni uses “torinoko” paper for their sliding doors, which is mainly produced in the city of Echizen, Fukui Prefecture. Echizen torinoko is a high-grade Japanese paper made from the gampi plant, which belongs to the thymelaeaceae family. The paper is characterized by its smoothness, shine, and durability.
Printing blocks are created by individually hand-carving traditional patterns onto wood. The designs are carved deeply, allowing craftspeople to apply the patterns by placing paper over the wood block and sliding their hand over it. The wood of the magnolia tree, which is soft, easy to process, and resistant to friction, is used to make these blocks.
A “furui” is a type of sieve unique to karakami. Made from a round wooden frame covered with gauze, it’s used to apply paint onto the wood blocks. Holding the sieve and tapping it gently, the craftspeople can cover the protruding wood block patterns evenly with paint.
The Process of Making Karakami
1. To make the paint, first cook the funori seaweed in water, making sure not to burn it. This will become the adhesive.
2. Strain the funori and mix it with mica, gofun, and other pigments in a mortar.
3. Transfer the paint to the furui with a brush.
4. Using the furui, transfer the paint gently onto the wood block.
5. Place the paper on the wood block. For large sizes such as sliding door paper, the wood block will be pressed 12 times to create a continuous pattern, so the paper has to be aligned carefully along marks made in advance.
6. Slide the palm of your hand over the paper in a circular motion.
7. Transfer more paint onto the wood blocks and reprint the pattern in the same spots.
8. Let it dry naturally to finish.
Designs Reflecting Lifestyles and Historical Backgrounds
Kyo karakami patterns tend to differ depending on the role of the room they’re adorning and the social status of the master of the house. Generally, it’s said that early karakami patterns had a kind of hardness to them, influenced by their continental origin. In comparison, newer karakami patterns from the Edo period onward are softer, incorporating Japanese-style natural phenomena into their aesthetic.
“Yusoku” patterns were used in aristocratic residences because of their elegant, court-inspired motifs and sophisticated designs. Temples, on the other hand, favored large patterns suitable in open spaces and those representing clouds, while the warrior class prefered harder designs that symbolized status and authority. Meanwhile, practitioners of the tea ceremony sought out delicate, refined designs and plant patterns, especially those of the paulownia tree.
As shown in the above "Koetsu Paulownia" pattern, Edo period karakami designs were strongly influenced by the “Rinpa” school of art fostered by Hon'ami Koetsu and Ogata Korin.
The true allure of karakami lies in their patterns providing a window into the historical backgrounds and lifestyles of their time, serving as informative chronicles.
The Meaning of Each Karakami Pattern
Karakami patterns each have their own meaning, often with fascinating origins. Here are some of the designs we encountered at Maruni!
In the first photo above, we see the “marumon” pattern. In Japan, “maru” means “round” or “circle,” and has long been associated with the idea of “harmony” (“nagomi” in Japanese). As such, the pattern is said to represent “peace and harmony amongst people.”
The second photo displays the “sakura” cherry blossom pattern. Cherry blossoms have been adored in Japan for centuries, and it’s said that the “sa” in “sakura” represents the deity of rice fields and "kura" is where the deity resides. As a result, cherry blossoms are said to be connected to good harvests.
The third photo is the “chrysanthemum” pattern. In ancient China, this flower was used as a medicine, and it was believed that drinking chrysanthemum-infused water could cure illness. Naturally, the chrysanthemum came to represent “health and longevity.”
Kyo Karakami Maruni: Handcrafting With Traditional Techniques
Kyo Karakami Maruni, founded in 1902, is a wholesaler of sliding door fittings, paper goods (folding screens, hanging scrolls, frames, etc.), and interior design materials. The company also has its own Kyo karakami workshop, where it produces, sells, and installs sliding door and wallpaper karakami for temples, shrines, tea rooms, and residential houses.
There are only two companies in Kyoto, including Maruni, that manufacture karakami with traditional materials and techniques. Using wood blocks handed down generation to generation, they strive to preserve this traditional craft that has existed in Kyoto since the Heian period. At the same time, Maruni is helping karakami find its place in the modern world amidst contemporary lifestyles.
Over 180 Years Old! Traditional Patterns Passed Down Through 300 Wood Blocks
Maruni currently has around 300 wood blocks in its collection, half of which are still in use. Many were made over a hundred years ago, allowing Maruni to directly import patterns from the past into the modern world.
This is the oldest wood block in Maruni's collection, dating back a whopping 185 years to 1837, and was still in active use until two or three years ago. These priceless wood blocks are lovingly passed down from one artisan to the next, continuously being restored and reused for printing.
Maruni’s Commitment to the Future of Karakami
Maruni considers karakami "interior decoration material," and has developed karakami products that seamlessly blend into modern lifestyles, such as lighting fixtures (lampshades), art panels, and more, along with classics like sliding doors and wallpaper. In addition to traditional establishments like tea rooms and temples, Maruni's paper and reliefs molded from wood blocks are also seen in famous hotels and inns such as Hiiragiya, Hoshinoya Kyoto, The Ritz-Carlton Kyoto, and ROKU KYOTO.
“As is often said, tradition and innovation are equally important,” says CEO Nishimura.
“Tradition refers to the techniques that have been developed and passed down since the Heian period. Karakami patterns are a collection of these accumulated traditions. We would like to continue passing on these materials and techniques that have been used with great care for centuries. Innovation, on the other hand, is using products in ways that meet modern needs and lifestyles. It is equally important to develop products that are easy to use in today’s world. We hope to popularize Kyo karakami while maintaining a balance between tradition and innovation.”
In a world where next-generation printing techniques are being developed with an emphasis on efficiency and low cost, it is all the more important to continue honoring these ancient techniques to ensure they remain unforgotten. Through our visit to Maruni, we’re confident they will lead the way in preserving the soul of Kyo karakami for future generations.
Make Your Own Kyo Karakami at Maruni's Karamaru Facility!
Visitors can casually try their hand at Kyo karakami at Maruni’s “Karamaru” facility. In the postcard-making experience for beginners, you can choose your favorite wood blocks (patterns) and paper, mix your own paints, and enjoy the process of authentic hand printing. In the art panel-making experience, you can use wood blocks that are more than 100 years old! Designing your own personalized souvenir is the perfect way to discover the charm of this ancient Japanese craft!
If you want to give feedback on any of our articles, you have an idea that you'd really like to see come to life, or you just have a question on Japan, hit us up on our Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram!
The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.