Calligraphy (書道, shodō: “the way of writing”) is the art of writing beautifully. Most children in Japan learn calligraphy in elementary school, and it is also a popular hobby among adults. An interesting aspect of Japanese writing that carries over to calligraphy is the importance that is placed on the order in which the strokes of characters are drawn.
There are three main styles of writing. The block (kaisho) style is the most basic form and the easiest to write, so beginners usually learn this style first. Upon mastering this style, practitioners then usually move up to practice the semi cursive (gyosho) style, before finally moving on to the cursive (sosho) style. Becoming skilled at the sosho style typically takes a lot of practice.
There are a few places where tourists can take calligraphy lessons for beginners in English, including some temples and culture centers. Although available nationwide, they are more easily found in tourist hotspots and historic districts, including in Kyoto and Tokyo. Local tourist information desks and travel activity websites, such as Voyagin, are good places to search for such activities.
A typical calligraphy experience consists of learning about the craft’s history before being guided through the techniques involved. Participants then get the chance to practice writing particular sets of kanji under the purview of the instructor. At the end, participants are usually able to have some of their work packed in a protective manner so as to take home with them. Lessons typically take 1-2 hours and cost between 2000 and 5000 yen per person. Advance reservations are often required.
A calligraphy set consists of:
- Shitajiki: Soft mat. It provides a comfortable, soft surface for writing.
- Bunchin: Metal stick to weight down the paper during writing.
- Hanshi: Special, thin calligraphy paper.
- Fude: Brush. There is a larger brush for writing the main characters and a smaller one for writing the artist’s name. The small brush, however, can be used for the characters, too.
- Suzuri: Heavy black container for the ink.
- Sumi: Solid black material that must be rubbed in water in the suzuri to produce the black ink which is then used for writing. Instead, “instant ink” in bottles is also available.
History and tradition
The main focus of Japanese calligraphy is simplicity, beauty and a connection between mind and body. The art of Japanese calligraphy dates back to around the 6th century, when it was introduced from China. In the beginning the style of calligraphy in Japan was highly influenced by the Chinese form. Calligraphers copied Chinese poetry and texts, in order to learn the art
During the Heian period (794-1185) the Japanese writing system evolved. The borrowed Chinese characters (漢字, kanji) were still used, but a new type of characters: kana (hiragana ひらがな, and later katakana カタカナ), were created. With these additional characters the calligraphy transformed into a style unique for Japan.
Shodō is closely linked to Zen Buddhism and is influenced by its ideas and values. Japanese calligraphy goes far beyond simply writing characters or words. The key to true calligraphy is to bring the mind and soul into the work and to write with your heart, otherwise it’s meaningless. The calligrapher only has one chance, since the brush strokes can’t be corrected. To express a deep meaning, the work must show the emotions, personality and passion of the artist. It is also said that the way of writing is the path to enlightenment.