A Japanese master papermaker in Benguet

Text and photos by Padmapani L. Perez, VERA Files

Asao Shimura is a wandering artist, a bookmaker and a visionary who builds his handmade paper dreams in the tranquil mountain sitio of Poking, Barangay Labueg in Kapangan, Benguet province.

When he was 23 years old and a graduate of industrial chemistry from Tokyo Technical College, he was introduced to washi (Japanese handmade paper) and indigo dyeing for the first time in Fukuoka Prefecture in Japan in 1973. Captivated, he studied papermaking and natural dye in traditional workshops. Eventually he moved to a thatched hut in the countryside to concentrate on making washi and miniature books with a letterpress given to him by his brother. Later, his papermaking quest led him to travel across all the continents, befriending artists and artisans, and exchanging techniques and ideas. He also organized international paper conferences and participated in exhibits.

He first came to the Philippines in 1989 when the Duntog Foundation invited him to teach papermaking in Baguio for two years. He met and married his wife, Andrea, in 1991. They made their home where her roots are---in Poking. They now have four children. Since then he has traveled the length and breadth of the archipelago, giving papermaking workshops and searching for new materials for his craft.

He uses mostly native materials like piña (pineapple), saba (banana), bajateng (wild banana), rice straw, bamboo, mulberry, hemp and abaca. He also experiments with fibers of wild plants. From Poking he promotes handmade paper across the globe. Artists from around the world seek Asao’s paper creations. He sends and receives packages of paper, materials and artwork through the Kapangan post office.

He continues to make miniature books. Nowadays he uses a computer and a digital printer that can print on handmade paper and regular paper. His miniature books measure 3 by 2 inches and are bound in the traditional, hand-sewn yotsume toji (four-hole binding) way. They are mostly about papermaking but Asao also writes about his travels. His latest book is Denawon Sid-ag, which means honey hunting in Ibaloy. In it are Asao’s photos and story about going with his friends on a hunt for wild honey in Kapangan.

Last July 7, guests from Baguio, Japan and the Kapangan local government attended the “fa-ji opening” (soft opening) of the Asao Mini Museum, situated right beside the dirty kitchen of his family’s home.

Asao’s assistant, Ricky Belino, gave a papermaking demonstration, using bajateng pulp. Tapey (rice wine) and pinikpikan (a traditional Igorot way of preparing chicken) were served alongside kami nabe (a Japanese soup-based dish cooked in a paper pot) – a fitting combination, given the way Japanese and Ibaloy cultures blend and influence each other inside Asao’s home.

On exhibit this month are 34 miniature, handmade paper books that he printed by letterpress in Fukuhara, Japan in the 1980s. A few artists’ books are also on display. These are collaborations between Asao and artists who work on paper with paintings, prints and poetry.

The next exhibit will focus on shifu, hand-woven textile made from paper thread. It will open on November 6, 2013, which, Asao says with a twinkle in his eye, is the 100th birth anniversary of French Algerian philosopher Albert Camus.

One of Asao’s miniature books is a tribute to Camus’ 1942 existentialist and absurdist novel, The Stranger, with a wood print portrait of Camus. The book, also entitled The Stranger, is now part of the Camus Holdings at the Cite du Livre, Aix en Provence, France. Asao says that although the main theme of his coming exhibit is shifu, Camus will be the sub-theme and he will invite artists to collaborate with him on this. Just like the opening of the museum, this blending of themes, too, is fa-ji (fuzzy).

“Not serious, not clear, not formal,” Asao says of his theme. “Construction without drawings belongs to fa-ji.”

For example, rather than find a carpenter to build the mini museum, Asao decided to do it himself. The doorframe, although slanted, works. When unlocked it automatically swings fully open as though inviting guests into the tiny space. Inspired by miniature books for which the American standard measurement is 3 by 3 inches, the mini museum’s walls measure about 3 by 3 meters.

Asao sprayed the cement walls with the pulp of local saba mixed with three different kinds of ochre from France. Again the results were not what Asao expected. He had to spray several layers to make the walls a vibrant, sunny yellow.

Underneath all the fa-ji-ness of the Asao Mini Museum and the master-artist’s story are a life-long learner’s exploration of the intricacies of papermaking, and a teacher’s dedication to sharing knowledge. Later this year, Asao will give workshops on book-making, bookbinding, and piña papermaking among others. During this time, the Mini Museum will double as workspace.

The museum can be visited by appointment or by invitation only. Asao Shimura may be contacted on Facebook, where he posts announcements on his work, photos of everyday life and the glorious sunsets and sunrises of Poking, Kapangan, Benguet.

(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for “true”.)

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