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Monday, February 16, 2009

The tool kit used for Japanese calligraphy

Using the most adequate tool kit is essential for writing correct japanese calligraphic works. The primary tools are paper, special brushes, ink and the ink-pot; these four are also known under the expression "The four treasures of the Study". Here are a few basic tools and their description:

* Shitajiki - is a material which comes under the sheets of paper used for writing the calligraphy.

* Bunchin 文鎮 - a metalic object much like a stick that comes over the shitajiki and the paper, to assure stability when writing.

* Washi - it is the name for the thin sheet of calligraphic paper .

* Fude - the japanese name for the writing brush. There are two main tipes of brushes: futofude( the large brush) and hosofude( the thin brush). The first one is used for writing the text, while the thin ones are used for writing the author's name, at the footer. For manufacturing a brush are used various kinds of animal hair, the shape of the final characters varying according to the type used. The hair comes from animals like wolves, squirrels, weasels or goat. The handle is commonly made out of bamboo. It is seldomly manufactured from glass, ivory, silver, gold or red ruby wood.

* Suzuri - is the name for the ink-pot.

* Sumi - solid pieces of ink that are melted in water and converted in liquid ink after a long process of rubbing. There are, of course, bottles of liquid ink, but they are used only for practice purposes. Traditional Sumi is made from charcoal or smut, this being the reason why in ancient japanese calligraphy it was written only with black characters; more recently there are calligraphs known to be using other colours. For instance, the master corrects the works of his pupils with orange ink.

* Suiteki - is a custom made bowl, filled with water and used to rinse the brushes from time to time. They come in various shapes and sizes and are usually made out of ceramics.

* Suzuribako - is a custom made box lodging the entire tool kit used for calligraphy.

If you want to find out more about various kits click here.

The Art of the Japanese Calligraphy- a short introduction

The japanese calligraphy is a combination of a person's skill and imagination and requires compelling knowledge of various mixes of lines and strokes. It is, by definition, a very personal occupation, the styles varying from one calligraph to another.

Known by the japanese term of shodou it is perceived as a form of traditional art, mainly due to the fact that every character has a meaning of its own. Maybe for an untrained eye they are all the same, but a profesional japanese calligraph can easily distinguish between a good and a mediocre work. It is all about knowledge and inner flair.
There are no standard rules for shodou, but we can outline a few guidelines for judging it: the balance between each written character and the composition as a whole; strait lines have to be strong and well defined; the curved ones should be delicate and sharpe; another criterion is the quantity of ink used; most importantly, a proper shodou work should have an inner rithm and vitality.

The art of calligraphy originated in India and China; it was introduced in Japan in VI-VIII centuries( when it already was an established tradition in China), alongside the chinese writing system, known as Kanji. The priests and monks were among the first to practice this ancient art, the most famous of them being the buddhist monk Kukai. The japanese calligraphy meet a real boom in the X-XI centuries, when three practicians of this noble art- Ono no Tofu, Fujiwara and Yukinari- developed the first japanese writing technique, namely mayou. This process continued throught the centuries and reached its finest expression after the first World War, embodied in the zen-ei sho style. The japanese calligraphy exerted a tremendous influence on the Western art, if we only consider two great masters: Matisse and Picasso.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Japanese Kimono

Kimono is a japanese word that describes the traditional nipon costume,worn both by men and women. The term is of rather recent origins, dating back in the 19th century, when it was introduced to clearly mark the limits between Western clothing, yokufu, and wafuku, the japanese traditional costumes. Kimono comes from kiru(to wear) and mono(thing) and therefore literary means "thing to wear". The japanese kimono is said to had been influenced by the Chinese traditional costumes used during the Han period( apx. II century A.D.).

The kimono comes, invariable, in a fixed, universal size, its lenght being adjusted by a binding silk cord, its margins folding over it. The kimono's colours had to be chosen carefully, as they indicated the owner's rank in society. The kimono cult blossomed during the Edo age. The trend was set by kabukiactors and high class dames.

The kimono tradition spread all across Japan, this costume being mass-worn by all social strata of the japanese society. That until the Meiji period, when Western clothing became a compulsory requirement for all those helding public functions; even in this conditions, many women kept wearing the traditional kimono long after the II World War.

Nowdays, the kimono costume is being worn only at special occasions, like weddings, New Year's Eve or during the tea ceremony. The kimono cloth, as well as its colours and decorations carry information in relation with the owner's age and social status. Also the adroid mix of accessories and the colour palette can tell a lot about his/her personality. The entire outfit has to be carefully calculated in respect with the season in which it is worn. In such way, dull colours are used in the spring time, while bleak hues are appropriate during the summer. For autumn, the kimono colours are more nature-like, while in winter the most common are the strong hues, like red or black.
A traditional Kimono can be very expensive, starting from 10.000 $ up. This hasn't to be such a huge surprise, if we consider that it is hand weaved and hand painted using ancient japanese techniques.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

The way of the Japanese Samurai-Bushido

Samurai is a japanese word used for describing the ancient military aristocracy. It is derived from saburau, the japanese translation for the verb to serve. Through out the centuries this medieval warrior became the ultimate everlasting symbol of the japanese quest for perfection.

The Samurai were masters of rural domains and direct shogun's vassals. They had under their command warriors with strange habits, at least for a Westerner;
before each fight they used to perfume themselves, worn heavy make-up and blackened their teeth. All these strange customs were deserted in 1870.
The standards, known as the Samurai warrior code or, simply, Bushido weren't always followed; they foccused on the ideea of honour, of keeping up a promise, of protecting at any costs the suveran and contempt in front of death. This code of honour and absolute loyalty towards their shogun puts the samurai-s on the same level with the medieval european knights, with the only difference that in Bushido there isn't any reference towards religious conduct. During battles, the samurai was horse riding, carring heavy and somptuose harness. His armour was made out of iron plates; the iron helmet was heavy decorated, they wore footwear out of bear coat, a huge arch, a quiver, a dagger and two swords. The samurai kit wasn't complete without his flag and a fan used to make his gestures and military orders seem even more martial than they were. As a must, a samurai had to know to play at least one musical instrument.

Miyamoto Musashi, a samurai from the 17th century alleged that an oath signifies loyalty at any costs. The Bushido code enforced respect, honour and total contempt towards death. To avoid the shame of being taken prisoner and, much later, to prove his loyalty infront of the shogun or to protest against an unfair conduct of a superior, in the 13th century first appeared the Harakiri( which literary means "to cut through the stomach") or Seppuku, derived from a chinese word. When the samurais lost a battle, the mass suicides were extremely common, clan leaders compelling hundreds of men towards this desperate gesture. It is important to keep in mind that samurais weren't affraid of dying as they perceived death as a normal and beneficial process of reuniting the deceased's spirit with Mother Nature. The samurai caste came to its decay at the end of the 19th century, once Japan embraced the road to modernisation. Once the feudal system is abolished the samurais have lost their very reason of being. A large number of them improve their economic status by becoming merchants in Nagasaki, Osaka and Edo. Others followed an intelectual reconversion, some of which became well known in literature and arts.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


One of the symbols of Japanese culture, Gheisas are the first point of interest for every foreigner that enters this fascinating asian country.
A Geisha is, in a few words, a woman who's only job is to entertain guests. In order to become one, they have to meet multiple qualities: beauty, grace, artistic skills, charm, refinement and perfect etiquette.
Those women who are wishing to became a geisha have to take intense training in various japanese traditional domains, aslike ancient dancing, singing and playing different musical instruments; they also have to master the traditional flower arrangement tehnique, Ikebana, the tea ceremony, japanese calligraphy, conversation, manners and much more. Nowdays, Geishas are very well adapted to the modern way of living and many of them are studying English and even how to use personal computers.

The process of becaming a Geisha is quite difficult and it is a long term endeavour.
The conductress of a tea house discusses with the girl wanting to became a geisha and also with her parents. If the candidate is accepted after these preliminary talks, she will start living together with her matron immediately begin special training. Once the girl enters into the tea house she will not be able to leave this place in the next 4 or 5 years. By tradition, girls begin training at an early age. During childhood they are working as servants and carry on various household tasks. This stage is called shikomi. Once the wannabe geisha becomes expert in all required arts of this profession, she has to sustain a very difficult dancing exam. If she is successful she moves to the second stage of the long term training, that being minarai. During this period they continue focussing on studying arts, without carring on with household duties. After a few years, when it's considered they mastered all the required knowledge, they enter for a month in the tea house where they practice the arts of conversation and playing, which are impossible to learn just in theory. After this period of intense learning she will became a young geisha, or Maiko in japanese. This usually hapens when the girls are around 19 or 20 years old.
There are two types of geishas: Tachikata, her main skill being the traditional dancing- mai, and jikata, expert in singing or playing an instrument. Usually tachikata are the younger geishas, maiko-s, while jikata are the older geishas.
Geishas are usually hired to attend all sorts of feasts, inside tea houses or traditional japanese restaurants. There is a signifiant confusion regarding geishas, especially in the Western world, where these delicate creatures have been perceived as prostitutes. Confusion was created by real professional japanese prostitutes, who were using the image of geisha in order to raise their popularity.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

How to behave at a Japanese tea ceremony

If you are lucky enough as to be invited to a japanese tea ceremony, you have to study its history and meaning and expect to have a long relaxing adventure, if we only consider that a complete tea ceremony can go up to 5 hours. It consists of three major stages. For starters you will be served kaiseki- a kind of appetizer, then koicha- a dense thick tea and, at the end, usucha- a light tea. Considering it's duration, the tea ceremony usually is restricted to the last part.
Those who decide to follow exactly the ancient tea custom have to abide by a multitude of strict rules, even before the proper ceremony begins. The traditional Kimono is a must and the location of the ceremony( chashitsu- the tea house) has to be perfectly cleaned. None of the ceremonial utensils are randomly chosen: they are all cosiderably old, except the bamboo bowl and a napking used for wiping, who have to be immaculate white. You also have to pay attention to way of saluting, of sitting at the table or the way to pour out the tea into the tiny cups. Conversation also plays a key role and usually is centered on origins of the utensils, on prasing the beauty of the host's gestures, of the ceremonial and natural beauty in general.
The traditional japanese tea ceremony takes place in special arranged rooms; the guest's itinerary starts from a waiting room, followed by a garden and a further passage through a gate. Then they wash their hands and mouth, in order to purify themselves and after that they finally enter the chashitsu. There is no talking during this interval, so the guests are guided just by the host's gestures. The tea room is extremely simple, as it contains only a small table for serving tea, a traditional painted parchment and a few mats: the host and the most honoured guest sit on one mat, the rest of the guest on a second mat and utensils are all put on a third one. After all the guests have payed a close look to the parchment they are served appetizers, called chakaiseki. After that they are invited to the garden, as the host has an significant task ahead: preparing the tea and changing the parchment with a floral arrangement called chabana.
With 5 gong beatings or 7 bells( depending if the ceremony is taking place during the day or night time) the guests are called back into the chashitsu. While they are admiring the chabana the host brings all the utensils required for the tea ceremony: a large cup, a bamboo whisk, napking, a vase with water for washing, a silk handkerchief and a bamboo ladle.
But how is the tea prepared? The powder tea is poured into a cup and then you pour water heated at 60 degrees Celsius. Afterwards you mix it with a bamboo stick untill it turns foamy. The cup is then offered to the first guest. The later performs a bow, uplifts and rotates the tea cup, tastes it and then he gives it away to the next person, till the cup comes back to the host.

A short history of Sado, the Japanese tea ceremony

Sado or The Japanese tea ceremony is both the oldest and world renowed japanese traditions. Its charm resides in its spirituality and the simple and unharmed beauty of this staggering nectar which is the green tea. The very tea which is the key point of the century old ceremony for wich japanese people are known around the globe. Modern japanese learn it in special schools and tourists came from all corners of the world to see it.
The tea plant was brought to Japan from China, in the 12 th century, by Eisai, a Buddhist monk. He is nowdays known as "the father of tea". Used exclusively in the japanese temples, it started in the following decades to be more and more appreciated by laics, especially by noblemen and samurai. In order to become a tea cult ( chanoyu) it required to reach a higher level, and this was made possible by another buddhist monk, Murata Juko (Shuko) (1422- 1503). It was him who established the first principles of the future tea ceremony. Chanoyu was later updated by the great master Soueki, the one who shape it into the modern form we know today.