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“Every single gift must have its proper folds,” says Lisa Koide Halverson. “In America, on Christmas, you don’t wrap a present in black — usually red or green. On Easter it’s usually wrapped in pink or yellow cellophane to represent spring and renewal. In Japan you have to consider the type of box, the folding, the type of paper, and the color of the paper.”

On Saturday, December 13, Halverson will conduct a class on how to use Japanese gift-wrapping techniques to package a bottle of wine, a book, and a jar. The Japanese word for the concept of wrapping is tsutsumi. Explained by Kunio Ekiguchi in his book, Gift Wrapping: Creative Ideas from Japan, tsutsumi encompasses much more than simply wrapping gifts. “For example, gods or Buddhas are ‘wrapped’ in a household altar…gardens are enclosed by a variety of fences. Architectural space is defined by translucent shoji doors, opaque fusuma doors, and bamboo blinds…and food is placed in lacquer containers.”

Ekiguchi goes on to explain that tsutsumi is “not a tight, hermetic seal but a loose, flexible covering or shading. This style embodies the concept of ‘gentle concealment,’ a central part of the traditional Japanese sense of beauty.”

Japanese paper, known as washi, is made using fibers from the mulberry tree. “It’s not rice paper, as many people think,” says Halverson. Washi is exceptionally sturdy — it can take up to 600 folds before it tears. Contrary to western culture, in which wrapping paper is seen as trash the moment a gift is revealed, the Japanese are more likely to keep and reuse it.

“In ancient times, when the priests of Japan would graduate a student from a particular study, the student would receive an intricately folded piece of origami,” says Halverson. “They [the pieces of folded paper] proved you went to school — it was actually a diploma, and you kept it the rest of your life, folded. No one could replicate the highly complex folds, they were so intricate.”

Years later, samurai warriors would exchange gifts adorned with noshi, ceremonial origami made of folded strips of paper considered to be good-luck tokens. “Origami was originally used for celebrating happy occasions, like origami butterflies for Shinto weddings. In modern times, starting in the early 1900s, it became a fun thing for little kids to fold and entertain themselves.”

These paper-folding techniques are now taught as a part of basic curriculum in Japanese schools. “There is hardly any kid you’ll meet in Japan who doesn’t know how to fold a crane,” says Halverson.

Japanese-style gift wrapping employs many of the same folds used in origami. When wrapping a present, Halverson says the goal is to “conceal the gift as beautiful as your thoughts about the person you like or adore.”

For Halverson, giving an unwrapped gift is almost unthinkable. In past years, some of her friends have converted her wraps to Christmas tree ornaments after removing the gift. “One year I gave my niece a Billy Idol record, and I made a Billy Idol paper sculpture, with jagged hair, on the front.”

It is considered rude in Japan to open a gift in the presence of the giver. “As my mother explained it to me, to do so proves you’re more anxious about the gift than the person who came to give it,” says Halverson. “The gift is but a pittance compared to the value of your time together. You have to say to a person, ‘I respect you. This is not about the gift, but about our friendship.’”

A standard gift given in Japan is smoked salmon, or any token on a similar scale. It’s not the salmon that matters so much as the “thought and beauty of the gift wrap.”

In addition to the pleasing aesthetic of a meticulous wrapping job, there are layers of meaning among the folds. For example, a wedding gift might be embellished with an origami crane, which is not only a symbol of peace but also of matrimony. “A Japanese crane picks one mate and stays with that mate for life,” Halverson explains. “If one dies, the [remaining] crane never mates again.”

Another important aspect of gift wrapping is the mizuhiki, or corded paper. “Once that knot is tied in the mizuhiki, it’s tied — it can’t be bent back and reused,” says Halverson. “It is the tie that binds.”

Perhaps Ekiguchi best summarizes the role of gift wrapping. “In Japan, it is said that giving a gift is like wrapping one’s heart. Just as one helps a friend into a coat carefully and courteously, a gift should be wrapped tenderly and conscientiously.”

— Barbarella

Japanese Gift Wraps for Wine, Book, and Jam
Saturday, December 13
10 a.m. to noon
Japanese Friendship Garden
Balboa Park
Cost: $22
Info: 619-232-2721 or www.niwa.org

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