Four-treasure island

The search for brush, ink, inkstone and paper in Honshu.

Japanese Bamboo Forest 311 (photo credit: Moran Snir)
Japanese Bamboo Forest 311
(photo credit: Moran Snir)
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.
Its 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.
Entrusted by the artist, the brush responds to the most subtle hand movements.
That 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.
The next 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 animal bone.
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 more.
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 (kyo-sensu).
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 sated.
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.

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