When most of us hear the word “moku hanga,” images of ukiyo-e prints float to mind. However, moku hanga simply means woodblock printing, and the actual printing techniques can vary.

During my trip to Kyoto, I came across karakami (唐紙) for the first time. Karakami is a type of decorative paper that is created with woodblock printing but in a manner very different from ukiyo-e prints. Having tried my hand at the ukiyo-e style of printing this spring at Paper Book Intensive, I was better able to appreciate the differences.

Ukiyo-e prints are usually pictorial, portraying a scene that is rich in layering and hues. Ukiyo-e uses water-based inks that are printed on damp paper, thus allowing the inks to further penetrate the fibers of the paper. The paper remains damp throughout the entire printing process.

Karakami is patterned paper that is traditionally used as wallpaper and to cover the sliding screens in Japanese homes, temples, and other structures. The paper is initially given a coat of color which becomes the background layer. After that has dried, a pattern is then applied over the base color. Karakami is printed with pigment that, instead of being absorbed into the paper, sits on top of the surface. When you run your fingers across the paper, you can actually feel the fine ridges that define the pattern.

There is still one shop in Kyoto, Karacho (唐長), that continues the practice of karakami. Some of the wood blocks they use are more than 200 years old. There’s a good article by designboom on Karacho and karakami (with lots of photos!) that provides an in depth look into this traditional craft.

I also visited Kamisoe (かみ添) where I met Ko Kado, the artist and proprietor. Kado-san is trained in the karakami tradition, and two years ago he branched out independently, continuing the practice of karakami but also experimenting with the technique. Kado-san uses both Japanese and Western motifs, and he sometimes creates his own designs for printing. He has a real interest in the components of the process and how tweaking the equation produces different results. The stationery products you find at Kamisoe are printed on paper created to Kado-san’s specifications, and everything is printed by hand.

There are few people who are keeping the tradition of karakami alive, and Kado-san is taking it a step further, breathing new life into an old technique.