Skip to 0 minutes and 2 secondsIn addition to gold and silver leaf, which were extremely popular, mica (called unmo or kira in Japanese) was used to add sparkle to the paper. For example, this is a fragment of a waka poetry collection written in the 11th century; it is just a tiny portion of a larger scroll and it may be a little hard to see, but here and there there are small shiny dots. The effect was obtained by sprinkling powdered mica on the paper, a technique known as kirachirashi (“mica sprinkling”). In kirachirashi , the paper sparkles only in some places, whereas in this example here the powdered mica was mixed with nikawa glue and then applied to the entire sheet.

Skip to 0 minutes and 49 secondsIt is similar to parts of this example, but with this type of decoration, called kirabiki or “mica coating” the entire page has a glossy finish. Another technique that contains the word biki in the name is the gubiki or “shell white coating”. Instead of mica, the white powder is made from seashells, which is known in Japanese as gofun (shell white). When gofun is mixed with nikawa glue, it produces a white paint-like substance that can be applied to the paper; this process is known as gubiki. Colors can be added to the white powder to produce thick color paper. This one here is an example of a book that has been decorated in different colors using the gubiki technique.

Skip to 1 minute and 44 secondsThus, mica powder and shell white were commonly used to embellish and add color to the paper.

Kirabiki and Gubiki

In addition to gold and silver leaf, powdered mica (a transparent silicate called kira in Japanese) is also used as a material for paper decoration.

When powdered mica is sprinkled on a sheet of paper pre-coated with nikawa (an organic adhesive made from animal parts), the paper acquires a sparkling sheen. Alternatively, the mica powder can be mixed with nikawa glue and then applied to the paper. The former technique is known as kirachirashi (lit. “mica dusting”), kirasunago-chirashi (lit. “mica powder-dusting”), etc. and the latter is called kirabiki (lit. “mica coating”). If a large amount of mica powder is used, the first method can also be called kirazuri (lit. “mica rubbing”). Besides books, this technique is used in ukiyoe woodblock prints (“pictures of the floating world”). The people of the past were obviously fascinated by the effects that these materials allowed to create.

As an alternative to mica, powder was also made by baking and grinding the shells of clams and other mollusks. The resulting powder is called gofun (shell white, a form of calcium carbonate commonly known as chalk). Gofun is mixed with nikawa to create a white, paint-like substance that is applied to the paper using a brush. This technique is called gubiki (“shell white coating”). Color pigments can be added to the gofun to obtain a variety of different colors. Examples of gubiki paper date from the Heian period and from the Edo period, when the decoration styles of Heian-period books were often imitated.

Watch the video to see examples of glossy paper made using the kirachirashi and kirabiki techniques and an example of thicker paper decorated with the gubiki technique.

Books introduced in the video:

books on the table

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This video is from the free online course:

The Art of Washi Paper in Japanese Rare Books

Keio University