When I lived in Kyoto, I got a little taste of several traditional Japanese art forms, but shodo (Japanese calligraphy) always seemed somewhat esoteric––both in terms of creating and appreciating it––likely in large part because of my lack of Japanese literacy. When Chopsticks NY invited me to take a shodo class at the Japan Society with calligraphy master Mr. Tsuyoshi Takemori (Master Biho), I was excited at the prospect. But, as I learned in the class, excitement isn’t the best approach to shodo. Rather, shodo is about slowing down and having your mind and body work in unison.
Mr. Takemori began by introducing me to the Four Treasures of the Study: a brush, an inkstick, paper, and an inkstone. He showed me how to dip the stick into water and gently and slowly grind it on the inkstone to make dark black ink. He emphasized that this process was not to be rushed, saying that its main purpose was to “calm your mind down and to prepare for the work of the day.”
Mr. Takemori then demonstrated correct shodo posture, showing me how to hold the brush upright and move my body along with the brush as I write. According to Mr. Takemori, “everything starts from the point of the brush.” Beginner and advanced students alike begin the day by making lines, which “really helps to build up your focusing concentration” and leaves you with “your hand warmed up and your mind clear.” After I made my series of lines, Mr. Takemori wrote the kanji for “moon” (tsuki) and showed me the series of strokes, which I did my best to copy. He then wrote an easier character, mu, which means “emptiness.”
The other students in the class––artists, retirees, people who studied shodo as children in Japan––meanwhile, worked on their own pieces at their own paces, using calligraphy by Japanese masters as a guide while Mr. Takemori provided feedback. I asked Mr. Takemori whether the process was as important as the result, and he replied that, in fact, the process was more important than the result, that one’s motivation––what theme you choose for your calligraphy––was most important. As Mr. Takemori says, “Everyone has their own reason for coming here––out there, life is not always easy. People just come here and do a simple thing, get tuned up, and adjust their balance––mind and body. It’s very creative and very relaxing and healing mentally.”
— Reported by Kate Williamson
Grinding the ink was remarkably soothing and calming, and the ink had a special fragrance as well.
Mr. Takemori demonstrating correct shodo posture and how to place one’s non-writing hand on the table for balance
Working on my warm-up lines: from left to right, top to bottom, diagonally, and then concentric circles
I copied the characters for tsuki (“moon,” on left) and mu (“emptiness,” on right) multiple times––these are my favorites.
Examples of students’ calligraphy hang in the hallway outside the classroom, perhaps inspiring Japanese language students to try shodo.
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