SHORT #3: How to Make it Beautiful (Part I)

finding hidden values from a hidden papermaker in Nara

In Nara prefecture, there is a small wood building, near the edge of the city, at the foot of the mountain, by the stream. Inside this building—at least during the hours when people in these parts normally work—you will find a 73-year-old man named Hashimoto san. He makes what most consider to be beautiful paper.

Most days of the week, the spry old man is variously working with tree branches or bark, trimming or steaming or drying, or else gently swaying back and forth with wooden deckles submerged in water and pulp. Or, if he is not doing one of these paper-making related tasks, he has likely walked down to the post office near the train station. Here, Hashimoto san regularly sends his paper to small businesses around the country, where it is used for all sorts of ends, from business cards to wrapping mochi sweets.

These businesses in turn, all make their own everyday products—incense or matches, hemp socks or paintbrushes, soy sauce or sweets—and they do so in a fashion similar to that of Hashimoto san, employing some machines, some hand working, and lots of skill and dedication to beauty. They use Hashimoto san’s paper, because they share a similar mindset. The small, slow, and attentive ways still exist here, and when one remarks of the ‘simple beauty’ of something from Japan, or of the peculiar ways in which things are done here, this is likely somewhere in the metaphysical neighborhood of what they mean.

Inefficient and economically irksome, these ways have been protected from the rapid and economically-motivated ways, not because the former are weaker, but because they are beautiful, and because beautiful is directly related to truth, and because truth relies on goodness, or so they say in these parts. This all being what it is, in Hashimoto san’s world, the beautiful and the economic necessarily occupy different dimensions, for which there is no formula to calculate the relationship of one to the other.

How then, to measure the value of the beauty in what is small and slow?

Step off a train at a small platform at the edge of Nara prefecture.

Walk down the main street of the town, and notice. For a main street, it is decidedly narrow. Two Japanese cars could barely pass each other at once. An American car might not fit at all. The narrowness seems to help the scent of the place hang around; a rich, a mingling of damp forest, cedar, incense, cooking smoke, and ferment. Unmistakable to the nose, this place.

Walk past the sake brewery and the tofu maker, right turn at the old camphor tree. Deep breath here. Left turn along the edge of the hill.

Seven minutes and thirty five seconds along from the train station by foot, is the edge of the town where Hashimoto san works. Foot of the mountain, by the stream.

His entire papermaking factory is not much bigger than a studio apartment in California. Better to call it a workshop than a factory. Hanging from the rafters are all sorts of boxes, kozo fibers, deckles, and archaic wood tools, most of which look as if they are older than Hashimoto san himself.

When asked about his old equipment, Hashimoto san smiles. Looks up at you over the rim of his wire-frame glasses.

“Some young students from Tokyo asked me such a question recently. They suggested that my equipment was too old and inefficient for the modern world. Their goal was to escape the meaningless burden of work, while making money. But this goal is not compatible with making beautiful things, is it?”

Hashimoto san slowly pours tiny cups of green tea, sits still for a moment to take in the smell. Steam graciously helps itself out into the cool air of his workshop.

“My goal is to engage in the joyful burden of making paper. If I do that well, slowly, beautifully, enough money will come. But if I put my focus on money, the paper becomes my boss, instead of my craft.”

Hashimoto san laughs at his own joke, and perhaps the air caught wind of it too, as they seem to be laughing together. “Now you see why I am a paper maker, and not a CEO.”

Hashimoto san’s paper is well appreciated, yet the price that he fetches has rarely increased over the years. He only charges enough that he can continue to live simply: Miso, rice, steamed fish, green tea, and a day spent making paper which in his eyes is never perfect, but always a work in progress. When the shops in the city call him a master, he laughs at them in quite the same way he laughs when they tell him that money is a value.

“Value is in the act of doing beautiful work” he says, “not in how much others give you for it.”

Yet Hashimoto san’s ability to get up every day and produce handmade paper does not survive in isolation. It relies in part on consumers sharing a similar understanding of his version of beauty.

Next week, we look for these consumers, over the hill, in Osaka.

Each week at The Possible City, I write and illustrate a short urban ecological adventure. Based on real people and places, these are stories of imaginative ideas and ways of thinking for equitable, resilient, regenerative cities. If you enjoyed this one, please subscribe and share it with others!

Share The Possible City

Have thoughts, ideas, or inspirations related to this story? Start or join the conversation thread at the end of each story, about what you think is possible and how we might get there, or send me a note.