In the late fall of 2012, I embarked on a journey to learn the art of Washi – Japanese papermaking. For a little over a year prior to my trip, I had been in contact with a woman who resides in the village of Echizen, in the Fukui Prefecture, on the western part of the island. After quitting a job I had for almost five years, finishing a six-month internship at a large technology company and a sudden relationship rupture, I packed my bags and left for what became the second greatest spiritual awakening of my life.
See, I have been a paper lover since my youth. When I was a small girl in Brooklyn, New York, I would visit Citibanks all over the City with my aunt and leave with stacks of deposit slips in my hands and pockets. I used them to play “bank,” but also to remove the carbon paper and trace patterns and designs between blank sheets of paper. Another oddity was my wall with wrapping paper pieces stuck to it as a teenager. If I loved a design on a sheet of wrapping paper, I carefully tore off a piece to stick on one of my bedroom walls. I’ve grown quite a bit since those days, but over the years, I’ve designed cards for my own purposes and made cards as gifts for others. I’ve also collected cards, gift wrap, and other paper products to add to my collection. It wasn’t a surprise to many, when in 2009, after my father’s unexpected death, I came home to declare that I was starting a stationery company.
March 2009 while traveling in Italy, I experienced my first spiritual journey. Packed along with my running gear for the Rome Marathon were some of my dad’s ashes (to scatter in the France, the country where he was born) and a well known book titled, ” Women Who Run With the Wolves” by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ph.D. It was on this trip that I had a dream that suddenly jolted me awake in the middle of the night and had me declare, “This is my purpose in life!”
The remainder of that trip involved me plotting my stationery business and career. To complete the belief that this was in fact the right path, while entering France, I crumpled up a bag that held my lunch to find on the very bottom a tree encircled in the following saying, “Le papier c’est la vie” or “Paper is life”. I promptly tore that off the bag and it became a piece of my purpose.
Fast forward to three years later in 2012. I arrived to Japan shattered, but still optimistic and hopeful; unknowing of what to expect, but with the goal to learn how to make traditional Japanese paper, also known as “Washi”. I knew not a lick of Japanese outside of a few basic words; I was simply hungry to learn. When I arrived in Echizen from Tokyo, it was 5:00 am and freezing. The overnight bus dropped me off on the side of a highway and I waited anxiously for my “host mother” to pick me up. I was exhausted and overwhelmed as she drove me around and gave me a tour of the small papermaking village. As we pulled around a corner, she pointed to a rather large shrine and said, “that’s Okamoto Otaki Shrine, it honors the paper goddess, Kawakami Gozen, of the village and my house is across from it.” She then pulled into a parking spot along side the Shrine and led me into the house. It was at that moment that I knew that a force stronger than I, or anything I had ever known had brought me to Echizen. I was exactly where I needed to be.
An important side note- when I struggle with difficult challenges, such as training to run a marathon, I refer to my inner strength as my “inner goddess.”
So about that Paper Goddess?
Okamoto Otaki Shrine is home to two deities and the paper goddess, Kawakami Gozen, or “The Goddess who lives above the stream”. To be clear, Kawakami Gozen is not a goddess of faith; she represents good luck and fortune for the entire village. Traditionally, towns like Echizen would make paper in the winter and dedicate the other seasons to growing a crop such as rice. However, because of the terrain, Echizen does not allow for year round crop management and so the village of Echizen was left with a conundrum of finding an alternative source of occupation and income.
The Goddess is a huge part of daily life in Echizen Paper Village. She is revered and thanked continuously. During “Golden Week”, a collection of four National Holidays in Japan within one week, Echizen honors the Goddess for three days. Villagers, many in their 70s+, carry a large replica of the Shrine up the Mountain (which is very steep!) and leave offerings to the Goddess, thanking her for all that she’s provided and pray for all she will continue to bestow. They do something similar during New Year festivities, except in feet of snow.
During my first week in the village, while adjusting to my role in the Museum where I studied, and reeling from the exhaustion of not understanding the language being spoken, I got to visit a few paper making studios. The village has around 40 studios that make Washi. At every studio the appreciation for the Goddess was displayed and discussed at length. Many still make their paper by hand in the traditional methods, but a few use machines for all aspects of the process. Two of Japan’s “Living National Treasures” reside in the village and one still makes traditional Washi that the government uses for official documents. I could write quite a few blog posts on all of my experiences in the village during this time, but instead I’ll focus on the Goddess.
The Goddess became my spiritual link. It started not just that first morning, but during my first week, when I met one of the elders of the Village, Aki-san. She is not only an important paper maker in the Village, she works for one of the best-known paper makers in Echizen and is the voice that praises the Goddess during important festivals, such as during Golden Week. During our first meeting, I couldn’t understand her, but when she began to sing the song honoring the Goddess, I found myself in tears – sobbing for a reason I still am trying to understand. For those in the room with me, they didn’t understand why I was crying and I couldn’t explain it to them. As I later shared with my “host mother”, the only thing I could think of was that Aki-san’s singing reminded me of songs sung by the Native American Tribes of America.
Another side note about me – as a child one of my greatest dreams was to be Native American. I wanted to live on a Reservation, hunt buffalo, wear moccasins, participate in rain dances and live in a Tee Pee. It seems juvenile and stereotypical, but what I really wanted was to connect to the essence of the Native Peoples. I wanted to understand them and see the World through their culture and values. Hearing Aki-san sing transported me to that place (you can hear her in the video below); she and the Goddess reached into my soul to the core of my greatest desires. In fact, if any of you have watched Disney’s “Pocahontas” movie, Aki-san and her singing reminded me greatly of Grandmother Willow who sings the song “Listen To Your Heart” twice.
Over the course of the two months I spent in Echizen, I found myself at the Shrine daily. I cried to the Goddess, and I thanked her. I prayed for her to help my heartbroken self and I asked her for guidance in my learning (because paper making did not come to me easy). I prayed twice a day – in the sun, cold and rain. I loved this Goddess. I still love this Goddess. And I believe that she loves me. She is MY Goddess for all time.
I’m not sure what magic the Goddess bestowed, but over time with her, I felt calmer, at peace, and surer of my identity. I still questioned certain things, but over all she gave me the confidence I needed. She made me see and understand that I was listening to my heart and that it was all going to be beautiful. She helped me understand who I am and my actions and how fierce I am as an individual. She also helped me understand how remaining true to myself will never lead me astray. Maybe that is what she does for the Echizen Paper Village too – she bestows the magic of faith and the understanding; the knowledge that even in hard times, there is much to be appreciative of (and for) if you respect yourself and all of the blessings around you.
After I left Echizen to travel around Japan, I prayed at many shrines and to many gods and goddesses of both Shinto and Buddhist faith. Do you know that the Deity that protects Mt. Fuji is a Goddess? Mt. Fuji is named for the Buddhist fire goddess Fuchi and is sacred to the Shinto goddess Sengen-Sama. While I honored all of the gods and goddesses I came across, I still hold Kawakami Gozen, the goddess of paper, in my heart. I believe she beckoned my “inner goddess” without my knowing all those years ago when I first planted the seeds to study in Japan.
Japan is a land of many things. I don’t know anyone who has traveled there and not experienced some form of enlightenment. My experience with Japan was limited prior to my trip and maybe that is why I was awed, but I don’t think so. I think again, that my Goddess called me and I listened. While I’ve clearly claimed a Goddess for myself, the connection to the universe of gods and goddess is strong and real and is worthy of continued exploration and understanding. You may not need to visit Japan to find yours; after all she is living inside you already, but if you hear her calling, or feel her knocking, follow.