As part of our travels in Japan, we seek out handmade paper stores. I am a calligrapher and combine that skill with collage mats made from handmade papers found across the globe. The last time we were in Tokyo, we visited five paper stores…sounds like a lot, but it really wasn’t. This store – Tokyo Kyukyodo was a new and pleasant surprise. We found it several blocks from Itoya on the Ginza, so again we were in the expensive shopping part of the city, but were very glad we found it, let me tell you why…
In most of the paper stores we shop, the focus of the store is usually paper goods – stationery, handmade paper, paper dolls, origami, paper fans – and other traditional Japanese paper crafts. Lots of things you can see in lots of other stores. The clientelle in most stores is a combination of business people, locals, and tourists. In Tokyo Kyukyodo the focus was paper, traditional writing instruments, and calligraphy. Once again, pictures are not allowed in the store, so the only shot we have is me walking into the store. Take a look and notice the people around the entrance…do you see what I see?
I headed for the wall of rolled traditional handmade papers to the left of the entrance, and saw colors and patterns that I had not seen in any of our three previous trips to Japan. I had checked my studio inventory and knew the colors I lacked, so that was the grouping I reviewed first. I noticed some papers I had seen before, but most I had not…and for someone who has sifted through as least half a dozen paper stores during each trip, that’s saying something. I wasn’t sure which papers I wanted to buy, so I walked around the store. It has two floors, and the stairs include shelves full of beautiful blue and white china jars, amazing paper wall hangings, and outstanding examples of calligraphic brushes and instruments. The second floor had floor to ceiling books on every form of Japanese calligraphy imaginable! Holy cow! I never knew THAT many books existed on the topic of brush calligraphy. My challenge is that they were all in Japanese (duh, no kidding!) and I am not very skilled in brush work (a new goal for my future!)
Then I looked up and saw that I was the youngest person in the store by at least two decades. I found myself surrounded by small, elderly, Japanese men and women buying brushes, ink and books on this ancient art. Not a business person or youth in sight. Wow! I suddenly realized that I found the place where the experienced Japanese practitioners go for their supplies. There were display cases full of brush variations, Sumi ink stones, and every other traditional calligraphy writing accessory known to man in every price range anyone’s wallet could support…and all in Japanese. I actually spent about ten minutes standing in the corner just watching the locals buy, chat, and talk amongst themselves about all the supplies in the cases. Then I remembered the paper downstairs.
I moved back to the wall and selected a dozen different patterns and colors that I had never seen. I took them to the counter and realized that English was not my friend, no one here spoke it. I offered a couple of phrases in Japanese, which was enough to make my purchase, then stood there like a dolt waiting for some sign that the clerk was ready for my debit card. (Special note: debit cards work in some stores, but ALWAYS check first…all retailers in Japan take cash, some might take credit/debit cards!) As this was a traditional store, the purchasing process was traditional as well. Making a purchase in Japan is a process, not just a transaction. It is very important that you allow the store to wait on you and that may take five or more interactions with the clerk before your purchase is complete. The presentation of the items you want to purchase, then the presentation of the bill, the presentation of your payment, the presentation of your change or credit card slip, the signing of the slip, the presentation of the signed slip back to you, then the wrapping up of the purchased goods, and the final presentation of your purchase. The clerk waiting on me had to wait in line while the “manager”(VERY elderly Japanese man) sat at the credit card processing machine and checked her math on the hand written receipt while running my card. Then she had to wait in line to roll and wrap my paper. She brought me my receipt, and forgot my card. She had to get back in line to get my card back from the “manager”. It took her three attempts to get my paper rolled, then finally brought me my card and wrapped purchase. She was gracious and bowed apologetically to me, which I inferred was for the long wait. But c’mon, I was in Japan buying handmade papers with local masters of the calligraphic art form, a little wait provided a great deal of entertainment and cultural joy, putting that wait in perspective was not a problem.
Sometimes when you travel, you feel like every other tourist in the place. Sometimes when you travel, you find a great resource that every other tourist already visits, and you find just what you want. And then, sometimes, you are blessed to find where the locals go, where no other westerners shop, and you see how it is REALLY done. If you ever have a chance to visit the Ginza in Tokyo, and want to see where the locals buy their handmade papers, calligraphy supplies, or just want to experience watching experts discuss their passions, visit Tokyo Kyukyodo, it is well worth the trip!