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The Unbelievable--A Japanese Stationery Store
One of the lesser-known delights in Japan awaiting the traveler from abroad is a stationery store. The variety of wonderful pens, pencils, ball pens, erasers and just plain silly novelties never ceases to amaze, and a second visit to the same store after some years, or even months, will find an entirely new selection of mad and ingenious writing materials. That the clientele of a Japanese stationery store is mainly composed of students and young people does not explain the phenomenon of the stock. The ancient tradition of devotion and attention lavished on writing materials in Japan provides a reason.
The Four Treasures
Since Japan imported the Chinese writing system wholesale in the 5th or 6th century, it is not surprising that the Chinese attitude towards writing and the accouterments of the skill would also be adopted. What is very surprising is that this attitude has lasted fifteen hundred years.
With the observation that government is founded on writing, the Chinese set great importance on the Four Treasures of Writing--brush, ink, inkstone, and paper. In emulating the Chinese bureaucratic system as well, the Japanese imperial court of ancient days had to produce its own Four Treasures. From Japan's earliest written records (8th century), brush, ink, inkstone, and paper appear as objects of value and affection.
The Japanese calligraphy brush is a complex structure, and, with attention paid to the decorative qualities of the handle, may even come close to being a work of art. Different types of animal hair absorb and release ink in different ways, and calligraphers have personal preferences for certain kinds of brushes for their own writing styles and for different jobs. A calligraphy brush is not just a hank of hair stuck in a tube, but has an intrieate structure, and only skilled craftsmen are able to make a good brush. One exception may be the brush used for rough, spontaneous effects, which is just a single length of narrow bamboo, one end of which has been pounded until the fibers separate and are flexible. Though much of the hair used for calligraphy brushes once came from wild animals such as weasel, squirrel, badger, wolf, and the like, today horse, deer, goat, rabbit, cat, dog, and sheep are largely used, the hair being imported from China, Southeast Asia, and Canada. Feathers, straw, and dried grasses are also used for special brushes.
Sumi ink painting is a world adjacent to calligraphy. Ink painting brushes have a much greater variety and used a wider range of animal hair than do calligraphy brushes. Also derived from calligraphy brushes are the very long, fine brushes used for intricate and delicate detail in maki-e gold lacquer decoration. The best of these use the long, soft hair from the sides of ship rats; the second best is cat hair.
The traditional form of Chinese and Japanese ink is in sticks, not liquid. An ink stick is rubbed with water on an inkstone to render the liquid ink for writing and painting. The best-quality carbon black for ink is made by burning pine roots. Lesser qualities are made by burning various oils. The carbon black is kneaded into a glue binder to form the sticks, and there may be such luxurious extras as scents added as well as touches of pigment, such as sepia or indigo, to give the black a subtle tint. A good ink stick fetches a high price (antique ink sticks from Ming dynasty China and earlier obtain astronomical prices, but these are art objects, not to be used for making ink), and it must be made with great care and attention. There must never be impurities, and it must have a homogenous, fine texture throughout. No lumps or even little hard grains are allowed.
Applying an ink stick to an inkstone is an intimate act. It is a kind of internal preparation, a descent into quiet, for the calligrapher before the challenge of ink against paper is met. Therefore, the feel of the ink against the stone is of great importance. By this alone, a calligrapher knows whether or not an ink stick is good or not. Other criteria for a good ink stick are density of color (i.e., if it takes a lot of rubbing to obtain a good black), size and shape of stick, tint, aroma, and so forth. The choice of an ink stick also depends on what is being written; different styles of writing have different demands. And there are imponderables--two master calligraphic artists will likely choose entirely different ink sticks. Calligraphy is an art; there are no absolutes.
Though a calligrapher has a close, intimate relationship with all the Four Treasures, his/her inkstone becomes a true friend. No matter how many inkstones a calligrapher has, there will be one or two that have a special place.
The average inkstone is made of a fine-grained, hard, dense slate. The quality of stone appropriate for inkstones is found in only a few places. Prices range from the little stones used in elementary school to true works of art costing a large fortune. In essence, an inkstone is a small sculpture, despite or beyond the fact that it also has a utilitarian purpose. An inkstone does not have to be stone; there are ceramic inkstones as well. Though the demand is diminishing, the stone is still being mined and inkstones are still being carved in a few places in Japan.
If questioned about the criteria for choosing an inkstone, long experience is needed to be able to choose among the many different types and shapes of inkstones, and even an expert is probably hard put to state his or her criteria. Most likely a choice is highly personal. Again, there are no absolutes.
The subject of Japanese paper (washi) has been introduced in the Paper page of this site. Fine calligraphy paper may not be 100 percent paper mulberry, but have some other fiber such as bamboo added for absorbency. There are many grades and qualities of calligraphy paper; usually such paper is made in a special long size to fit the proportions of hanging scroll mountings.