Origami Kaikan: a chance to explore the folds and layers of paper

It is often observed that Japan borrows ideas and technologies from various sources, adapting them to suit Japanese needs and sensibilities, essentially making them Japanese.  Paper, one of Japan’s earliest borrowings from China, is no exception.

Japanese paper is nothing short of amazing.  Traditional hand-made washi paper is lovely and soft; fun to make and fun to use.  Japan’s colored and printed paper is equally beautiful and is used in a variety of ways.  One particularly Japanese use of paper is origami, folding paper into various shapes and objects.

Origami, which literally means “folding paper”, is said to have originated as paper folded into shapes for purposes of religious observances in Japan.  By the Edo Period (1603-1868), folding paper into animal and other shapes had become a popular leisure activity for Japan’s upper classes (the ones with leisure time).  In our modern times, origami as a past-time has spread around the world.  One of my nieces took up origami before she even knew there was a place called Japan, and leveraged her passion on a visit to Japan a few years ago.

While the paper crane may be regarded as the most iconic origami shape–indeed it is said that the roof design of Takanawa Gateway, the new station on Tokyo’s Yamanote train line scheduled to open in 2020, is intended to look like an origami crane–, in fact, there seems to be no limit to the shapes that can be produced using origami.

The Origami Kaikan in Tokyo’s Ochanomizu neighborhood offers a chance to explore the joys of paper and folded paper.  The multi-story building houses galleries, workshops, classrooms and a gift shop, providing casual visitors with a quick introduction to the possibilities of making items out of paper, but also offering lessons in various paper crafts as well.

At the entrance level are displays of traditional and seasonal items made of folded or molded paper that only whet the appetite for more.  Staff at the reception desk can also help visitors arrange lessons.

Various kind of papercraft lessons are available in the classrooms on the upper floors, usually on a fixed schedule and by prior appointment via the Origami Kaikan’s Japanese website.  But for casual visitors who don’t speak Japanese, there is often a mini origami workshop available in English.  For example, through August 31, on weekdays at 1:30 pm and on Saturdays between 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm, it is possible to have a 40 minute lesson in how to make origami goldfish (JPY800/participant; cash only).

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There is a small gallery on the second floor featuring displays and tableaux made of paper.; not just origami but other forms of paper shapes as well  The gallery’s exhibition is on a theme and changes regularly.  On my last visit, the theme was yokai (Japanese folk monsters or ghostly spirits).  Foreigners may be familiar with yokai from the popular Japanese manga character, Gegege no Kitaro or maybe the American animated movie, Kubo and the Two Strings.  You will meet plenty more in this display!

There was also a useful display of how woodblock prints are made, showing how one color at a time is added to the paper to produce a complex and colorful image.

While the second floor gallery is accessed via stairs, continuing upward in the building requires returning to the ground floor and catching the elevator.  The third level contains the gift shop, perhaps best saved for last so that you can linger over the options and let your imagination run wild.  Among the items available are paper for use in origami and other paper crafts and various objects made of paper.  Note that the shop does not accept credit cards, so you’ll need cash if you’re planning to make a purchase.

The fourth floor paper-dyeing studio is a particularly fascinating place where visitors can watch as color is added to huge sheets of paper that are then hung up to dry.  It’s fun to imagine what their ultimate use might be, especially when, as below, the undercoat is gold.

Don’t miss the world map in the elevator lobby.  Stick in a pin to show where you’ve come from!  Also stop by the office opposite the 4th floor workshop and fill out a short questionnaire to receive a delightful little memento of your visit.

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Origami Kaikan is open Monday through Saturday from 9:30 am to 6:00 pm (2F gallery closes 30 minutes earlier).  It is also closed on National Holidays.  Admission is free.  It’s just a few minutes’ walk from Ochanomizu station, so easy to combine a visit to Origami Kaikan with a visit to other sights in the area such as Kanda Myojin shrine, Yushima Seido (Confucian school) or Nikolai-do (Russian Orthodox cathedral).

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