April 30, 2015

Over twenty years ago when I lived in Japan, I took classes in Japanese calligraphy from a wonderful calligraphy artist and friend Takako. Once a week, I would climb the creaky wooden stairs of her old family home to the low-ceilinged classroom where she taught calligraphy to middle school and high school students and me, her only foreigner. Every week, I would sit on the floor in front of a small desk grinding my ink stick for 15 minutes or so, breathing in the aroma as the end of the black stick it melted into a thick, black liquid in the well of the ink stone. Then I would pick up my brush and dip it into the ink and try really, really hard to neatly copy the characters in my sample book onto a sheet of white paper before me. Since she knew that I would only be living in Japan for a year or two, Takako wanted to teach me calligraphy that was unique to Japan, so she focused my attention on kana, the native cursive script that evolved from Chinese characters and was originally used by Japanese court ladies for writing elegant poetry and love letters. I found kana very challenging, as the fluid cursive style of the script made it very hard to decipher what I was writing. Towards the end of my time in Japan, Takako had me work on rinsho, which meant I had to try to copy line-by-line and stroke-by-stroke the poems of famous calligrapher-poets. My poet was Ki no Tsurayuki, one of Japan’s most celebrated poets and calligraphers, famous for writing a diary in the voice of a court lady. His script was slender and highly refined. Imitating the thickness and thinness of his lines, lifting the brush where he lifted his and adding new ink where he had was challenging. But at the end of my time in Japan, I had created what looked to me like a recognizable copy of one of his poems that I still have today, mounted on a silk hanging scroll – a goodbye gift from Takako.


Learning Japanese calligraphy was one of the most meaningful experiences I had while living in Japan. I gained a deeper understanding of the brush as a writing and painting tool, of the form of Japanese characters, and of the important historical connection between poetry and calligraphy. It was something I enjoyed almost entirely. There was just one aspect of the art that I had trouble with. I hated sitting on my feet in seiza for an hour at a time. Though the sitting itself didn’t actually hurt because my feet gradually lost sensation, after I stood up I couldn’t walk, and my legs hurt for two days afterwards. Sensing that this could be a problem for me, my teacher found me the perfect little solution – a mini stool that fit neatly under my bottom and over my feet so that I would be sitting on the stool and not on my feet. The stool was one of my most valuable possessions while living in Japan. However, it has been more than twenty years now since I left Japan and stopped practicing calligraphy. I haven’t needed the stool, and it has just sat in my closet or in a box for all that time. I had no idea what to do with it until recently. The Japanese garden where I have been helping recently has a teahouse, where people are invited occasionally to enjoy a tea ceremony. Most of the guests to these ceremonies are Westerners who can’t sit for long Japanese-style. I gave the owner, Connie, the stool so that she can offer it to guests who wouldn’t be able to sit and participate in the tea ceremony otherwise. It seems only fair to help others enjoy one the great pleasures of this wonderful culture without having to suffer.


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