Exploring Kyoto’s ancient traditions of pattern-making – 2: Karakami


For over two centuries, Japan’s only point of contact with European nations was the tiny man-made island of Dejima. Lying only a few metres offshore in Nagasaki harbour, Dejima was connected to the mainland by a heavily guarded bridge, whose purpose was to control the passage of those goods permitted by the Japanese authorities. Anything else – including the Dutch traders who inhabited the island, or their Christian religion in the form of bibles or religious artefacts – had to stay on the island, except for officially sanctioned delegations.


Dejima still exists, although it has long since become land-locked by Nagasaki’s expansion into land reclaimed from the harbour, and is now surrounded by skyscrapers and busy freeways. The buildings and gardens have been restored to their appearance in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, giving the visitor a fascinating insight into the living conditions of the Dutch traders. The most senior of these was the Captain, whose quarters were by far the most spacious and well-appointed on the island. The first-floor suite includes a drawing room and dining room furnished with European furniture, the walls and ceilings covered with block-printed papers. These are not imported European wallpapers, however, but examples of the Japanese craft of karakami: older than wallpaper and still practised today in at least two Kyoto workshops.


Most commonly, karakami are used to cover sliding doors or fusuma, which are constructed as a wooden lattice covered with up to six layers of washi (Japanese paper) beneath the decorated kara-kami surface. These are seen in tea houses, temples and traditional style dwellings. Karakami are also used like wallpaper to cover entire walls, though not usually as extensively as at Dejima. Generally they are used sparingly, in keeping with the ‘less-is-more’ aesthetic of Japanese interiors. Karakami also have smaller-scale applications such as bookbinding, and recently the patterns have found their way onto a variety of modern artefacts using less traditional printing technologies.


In Kyoto’s Takatsuji-Dori I was welcomed to the showroom of the Maruni Company by gallery manager Ayaka Satoh, who showed me many examples of their products and some historic printing blocks dating from the Edo period. Unfortunately their workshop was closed for annual leave at the time of my visit, however a fascinating video of the process is available on their web-site:



To a western student of wallpaper printing, the remarkable feature of karakami is that, while the materials and techniques are in many ways recognisable, the process  appears to be an ‘upside down’ version of European block-printing (although in view of karakami’s antiquity it would probably be more correct to say that the Western technique is inverted.) In karakami, the block is stationary and face-up. It is inked using a colour sieve, but the sieve is held in the hand and dabbed onto the printing surface. Gentle hand pressure is all that is required to transfer the pattern to the paper, and repeats are printed by repositioning the block under the paper, rather than the other way round.

Like other Japanese crafts, karakami seems to have undergone very little technical development since its inception. This is made very clear in a documentary about Kenkichi  Senda, the 11th generation of his family to practice the craft in the Karacho workshop in Kyoto, established in the seventeenth century. The responsibility of maintaining this awe-inspiring pedigree drew him to leave a conventional 20th-century career to take over the mantle of the family business, which has now been passed on to his daughter Aiko Senda and her husband Toto Akihiko. You can watch the documentary on You Tube:


For more about Atelier Kira Karacho, see:





Exploring Kyoto’s ancient traditions of pattern-making – 1: Katagama


Takeshi Nishimura is a second-generation master of the art of cutting katagama – the paper stencils used in the pattern-dyeing of kimono cloth. His workshop occupies the ground floor of the house where he was born in Kyoto’s Nakagyo-ku ward, and where he learned the craft from his father, who established the business in 1938. The house is compact and traditional in style, with tatami floors and a house-altar in one corner. Takeshi works at a low table, using the tools he inherited, the only modern equipment being a highly-efficient LED light mat.


Resist-dyeing of textiles in Japan dates back to the Nara period (710-784 A.D.), while the earliest use of paper stencils is recorded in the twelfth century. The art of paper stencil-cutting flowered in the Momoyama and Edo periods (1568 – 1868), when garments for men and women patterned using this technique became increasingly fashionable among all classes of society.


During my visit, which lasted two hours, Takeshi very generously explained in detail the techniques of his craft, showed me the tools used in the very intricate cutting of the stencils, and allowed me to try my hand at cutting a katagama. The stencil paper itself is brown and opaque, and consists of three layers of washi (Japanese paper) bonded together. The cutting tools fall into two categories – those for cutting dots and those for cutting lines. The dot cutters are tubular blades which produce holes varying from a fraction of a millimetre up to around 2-3 mm. The cutter is pressed gently into the paper and rotated – the waste paper is collected within the tube and can be ejected through a larger hole in the shaft. In skilled hands a line of dots can be made quite rapidly. Dots of varying diameter are combined to produce variety of line and effects of shading.

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Line cutters consist of single-bladed tools (resembling small scalpels) and twin-blade tools. The twin-blade tools are generally used for cutting lines of even thickness, but some are also designed to produced swelling lines (rather like an italic pen), useful for creating small leaf shapes. Takeshi demonstrated both types of tool by cutting a simple flower motif in a small sheet of stencil paper.
Although katagama can be used to produce multi-coloured patterns, all of the stencils Takeshi makes are for single-colour designs. A great many are small motifs fitting onto stencils which are roughly A4 in size, but towards the end of my visit Takeshi produced some of his larger stencils – mostly abstract or geometric patterns, but also some figurative work – including a magnificient portrait of his cat, created almost entirely with dots.


Takeshi’s skill lies purely in stencil-cutting – the stencils he produces are passed on to other workshops where silk is dyed and patterned. The processes involved in the various styles of dyeing known collectively as yuzen are too complex and various to even attempt to explore here – as I realised after seeing the exhibits and videos on display at the Kyoto Museum of Handicrafts. Suffice to say that the kimonos on display cover the full gamut of styles from austerely minimalist black and white to full-colour exercises in floral art.


The catalogue of the 2014 exhibition ‘Katagama Style: Paper Stencils and Japonisme’ (Tokyo, Kyoto, Mei 2014) illustrates the influence of katagama on western designers at the end of nineteenth-century. Wallpapers designed by Walter Crane, Lewis Foreman Day and Christopher Dresser are shown alongside the Japanese stencilled patterns which they drew on. Takeshi continues this tradition of east-west inspiration and collaboration in working with Paris designers to create products decorated in the katagama style – such as leather wallets, phone cases, i-pad covers and lamp shades hand-patterned with his designs.

see: http://nishimura-yuzen-chokoku.com/en/

Who needs wallpaper?


These images were taken on a recent visit to the Franconian Open-air Museum (Fränkisches Freilandmuseum) in Bad Windsheim, Germany. They show recreations of stencilled decoration used on the walls of rural buildings which have been moved from their original locations to the museum.
Stencilling was widely used in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in place of wallpaper in buildings of this type. In many of the houses in Bad Windsheim several layers of painted distemper decoration can still be seen, showing that rooms were stencilled and re-stencilled regularly.


Some of the patterns use two, three or more colours and must have called for some skill in applying them to the walls. Although it was something that an enterprising house-owner could do, it seems that the patterning was mostly carried out by specialists. Particularly appealing is the way the pattern flows across irregularities such as exposed timber framing.



These buildings are nearly all substantial timber-frame constructions, with the walls plastered with a clay/sand mix. Apart from being inexpensive, stencilling in distemper was more appropriate than paper, which would have been difficult to fit into the beautifully irregular nooks and crannies of these wonderful homes.

See: http://freilandmuseum.de/startseite.html