For decades, a small family business in southern Japan has been making the world's thinnest paper, with thickness similar to human skin, which has become a key element in the restoration of the world's great works of art.
Founded in 1969, Hidaka Washi is proud to keep the tradition of producing the thinnest paper in the world in Hidaka, in southwestern Kochi prefecture, a town of only 6,000 inhabitants.
"Tosa Tengujo", also known as "ephemeral wings", is a type of traditional Japanese paper or "Washi", which is handmade, transparent and flexible.
It is only 0.02 millimeters thick, similar to human skin , the sheets come in a size of one square meter and they weigh only 1.6 grams, less than a one cent Euro coin.
Washi is obtained from the fiber of the paper mulberry, a native plant of East Asia cultivated for centuries for making paper.
Since the fibers of this plant have a diameter of 0.02 millimeters, it would be impossible to make a thinner paper naturally, said Hiroyoshi Chinzei, a son of the founder of Hidaka Washi and president of the company since July 2016.
More than five decades ago, a thicker Washi was used mainly as a paper for typewriters or as wrapping paper, as well as in the production of napkins or filters for coffee makers.
However, nowadays this paper has found a new use, explained Chinzei.
World-renowned works of art, such as paintings by Michelangelo in the Vatican and artworks in the Louvre Museum in Paris or at the British Museum in London are restored using this type of paper in the process.
Also in Japan, the thin sheets of Washi completely cover one of the famous statues in the Buddhist temple Sensoji in Asakusa district, Tokyo, preventing it from deteriorating or cracking.
If a document or artwork is not conserved in ideal conditions and the fibers of the paper become very weak due to humidity, Washi can be used to strengthen the damaged paper and to prevent further wear and tear.
For this, the document is sprayed with a mixture of water and glue, and it will then be protected between two sheets of the Japanese paper.
Chinzei has held restoration workshops in various countries such as China, Taiwan and soon Brazil, as he seeks to "promote a cultural exchange through paper" and increase "collaboration in this field."
At the factory, its eight employees continue to manufacture Washi, and they can produce 5,000 square meters of the finest paper per year, with a price of 11 Euros per square meter.
The workers pay attention to the meticulous manual work that this traditional Japanese production technique requires.
After boiling the plant and leaving it to ripen for two weeks, the resulting mass is washed and beaten in order to soften the fiber. After that it will be bleached and any defects will be removed by hand, separating the finer fiber from the thicker.
Finally, the mass will be flattened in a paper machine, resulting in the delicate Washi.
Once finished, the paper is used in decoration, printing or advertising, in addition to its use in restoration works.