Hon’ami Koetsu was a calligrapher and artist in the early Edo period. He was also well known as the leading tea master of the time.
Hon’ami Koetsu was born into a family of swordsmiths who created and sharpened swords in Kyoto. He showed talent in a wide range of fields including calligraphy, pottery, lacquer, publishing, architecture and landscape design.
He especially excelled in calligraphy and, along with Konoe Nobutada and Shokodo Shojo, he came to be known as one of the Three Brushes of the Kan’ei Era (Kan’ei no Sanpitsu) . He founded his own personal style known as Koetsu-ryu, developed from the Japanese calligraphy style.
Hon’ami is also credited with founding the Rimpa School in the field of painting, together with Tawaraya Sotasu and Ogata Korin. His works include Rakuyaki Kamigawa-chawan ceramic teacups and Funabashi Makie Suzuribako lacquer work- both of which are designated as National Treasures, and Tsurushitae-wakakan painting, designated as an Important Cultural Asset.
In 1615, Hon’ami began an artist community called Koetsu-mura or Koetsu village in Takagamine, north of Kyoto, in the land granted by Tokugawa Ieyasu. He developed his own artistic style further and was also believed to have supervised all the work there.
Shiunseki Suzuri or Shiunseki Inkstone is an inkstone produced in Ichinoseki City and Oofunado City of Iwate Prefecture and is made from stone called Shiunseki that has a distinctive texture.
The origin of the inkstone dates back to Kamakura period when a monk who, on his travels, dropped by Chouan-ji Temple in Oofunado City and found a shiunseki stone at the bottom of a nearby river and used the stone as an inkstone. The monk later took the stone back to Kamakura and dedicated it to a Shogun at that time. With its beautiful looks, the inkstone was named Shiunseki (purple cloud) Inkstone.
Shiunseki stone is a schalstein extracted from soil more than 400 million years old from Kitakami mountain. The stone has a red-purplish color similar to azuki red beans. Also many of them have characteristic cloud-shaped patterns or greenish spots.
In addition to elegance and smoothness, the surface of the stone has fine and minute imperfections that allow ink-cake to be ground finely. These characteristics make Shiunseki stone the most suitable stone for inkstone.
There was a time when mass production of machine made inkstone was widespread and handmade Shiunseki Inkstone making waned. However, after World War II, artisans began turning their attention back to the craft of hand making the stone. Shiunseki Inkstone is still now being produced with the same quality as its legend suggests.
There are many legends about Yoshitsune and Benkei in Mogami district. The 'Yoshitsune Story', supposedly written in the Muromachi period, relates that when Yoshitsune was being hunted by his brother Minamotono-no-Yoritomo and was heading for Hiraizumi in Iwate Prefecture, he passed through Mogami district in the third year of the Bunji period (1187).
The district around Semi hot springs has many legends and traces about Yoshitsune's masters and servants. For example, the Koyasu-Kannon deity is supposed to have overseen the birth of Kamewakamaru, Yoshitsune's child.
The name 'Semi' has several possible origins: one is that it derives from 'Semi-maru', Benkei's long-handled sword; another is that it derives from 'no-crying semi (cicada)', the nickname of Kamewakamaru, who was reputed to have never cried, even when he knew that he was a son of a fleeing warrior. A third possible source is that it is named for a wounded cicada that was resting on a tree and curing itself in the steam from a nearby hot spring.
There are many tourist attractions in Semi, Mogami, that relate to Yoshitsune and Benkei, such as Yagen Hot Water and Benkei's Inkstone that Beinkei was supposed to have used.
Suruga lacquer ware is characterized by the use of Makie. Makie is a decorative technique in which gold and silver powder is spread over the lacquered surface to create beautiful patterns. After spreading the powder, it is dried, applied raw lacquer to fix the powder, ground with charcoal, dried again through the process of suri-urushi (applying and wiping off lacquer again and again), and given a final grind to finish. The craft dates back to 1828, when Senzo Nakagawa, a lacquerer living in the Suruga region, acquired the skill of Makie and used it in his lacquering processes. In 1830, two Makie lacquerers, Tomekichi and Senjiro Kobayashi, came from Edo (present-day Tokyo) and taught their skills to the local craftsmen, which highly enhanced Makie techniques in this region. Suruga lacquer ware was one of the representative export products from the Meiji period (1868-1912) through the early Showa period (1926-1989), but after World War II, lacquer ware was considered as expensive luxury not suitable for daily use. Today, articles such as suzuribako (box for writing equipment), trays, fubako (letter box), flower vessels, geta (Japanese sandals), and accessories are being made.
Awano lacquer ware (Awano Shunkei-nuri) is a traditional handicraft that is counted as one of Japan’s 3 Fine Shunkei Lacquer Ware together with Hida Shunkei in Gifu Pref. and Noshiro Shunkei in Akita Pref. This is the oldest Shunkei lacquering technique in Japan. Its origin dated back to 1489, when Minamoto no Yoshiaki, the castellan of Inagawa castle, began lacquering in present-day Awa, Shirosato-machi, Ibaraki Pref. The hardest kind of Hinoki cypress is cut into pieces, planed, and assembled by using wooden nails made of Deutzia. Then the surface is polished with Equisetum (horsetails) and allpied lacquer bringing out the beauty of straight grains. This lacquering technique is characterized by the use of Japanese plum vinegar to enhance the transparency and create beautiful color shade. Nowadays trays, jubako boxes, lunch boxes and ink-stone boxes are produced.
The town of Kokuji in Daigo-machi, Ibaraki Pref. has been known for producing excellent material of inkstones. During the Edo period (1603-1868), the ninth generation of Lord of Mito Province (present-day Ibaraki Pref.), Tokugawa Nariaki, loved these inkstones very much, so he named them Kokuju Inkstones. The word “Kokuju” is a homophonic of the place name, Kokuji, and means “eternal prosperity of the country.” Its distinctive black gloss and patterns naturally appearing on the stone surface are simple but beautiful. As it is hand-carved, each product has its original taste. In 1930, when the special exercise of Japanese army was carried out in several places in the prefecture, the governor dedicated a Kokuju inkstone to the emperor. In the next year, an event to exhibit and sell Kokuju inkstones was held in Tokyo, and these inkstones were highly estimated by famous calligraphers, literary people, and business leaders. They were counted as one of Japan’s 3 Fine Inkstones at the time. However there had been no craftsmen who could make this inkstone for some time and it was called “phantom inkstone.” Later in Showa 30s (1955-1964), it was revived by Taiseki Hoshino in Daigo-machi. In its traditional making, Kokuju stone is cut and formed into the shape, then the both sides are flattened with a tagane (a Japanese engraving tool) and scarped with several kinds of flat and round chisels, and finally it is polished with a grind stone.
The purpose of shuji, Japanese calligraphy, is to write the correct word.
Shuji differs from shodo in that, while shodo shows the beauty of a written word, letter or character, shuji is about learning the word and improving one's concentration.
It is said that the art of shuji came from China and the Korean Peninsula. Later, the writing of shuji impacted the aristocracy and warrior class. The aristocrat wrote unfussy words. In contrast, the warriors wrote powerful words.
Shuji is a necessary aspect of a liberal arts education in Japan, which affects all other aspects of Japanese culture.
Nara lacquer ware has a history of 1,300 years, an example of which is preserved at Shosoin (the Imperial Repository). This very attractive handicraft is characterized by the technique of Raden (mother-of-pearl inlaying), in which green snails, abalones, or butterfly shells are cut into pieces to create patterns, pasted to the cypress wood board, and inlayed with lacquer. The lacquered surface is polished in the final step of the process to give it gloss. This lacquering technique flourished as part of the Tempyo Culture, which developed with the introduction of Buddhism in the Nara period (710-794). It is supposed that not only finished products were imported to Japan but also lacquerers came from China and taught lacquering techniques to Japanese craftsmen. Nara lacquering has continued to the present time going through various changes from applying lacquer to temple and shrine buildings in the Middle Age, tea utensils in Azuchi-Momoyama period, when tea ceremony was established, and then to applying lacquer to armors in the Edo period. Presently, suzuribako (box for writing equipment), jewelry boxes, and fubako (letter box) with beautiful Raden work are all popular among nationwide enthusiasts.