Karakami is one of the oldest surviving paper art techniques in Japan with more than 600 woodblock patterns for printing that were carved by 11 generations of craftsmen. Brought by the ancient Chinese during the Nara period, this art became more sophisticated through time with various patterns and motifs that are attuned to the taste of the aristocrats, noblemen, and commoners.
Today, the oldest and perhaps the only karakami studio in Japan which was built in 1624 is located in Kyoto–the Karacho–and is managed by Mr. Kenkichi Senda. Mr. Senda is famous for producing Kyoto karakami papers that are of high quality and durability. His patterns are known for using traditional subtle colors and most of his works are now considered as important cultural properties of Japan. Historical records also show that some of Karacho’s karakami motifs have a resemblance with the ancient European wall paintings of the Celtics which could be traced back 2,500 years ago.
Some of the most common printed karakami patterns or motifs include the imperial family, tea ceremony, samurai and temple and shrine motifs.
The imperial family motif applies the principle of elegance and dignity. One of the typical designs is called Hagi no Maru or the circles of Japanese bush clover. The Japanese bush clover is one of the seven flowers of autumn that represents aristocracy in Japan since the 10th century and it is also the favorite subject of poets since time immemorial.
Subtlety and sensitivity are the most common themes of karakami paper art in tea ceremonies. Tea ceremony motifs often use prints of ginko leaf or pine needles and the design is called Yabure Shippo or seven jewel imperfection. Perhaps the seven jewel imperfection is related to the outer or material side of life (sabi) and inner or spiritual way of life (wabi) principles of a tea ceremony. That is; embodying simplicity and celebrating the beauty of imparting material wealth and honoring the imperfections of being.
Samurai motifs exude strength and masculinity and these motifs are commonly represented by pine trees or clouds. The motif is called Kado tsunagi or connecting angles. Pine trees symbolize immortality in Japan while clouds may symbolize luck (zuiun).
Temples and shrines already have motifs of their own which they often suggest with karakami artists that they commission. The most common motif is known as Otake or a large bamboo. Bamboo in Buddhism represents old age and modesty and it also signifies the belly of Buddha.
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