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
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
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
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.
- 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
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
- 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
- Shops selling pottery are common in the streets
below Kiyomizu-dera, and the section of Teramachi-dori between Marutamachi-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
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.
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
- 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
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.
- 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
- 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.