Gotou-san and a Baren Trove

Gotou-san stripping the cuticle from the inside of the white bamboo leaf before braiding strips.

The baren (馬連 or バレン) is the most important tool (other than hands) for a mokuhanga printmaker. As it’s well-documented, hon barens have three parts: the (1) shin, or coil that is twisted shirodake bamboo and sewn into a disc; the (2) ategawa, the disc composed of ~40 sheets of washi paper glued together with persimmon juice sealed with water-proof urushi lacquer; and the (3) takenokawa, a timber bamboo leaf covering. Barens are, as you can imagine, quite expensive as it takes upwards of 6 months for a craftsman to make and cost anywhere from US$800>$1400. The number of strands, the width of strips, and how they are braided dictate the coarseness, power, and/or finesse of the baren depending on the intended printing effect. An article from woodblock.com about hon barens and baren-making can be seen here.

I have used a number of low and medium-quality barens (murasaki, etc.) over the years, but I always felt that my equipment lacked hon (or “authentic“) barens. I experienced the advantage of using the real thing while printing at Mokuhankan in Tokyo where Dave Bull was generous enough to allow me to try many of them from his baren ‘strongbox’. Incidentally, there was fine 8-strand baren which we all politely fought over for detail work. Anyway, I found that the hon baren’s washi ategawa allows for the printer to pull on the baren sides in order to concentrate the power in several directions plus the bamboo coil really makes a perfect combination of power and finesse. I would also recommend using the standard 13 cm-size baren as it  works as an ‘outrigger’ to keep it flat on the block while printing.

“After a while, I really felt as if the natural combination of a hon baren’s coil, disc, and covering was simply an extension of my arm and fingers.”

The barens I purchased on a Japanese auction- 7 hon, a ball-bearing, and an old murasaki-style. Also two ‘free-range’ ategawa were included.
Seven hon barens and an old murasaki-like rope thingy (bottom left)

UPDATE: So I am always “trolling” Japanese auctions (Jauce.com, Yahoo.jp, etc.) for printmaking tools. I occasionally come up with jewels- last year, I purchased 32 Kintaro-brand maru bake (printing brushes). Anyway, after about 2 years of diligently looking for barens, I hit what I consider the ‘motherload’ of barens a few weeks ago- maybe a printer died 😦 Although not cheap (especially with all of the fee$), I was able to purchase 7 hon barens! I wonder where they came from- most are very lightly used if all and one seems very old. I believe that there are (2) 16-strand, (2) 12-strand, and (2) 8-strands along with (1)a very old-looking 6-strand(?). I am patiently waiting for Hidehiko Gotou, who is purportedly the last maker of traditional hon barens, to help me identify them.

Gotou-san said that the baren coils can last a professional printer for up to 3 generations, the ategawa for up to a decade, and as you probably know, the a takenokawa covering lasts for a print or two depending.

This fall, I had the pleasure of meeting Gotou-san at the IMC 2017 conference in Manoa, Hawaii. Earlier in the year, I had ordered two kiurushi barens (here’s the link to an earlier entry) from Gotou-san and I was quite happy with them. I found Gotou-san to be a delightful person (taller than the typical Japanese) and loves printmaking as well as baren-making. He’s now 65 (doesn’t look it) and announced while in Hawaii that he now has secured an apprentice to possibly ‘pass the baton’ for future generations of printmakers. People seemed very relieved at the news.

A 16-strand coil of braided bamboo from the Geidai University, Tokyo

You can see in my Youtube video below how Gotou-san twists a 4-strand (ko) which can be then formed into any number of braiding combinations. The plant-end of the shirotake (white bamboo) leaf is cut into strips, the cuticle is stripped off (see pic above) and the strips are spliced while twisted and braided at the same time.

Some barens take around 12 meters (~36 ft.) of braid to make a single baren coil, As you can see, he is blazing-fast (no, this is not sped-up!) and amazingly consistent.

Braiding combinanations that form the 8 to 16 ko baren.

Afterwards, the 4 strands are doubled (8 ko), tripled (12 ko), or quadrupled (16 ko), and sewn together to form the flat coil. It’s then fitted to the ategawa and a softer rope is laid outside the coil to minimize ‘bumping marks’ from the sides. Gotou-san is, of course, also a master at wrapping the takenokawa around the whole enchilada. The presentation of a new baren is very clean using white bamboo to wrap (which is weak, but pretty), and a photo of the coil is included with the new baren. I have heard that it takes some time to break in a new baren. An article from woodblock.com goes into some detail- see: here

I also did a re-wrap of all of my 22? barens (hoarder?) which was good practice. Plus, I uncoiled and sewed together the old hon baren (seen in the bottom right of above picture. Pro tip: to sew a baren you have to use silk thread and tie an overhand knot in each pass through the coil by tying, winding the coil a quarter turn, tying, etc. and introducing ‘eighth pie sections’ 2/3 of the way through for stability. Very little tension is what you want in order to keep the coil really flat- which is VERY important. IMO, my final product doesn’t look that bad for a gaijin– and thus, I give myself a ‘gentleman’s “B” ‘.

If you’d like to check out Gotou’s baren webpage, here is the link. He speaks a whole lot better English than I do Japanese, but there is always Google translate. He can make a baren to order (takes some months to make and receive)- and he does now have a PayPal account- I think that I made him join! 🙂

A video I took in Hawaii showing Gotou-san twisting shirodake (special white bamboo) strips into a 4-strand (ko). Amazing!

Another baren-making site that you might be interested in is by Aiyumi Ohashi, who I had the pleasure to work with in Asakusa. She was a student of Gotou-san and has a brief how-to page of her own here.

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