We were 15 Shiboku Studio students from all around the country, with a range of
different occupations and lifestyles – from dreamy artists, through sensible
educators, psychologists and managers to brisk hi-techies – all sharing a
passion for Japanese art of the brush – some practice shodo (Japanese
calligraphy), others sumi-e (Japanese ink painting). We were following our
Japanese master, Ishii-sensei, who was leading us on a hunt for the four
treasures – brush (fude), ink stick (sumi), inkstone (suzuri) and paper (washi)
– in Honshu, the largest island of Japan.
Our first stop was Nara, the
most eastern point on the Silk Road that became the first capital of Japan
between 710 C.E. and 784 C.E.. Located in the Kansai region, the
southern-central region of Honshu, Nara is a city of world largest.
Eastern Great Temple (todaiji) is the largest wooden building in the world that
houses the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana, known in
Japanese as Daibutsu (big Buddha). Even more fascinating are the sika deer, the
messengers of the gods in the Shinto religion, roaming freely in the city
grounds. Nara cuisine, however, is infamous, or as Honda-san, our Japanese
travel guide explained – “There is nothing good to eat in Nara, that’s why you
have only one hour to get some fast food in the city center.”
But we did
not come to Nara for its gourmet food, green tea ice cream or feeding the deer.
We came for three out of the four treasures – the Nara brush, the Nara ink stick
and the inkstone.
The production of Nara brush, one of the most delicate
artistic tools, started at the sixth century when Kukai, the founder of the
Shingon sect of Buddhism, introduced them from the T’ang dynasty in China, and
instructed Nara’s craftsmen on how to make them. The brush handle is made from
bamboo stalk. The quill is crafted by the art of mixing up to 10 different types
of the finest hair of domestic and wild animals.
The inner core of the
brush is made from the more rigid hair, while the external layers are formed
from softer hair. Delicate hairs are reserved for the tip.
the artist, the brush responds to the most subtle hand movements.
day, we had taken in this craftsmanship of mixing and matching the neck and tail
hairs of goat, deer, horse, wolf or rabbit from a female Japanese artisan for
making our own Nara brushes. One mission had been accomplished.
day, we went on to the ink stick exploration. Our expedition followed
Ishiisensei to the Nara sumi museum. Craftsmen of Nara sumi, one of the most
nuanced substances in art, provided temples’ demand for ink sticks for over 600
years, since the Muromachi period (1336- 1573). Sumi is made from the burned and
kneaded soot of pine branches, selected from trees in the mountain forests close
to Nara. The ink artisan burns the soot with natural oils such as sesame or
rapeseed. The burned soot is then kneaded with nikawa, a binding agent made from
Remarkable strength is required to knead the pine soot and
nikawa, and we could not help being lured by the salient exhibit of the Nara
sumi museum – a live kneading. We watched a strong young Japanese artisan
kneading through the display window. During kneading, a delicate fragrance is
blended in. The kneaded ink is then set in beautiful wooden molds and ash-dried.
Later the ink, wrapped in straw is hung to age. The most desired ink is polished
with a shell to give it a fine gleam. Sumi ink can be aged for 10 years or
Next mission was to find the right inkstone. Water, ink stick and
inkstone create the meditative process of Japanese ink art. The artist drops a
few drops of water on the inkstone. As water flashes on the curved surface of
the stone, the artist descends into quiet meditation.
Bringing the ink
stick to the inkstone is an intimate act of touch. As the first scent of
fragrant ink is released, the artist’s mind is set free. The art of grinding the
ink requires a refined technique of sliding. Sliding the ink stick across the
inkstone in subtle movements creates a harmonious mood. The artist then feels
the right moment for a brush stroke.
We followed a Nara street map to
find our perfect inkstone at a legendary calligraphy shop – and eureka, Shiboku
students have found paradise on earth. For a long time we refused to leave that
shop and go on for our next treasure hunt – paper.
But before starting
the journey to Echizen paper village (three hours by train from Nara), we
travelled to Kyoto’s most beautiful Buddhist temples, for practicing qi-gong
meditation with Ishii-sensei and for taking his Japanese ink painting and
calligraphy workshop. The workshop aimed to prepare Shiboku students for the
sophisticated task of drawing our own traditional Kyoto-style fan
Kyoto, the imperial capital of Japan from 794 (Heian period)
until the Meiji restoration in 1868, is a spiritual center with 1,600 Buddhist
temples and 400 Shinto shrines, as well as ancient palaces and gardens. Our days
in Kyoto started at six with Buddhist morning chanting. After the daily blessing
by the head of monks, we moved on to our qi-gong practices, calligraphy and ink
painting workshops and wandering in Zen gardens and bamboo groves. For some
moments, it felt like we were samurais secluded in a Buddhist temple, practicing
both martial arts and Japanese calligraphy and ink painting. Our meals were
modest, Buddhist monks’ food. But we realized that even when the main dish is
simply steamed rice and the hot drink is some burned rice tea – we felt
We practiced our samurai and fan drawing capabilities for three
days, then traveled to Fukui prefecture, 180 km. north of Kyoto, in a search of
Echizen paper village.
The local tale says that 1,500 years ago, a
princess-goddess had compassion for the people in this area, since they did not
have any rice fields to make their living, so she taught them how to make paper
with natural materials from local plants such as the mulberry. At the village
workshop, we created our Japanese paper following the traditional process. In
this village we had our four-treasure hunt fulfilled.
More information on
Shiboku Studio is available at http://www.shiboku.com