The practice of applying ink to paper and composing a beautiful letter — a custom already in decline in the West long before the insidious tyranny of email — remains fairly common in contemporary Japan, especially among women.
As you might surmise, however, the exquisiteness of the presentation (think of the cuisine of this archipelago) matches or even outweighs in importance the actual contents of the message. Hence, great emphasis is placed on the look of the pen- or brushwork, the choice of a postage stamp, and above all, the design and character of the stationery.
Such is the significance of just the writing paper and envelope that — forget duty-free Chanel — it is unique, attractive, distinctively-decorated letter sets that my lady friends implore me to discover and carry back for them from each trip abroad.
But because the stationers I stumble upon overseas sell only saccharine matrimonial designs (plus some faux Japanese washi), I always return with nothing better than museum gift shop note card sets. These the women accept with grace … and promptly file away in a remote drawer.
Bin laden with treasures
Dare I suggest to the well-bred but disappointed women that they might do better by staying within their own tradition and supplying their writing paper needs from the bins of old book fairs?
For it is in such places that one finds long ago discarded tenaraichô, beautifully-illustrated poem and letter-writing stationery. Tenaraichô (lit., "notebook for training the hand") comprise one of the many forgotten products of the woodblock print industry in Edo and Osaka in the middle of the 19th century, a time when important correspondence demanded proper presentation.
Tenaraichô (also called ebangire, or illustrated half-size paper) consist of a sequence of stencil or nishiki-e printed sheets — each measuring 31x43 cm — that have been pasted end to end to form a single expanse a few meters long.
Folded accordion-style, the sheets are reduced to numerous narrow (tanzaku–sized) sections, each just wide enough to allow for a few variable-length vertical rows of calligraphy. With the first and last flaps attached to thin slabs of paulownia wood, the result is a sturdy, compact "washi sandwich," a handy format also used traditionally for important proclamations and Shintô prayer booklets.