Shodo


History of the Martial Art

Introduced in Japan by the Chinese in the wake of Buddhism, calligraphy has become an art in its own right. In Nara, the former imperial capital, south of Kyoto, the family of Matsui Dochin has been producing the traditional sumi ink for more than four centuries.

In the center, old Nara tightens into a grid of narrow, pedestrian alleys, where neons and multiple floors disappear. There, in that condensed block of houses where life flows at yesterday's pace, the only bicycles and passers-by squeeze out, which the cold winter of Japan puts on. Prestigious capital from the year 710 to the year 784, Nara never cut the cord of the traditions. A stone's throw away from the five-storey pagoda of the Kofukuji temple, the second largest in the country (culminating at 51 m), the Kobaien company maintains, from father to son, a know-how dating back to the imperial era: manufacturing sumi, Japanese ink, used since the 7th century for calligraphy and the writing of sutras.

Above the door, no number indicates, on December 29, an ornament was laid, of straw, ropes and paper, to ensure the whole year the purification of the places - and pray, by the so that the fire is always of good quality. The craft is here an evidence, an art of living, inherited from sixteen generations of artisans, from the founding of the Kobaien factory, five centuries back. After a courteous bow, the air of concern, the mistress of the house takes us on tiptoe to the discovery of the heart of the company. It all begins with the combustion room, which is as large as a pocket-handkerchief, where lamps fed with sesame oil are continuously burnt. The walls, the floor, are covered with soot, which is harvested patiently, in a very black bucket too. In another workshop, the powder is mixed with glue - which is only made in a way and not just any, based on skin, bones and cow's intestines, just scented of camphor for the pleasure of the nose.

The next step is for Mr. Okabe. More than twenty years of craft, to work with the feet the smooth paste color, rolled in small cylinders, and then slipped into the molds. The apprentices are not in a hurry, the sense of work well done is lost. But how can we attract and excite them, when it takes five years at least, to roll on our feet, simple satin-colored socks? Polished, behind his glasses with thick glasses, Mr Okabe never ceases, with a perfect gesture, to project in an order for so long established, his four black members as the night.

Another piece, another procedure: delicately slipped under the ashes, of oak wood exclusively, the bars of sumi, soft yet, let their escape day after day their humidity. It is an apparently simple operation, which is not simple: you must be right, do not be deceived, four or five years ago, to know how to dose and manipulate. Three weeks to the smothered, and the sumi moves, to be hanged, without any other form of trial, in garlands attached to hurdles. A suitable time and the turn is played, in a wooden piece sealed by precaution - the wind could, one knows, ever carry dust, grains of matter that the applied painter would bleed on paper.

The visit ends in the shop where, on luxury displays, the house production is aligned: the sumi, polished and then decorated with a brush, and even gold leaf, reaches here the price of gold in closed off. The biggest, the most beautiful, 100 g at the most, adorned with cranes from Japan or threatening dragons, are not sold, believe me, below 1000 CHF ... But no one can doubt it: the sumi of Nara, the most famous, and that of the Kobaien in particular, has no equal to ink the paper.

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