Doors closing on another amazing Chicago institution

I'd driven past it a million times and was always curious. Finally, in 2005, as we were getting ready for our wedding I decided to make the mission to the north side to check out Aiko's. For decades Aiko's Art Materials has supplied Chicago artisans with a huge variety of beautiful and unique hand-made Japanese papers; it was there that I purchased a lot of the paper and tissue goods that we used on our invitations and gift baskets. The staff there were friendly, extremely knowledgeable, and very helpful - it closes its doors this Friday. Sadly Aiko's felt that they could no longer compete with larger paper suppliers due to worsening economic conditions, the value of the Yen, and the aging of its owners; none of the people they approached to take over the store felt that they would be able to weather the storm any better. One of my co-workers, our book binder, wrote up a nice little tribute piece and said I could post it up; due to his long term relationship with the store, I felt that his piece would explain a bit more about the nature of the store and the Japanese art of paper making than mine could:

A Sun Rising, Forevermore
Aiko’s Art Materials, founded in Chicago in 1955 by Aiko Nakane, closed its doors on Friday, April 11, 2008, a truly unwelcome casualty of changing times.

Aiko (September 15, 1908-May 19, 2004) assisted many people with her encyclopedic knowledge of the handmade Japanese papers (washi) and no less me with my research on things called “rice paper.” She provided the critical information regarding the final modern link of the term “rice paper” to the Japanese papers, remarkably in the process adding a fourth, asa (= hemp), to the commonly known three, kozo, mitsumata, and gampi. Even though her contribution is only one sentence long, it is the glue which holds my paper together and completes it. The following excerpt from Hand Papermaking, Summer 1994, honors her. She will live forevermore in the name of her fellowship fund and in our hearts, continuing past this the 100th anniversary of her birth. (Ken Grabowski, Field Museum of Natural History, April 11, 2008.)

Rice Paper Caper

Ken Grabowski

“Here, Holmes, try this macaroon. It has edible rice paper on the bottom.”
“I'm surprised at you, Watson, you of all people. What you have just called rice paper, and has been commonly called that by the masses since at least the late 1940s1 , contains neither rice or paper but is instead a wafer imported from Holland and composed entirely of potato flour and ground nut oil.”


“Potato, Solanum tuberosum.”

“Well, I'll be. But why is it then called rice paper, Holmes?”

“Ah yes, Watson, why indeed. ….”

“Logical, Holmes. Are we done yet? Our tea is getting cold.”

“Watson, there are many more examples of things being incorrectly called rice paper, perhaps a score. But because our tea is getting cold, I will mention just two. For instance, the term rice paper for handmade Japanese paper (washi) dates at least back to the beginning of the 20th century when Hitchcock conveyed ‘Contrary to the usual supposition, rice paper is not made from rice, but from Paper Mulberry [three species of Broussonetia].’21 It took awhile but unfortunately the expression eventually caught on to the point where both the educated and uneducated use it to the nth degree when discussing washi.

“By the 1960s the terms Japanese paper and rice paper were clearly synonymous. Thus Nakane was absolutely accurate when she said ‘So called rice paper is made from fibers of plants called kozo, gampi, mitsumata and asa.’22

“Dr. Livingston, I presume.”

“You presume correctly, Watson. Now, if I had my way only the item in category 1 would be called rice paper. The items in category 2 would be called only Japanese paper: kozo or paper mulberry; gampi; mitsumata; or asa when referring to the individual papers. The item in category 3 would be called only springroll skin, rice pancake, or rice sheet, and not rice paper. The items in category 4 would be called potato wafer and pith sheet, respectively. But I don't have my way and I'm afraid we'll have to put up with all this misnaming for some time to come, I fear. Anyway, I'm getting hungry again. I hope I haven't bored you with this escapade.”

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