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Nowhere else can you find so many Japanese art forms in one place as in the ancient capital of Kyoto. Meet six people working to pass on its artistic heritage, in new ways and old.

Japan learnt the art of writing from China between the 5th and 7th centuries AD. By then, the characters had evolved into a standard form – a crisp but elegant style which continues to set the benchmark today.

Sunlight shines through the paper in the sliding doors, casting latticework shadows on the tatami mat floor in the room where Hiroko Harada arranges the tools of her art: paper, brush, ink and inkstone. These were known as the ‘four treasures’ by scholars, in the centuries when calligraphy was held to be the highest of the arts. Japan began to adapt the Chinese writing system for its own use around 1,500 years ago, and it is still something of a mixed blessing. There are 2,136 different kanji – complex Chinese characters with meanings like ‘dog’, ‘eternal’ and ‘to be intoxicated’ – that students have to learn by the end of high school, and thousands more for the truly dedicated.

Yet kanji have a strange power, which comes out clearly when Hiroko stands over the paper and bends to write the characters as large as she can, in black brushstrokes that are sometimes firm and sometimes sinuous, as the smell of fresh ink fills the room after each new movement. ‘Before I begin,’ she says, ‘I have an image in my mind of the final shape – the balance between white and black. The white is more important, as it brings out the black.’ Across Japanese arts, the untouched part – called ‘ma’ – is significant, whether it’s a canvas largely left blank or the silence between drumbeats. Emptiness has a value of its own, not least in a country where many people must live without the luxury of space.

Hiroko’s formal-looking kimono looks ill-suited at first to working with brush and ink, but posture is everything in calligraphy, and the long sleeves are thought to instil a feminine style of calligraphy. She has written a pair of kanji meaning ‘cloud dragon’ – the latter in homage to the Chinese zodiac animal of 2012. I also ask if she would mind writing the character ‘michi’: at its simplest, it means a road or path, but more symbolically it stands for ‘the way’. In Chinese it is pronounced ‘dao’, and, altered in Japanese mouths, this sound became the ‘do’ part in judo and aikido, and indeed in shodo – which means calligraphy, or the ‘way of writing’. What others might describe as an art or a skill or even a hobby, is in Japan a way to follow.

Discover more

  • Hiroko Harada teaches at the Kampo Cultural Center, just to the east of Heian Shrine. The centre is named after the style of calligraphy founded by her father-in-law, Kampo Harada, who taught hundreds of thousands of students during his life. As well as calligraphy courses, the centre also holds regular half-day events mixing calligraphy and flower arranging.
  • Local company Windows to Japan offers the opportunity of seeing a calligraphy master at work as part of its customised tours.
  • The Kyoto National Museum will hold an exhibition on the calligraphy of Japanese emperors from 13 Oct– 25 Nov 2012. Temples around the city are also good places to see examples of the art on display.

Japan has long excelled in silk weaving. Kimonos are its best-known products, and even while most Japanese rarely wear them today, many women visiting Kyoto will put one on especially to look the part in this guardian city of traditional culture.

The sound of an old-fashioned loom is dependable. First there is a low wheeze as the hanging heddles raise and lower alternating sets of warp threads to create a space for the shuttle to draw the weft through. And then comes a satisfying wooden thump as the warp threads fall back in parallel, the fabric now one line nearer completion. Repeat thousands of times and the result is a piece of silk brocade that almost glows.

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