About a month ago I saw a notice for a sumi-e workshop in Nara with a well-known sumi-e artist, Christine Flint Sato. Eager to try my hand at some traditional Japanese crafts, I signed up. And on a warm November morning, I found myself grinding a sumi stick on an ink stone in a workshop with about 12 other students. We were surrounded by the tools of the trade – from the practical pieces of felt to well-used brushes and ink stones. The walls had numerous tiny drawers, each of which had a different (and often very expensive) sumi stick inside, all which were free for us to use. We started with breathing exercises tied to executing the brush stroke, a very calm and meditative exercise. Then we experimented with different brush strokes and dilutions of ink. It was amazing what a little bound soot, water, paper and brush could do.
After lunch a few of went to see how sumi is made. Sumi ink is a hard ink made from soot that is bound with a type of animal glue, in Japan usually cow or deer. Our guide told us they currently use glue made from deer. After the mixture has been made up, the sumi maker rolls the big ball of sumi ink under his feet. This sumi ink is like a big black ball of tough dough. The rolling and the heat from his feet make it more pliable and easier to manipulate, like play-doh (which is kind of what it feels like). The bag of sumi “dough”, in plastic bag covered by a blanket under his butt, is kept warm by the sumi maker as he rolls out a measured quantity of dough. He then shapes into a cigar-like shape, puts it into the mold, puts the mold under pressure, and begins again. He’ll be able to make about 45 blocks an hour. After the ink hardens a bit, the molds are put into wooden boxes to dry. At this point the ink molds feel a bit like gummy erasers. As they harden, they shrink by about 20%. We asked the sumi maker how he is able to get his hands and arms clean, as they are covered in black ink. Apparently, the best tool of the trade to get one’s hands clean again is nightingale poo. He had a container full of it to show us. Unfortunately though, most of it was collected a while ago, and he had no idea how he would get his hands on more once he ran out. Maiko and geiko (or geisha, as non-Kyotoites call them) also used these droppings on their faces to help whiten them. Doing a little research about it, I found out that nightingale poo facials (known also as the Geisha Facial, or in Japan the technical uguisu no fun (nightingale feces)) are a popular beauty treatment for some people. I think I’ll hold off on trying it.
Well, after an afternoon of experimenting with different ink stones and paper, I decided that I probably will never be a good artist, but I really enjoyed the process and am looking forward to doing more with it in the near future.