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.

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  • 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.

Weaving in Kyoto has traditionally been concentrated in the district of Nishijin – a place dotted with types of old-fashioned neighbourhood shops that have disappeared from most Japanese streets, including one where locals can bring their own rice to be polished.

One of weaving’s finest practitioners, however, is found north of Nishijin. Amane Tatsumura is the fourth generation in his family to produce silk brocade, in the Koho workshop named after his father. ‘I do weave myself, but my role is more like that of a movie director,’ he says. ‘More than 70 different processes go into making the finished fabric.’ He points out the shuttles they use, made of red oak, with the hole for the thread lined in local Kiyomizu-yaki ceramic.

Koho is also unusual in continuing to use punch cards. These strings of cards with patterns of holes in them help to control the heddles which move the warp threads. ‘This was the beginning of IBM,’ Amane says, only half-joking. Weaving was just as important in Japan’s Industrial Revolution as it was in Britain’s, and Toyota and Suzuki both started out as loom manufacturers.

The punch cards, like the shuttles, are made by only one person in the whole country. The multitude of parts and processes that go into weaving helps to sustain dozens of artisans, almost like an ecosystem.

‘Time for the magic show,’ enthuses Amane before holding up a silk sash of intricate design in front of a succession of pieces of coloured cloth. When the cloth is purple, the purple threads in the sash seem to light up. When the cloth is green, the eye sees the green silk stand out. Blue, yellow, black and salmon-pink all follow in turn. Knowledge like that can only be acquired after generations.

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  • The Koho workshop displays some of its signature pieces, such as the wave design pictured on this page, and a wall hanging showing a small deer that appears and disappears as you walk past. Visitors can sometimes watch weavers at work, by appointment only.
  • In the traditional silk-weaving district of Nishijin, the Orinasukan workshop has an early-20th-century feel, apart from the odd digital display. Visitors can book sessions to learn the basics of weaving, making multi-coloured table settings. Five minutes’ walk away, Shosuikaku is a beautiful old house showing virtuoso works in silk.
  • Windows to Japan can arrange visits to Kyoto’s quieter silk-weaving workshops as part of its Behind the Veil tours.

Japan’s comics culture is stronger on its home turf than any other country’s – manga, together with its screen sibling anime, is worth as much as 3 trillion yen (£23 billion) a year to the Japanese economy.

If Japan has its own Metropolis or Gotham City, the neon tangle of Tokyo’s Shinjuku district would seem a likelier candidate than Kyoto, with its modest skyline and quiet suburbs dotted with temples. Kyoto lost its status as the country’s centre of real power in 1603, and when the largely symbolic figure of the emperor moved to the new capital in 1869, Kyoto was left with the feeling that it no longer had a role to play in modern Japan.

The Kyoto International Manga Museum is one of the city’s efforts to prove the contrary. The museum’s deputy director Toshio Kosaka hopes Kyoto can encourage its young manga artists to stay after their studies. ‘Many artists move to Tokyo when they become successful,’ he says. ‘But we think maybe they could be inspired more by Kyoto.’

Eiyu Kojima has certainly found his spark in the city. He has just completed a series of tall folding screens drawn in manga style, based on a famous work by the 17th-century artist Tawaraya Sotatsu showing the dramatic encounter of the wind god and the thunder god. ‘He only drew their meeting, and not the story behind it,’ says Eiyu. ‘So I wanted to draw the story right up to the moment they met.’

He is a regular at the museum’s weekend open manga studio, and he demonstrates some of the stylistic differences that give manga their impact. In one panel, for example, you see only the thunder god’s teeth. ‘Hiding part of the scene gives a stronger impression,’ Eiyu says. ‘The space which hasn’t been drawn is what the reader imagines.’ This is textbook manga, but it is also straight out of the playlist of Japan’s great woodblock printers.

Manga artists on the whole shun wordy speech bubbles and captions in every panel, believing it is tiring for the eye to have to switch constantly from pictures to small text. The strip moves fluidly from panel to panel, mixing different viewpoints, with a few manga ‘special effects’ thrown in, such as visible sighs and bursts of light to show sudden realisation. Manga’s already cinematic style makes for an easy jump to on-screen animation. And as Eiyu Kojima shows, it is one new art form in which Japan’s artistic heritage can live on.

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  • The Kyoto International Manga Museum is based in a former primary school near the busy downtown crossroads of Karasumadori and Oike-dori. Six years after the museum opened, local people still use its playing field for baseball and come here to vote in elections. In addition to its exhibitions and collection of around 50,000 manga titles, the museum runs a studio on weekends and holidays where visitors can watch artists at work.
  • Manga tends to be divided by age group and gender – shonen and shojo manga for boys and girls respectively, and seinen and josei manga for men and women. Fantasy and sci-fi are always popular subjects, but manga is very broad: one series, Kami no Shizuku – which is beginning to appear in English translation as Drops of God – is devoted to wine tasting.

Even as Japanese kilns produced the finest export porcelain in the 17th and 18th centuries, the country’s master potters were creating rough-textured, oddly shaped bowls in humble colours – and being praised for it too.

For lovers of functional beauty, of rough textures and things unfinished – for many Japanese in fact – Jun Kawajiri’s workshop is deeply satisfying. It isn’t just the eclectic mix of glazed and unglazed pottery crowding every shelf that appeals, but the corrugated iron walls and roofs, and the wires snaking across the dusty floor to odd bits of machinery.

Jun is the 14th generation in a family of potters, a lineage that is not unusual in the world of Japanese arts. ‘I strive to do new things,’ he says. ‘But in the colours and glazes that I use, I am informed by the tradition of my family.’ He is equally at home creating smoothfinished vessels as he is making deliberately imperfect ones. For the first approach, he shapes a wettened cone of clay on a fast-spinning wheel, gradually turning a small dimple in the top into a bowl shape, which he smooths with a deerskin cloth and releases from its base with one quick draw of a taut wire. For his second work, however, he builds a bowl by hand from the base up with rings of clay, smoothed only a little with a wooden spatula.

In pottery, there is a delicate line between the unevenness of a beginner and the unevenness of a master. ‘When people try to make a pot unbalanced, it looks too unbalanced,’ Jun says. ‘It has to be a natural process. If you do it a thousand times rather than ten, you understand the way the clay wants to react.’

He is particularly interested in the role that Zen Buddhism played in developing this style of artful imperfection, since its teachings came to Japan from China in the 12th century. ‘You can see elaborate objects made for kings the world over,’ he says. ‘But Zen came in and shook things up, and allowed for an opposite end to balance this. It was a new kind of beauty.’

From the 16th century on, this idea found its greatest expression in the design of bowls used in the ritual of the tea ceremony, which rejected gaudiness in favour of calming simplicity. In a room decorated with little more than a single arrangement of flowers and a seasonal piece of calligraphy, guests sit on the floor, sipping thick green tea from bowls of rustic appearance, and forget the world for a while.

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  • Jun Kawajiri’s kiln is located in Kyoto’s hilly eastern fringes. Most of the city’s kilns were traditionally concentrated here, near the temple of Kiyomizu-dera, which is famous for being partly built out on stilts from the hillside. Kyotos pottery style is named Kiyomizu-yaki after the neighbourhood temple.
  • Plus Alpha Japan can arrange programmes for groups in the art of traditional ceramics.
  • The Raku family has been making some of the most prized bowls used in the tea ceremony since the 16th century. The Raku Museum is a few blocks west of the old Imperial Palace.
  • Shops selling pottery are common in the streets below Kiyomizu-dera, and the section of Teramachi-dori between Marutamachi-dori and Oike-dori.

In the Japan of 200 years ago, the woodblock print brought art to the masses. A striking design would be copied in the thousands, and people could buy prints, it is said, for the same price as a bowl of noodles. Later in the 19th century, these prints even influenced Western artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec.

One of the joys of Kyoto is the number of cottage industries dotted throughout the city. The woodblock printing workshop of Takezasa-do is one such place. Down a dog-leg alleyway off a nondescript stretch of busy Shijo Avenue, and up one of the narrowest flights of stairs I have ever climbed, I meet the fourth and fifth generations of the Takenaka printing family.

The division of labour runs thus: the younger Takenaka, Kenji, chisels the cherry-wood blocks to old designs and new ones of his own invention, while his father Seihachi runs off the prints by hand, one by one. Kyoto’s woodblock workers have produced prints in the thousands in low-ceilinged rooms like this one for centuries.

The printing is done in stages: black outlines first, then pink for some cherry blossoms, and blue for the Hozu River running past. Each has to be aligned exactly on the block – one millimetre out and the effect would be spoiled.

The scene is the forested foothills of Arashiyama in the northwest of Kyoto – a tourist magnet even in the 1830s, when the prolific woodblock artist Hiroshige drew the master design for the first edition of this print. Most of the woodblock prints that are popular today were not considered high art in their time. Each colour impression adds a little more to the cost of a finished print, so the cheaper designs kept the number of colours low and the style as bold as possible. ‘In Japan these prints were for ordinary people, but in the West it was the connoisseurs who bought them,’ says Kenji.

The original woodblocks have long since worn out and been destroyed. Generations of carvers and printers have always been able to make faithful copies, however, and like many popular designs, Hiroshige’s cherry trees are still in print nearly two centuries on.

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  • The alleyway leading to Takezasa-do is a left turn off Shijo Avenue, west from the crossing with Shinmachi-dori and before the crossing with Nishinotoin-dori. Take a look at the Takezasado website for a map and examples of prints sold at the workshop.
  • The Kyoto Handicraft Center stocks a huge range of woodblock prints in different styles, and runs classes where visitors can try making their own prints from two designs.

Japan takes ephemeral beauty to its heart, and there can be no better example of this than ‘ikebana’, a word that means living flowers.

Ayumi Ikushima gently corrects me when I call her ‘sensei’ (‘teacher’). She is still learning the art of ikebana from a Buddhist monk, no less. ‘My teacher always tells me: “Do it half right, half wrong.” He means half of the arrangement should follow nature, and half is what you create yourself.’

Ayumi first demonstrates a more formal style of flower arrangement, called moribana, and begins by choosing the tai – the main diagonal line. One of the fundamentals of ikebana is taking away unnecessary elements, and so a large sprig of witch hazel is reduced to the ideal branch. Two smaller sprigs are added to create an asymmetrical triangle, along with some feathery pinks, a couple of closed irises and a single peony just beginning to open. In proportional terms, ikebana is often more ‘leaf and branch arrangement’ than ‘flower arrangement’.

The second style, keshiki, is more naturalistic. In it, Ayumi seeks to evoke the feeling of a landscape, in this case a marsh with irises. Like all ikebana, it is only meant to be seen from one side, in contrast to Westernstyle 360-degree arrangements. The thought that goes into it is a marvel: some irises are just coming into bloom and others are fading, and by running her fingers repeatedly over one of the long leaves, Ayumi makes it bend slightly to create a sense of gentle breeze. For her, making an arrangement is always an immersive experience. ‘Now I feel like I’m in the mud,’ she declares happily.

The arts of Japan cross paths in both predictable and unexpected places, from the tea ceremony to Koho’s ceramic-lined shuttles. Yet all ways have this in common: they begin and end in the mind.

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  • Ayumi Ikushima teaches ikebana to guests staying at restored townhouses, known as machiya, rented through Windows to Japan. The company also organises garden tours in Kyoto, which can include an ikebana demonstration.
  • Ikebana is divided into a number of different schools. Ikenobo is the oldest, dating back more than 500 years, while Ayumi works in the Saga Goryu style.

The article 'The art of Japan' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.