Winter 2008: Tororo-aoi

Winter 2008, Volume 14, No. 1

TORORO-AOI (Nebishi)
By Satoshi Hasegawa

Tororo-aoi (nebishi)

Tororo-Aoi (or nebishi) is not particular to just Mino and it was once used in paper production throughout many Japanese paper mills in Japan. Tororo-Aoi is part of the hollyhock plant family; the slimey liquid, which is extracted from the roots, is an invaluable asset to washi papermakers using the Japanese technique called nagashizuki. Once it was said that it was grown in numerous places, but not anymore. Currently, some self-sufficient paper mills grow Tororo-Aoi themselves. Ibaraki-ken and Kochi-ken are known as the main cultivators of Tororo-Aoi. Recently, papermakers in Mino have been requesting plants from cultivators in Ibaraki-ken; and once each year around November, the harvested Tororo-Aoi are shipped to Mino.

The ideal time for harvest is typically during the finer days of fall in November. However, Tororo-Aoi must be collected and shipped off immediately because it is fragile in nature. You can see every member of each family harvesting Tororo-Aoi together when there is no rain.

Trucks, full of Tororo-Aoi, drive off in a hurry through the night to deliver to mills in Mino by early morning. After the drop-off in Mino, the trucks head west with a year’s supply of Tororo-Aoi to deliver to papermaking mills throughout Japan. The trucks drive as far as Kyushu just to deliver these precious plants. Without Tororo-Aoi, even skilled papermakers would be unable to make high quality washi.

Tororo-Aoi is called nebishi in Mino. The quality of the paper depends on the quality of nebishi. When I arrived in Mino over ten years ago, there were twice as many papermakers as there are today. They would wait anxiously to receive nebishi early in the morning. It was somewhat frightening how seriously papermakers examined the qualities of nebishi with eagle eyes. Over the years, the number of papermakers has decreased, and along with them, nebishi deliveries have also dwindled. Despite this, the sheer excitement that exudes on the important day when nebishi is delivered has never faded. Each papermaker creates nebishi using different methods, and this will instantly inspire the topic of conversations among them: “What are your results when using this technique?” “How is that new paper going?” etc. This time of the year is usually the start of the peak season for papermaking. The arrival of nebishi is a bell that signals the beginning of the papermaking season.