An Artisan Well Versed in the Tradition of Japanese Brush Making

Among the low, tile-roofed wooden houses of the historic Nara-machi neighborhood of the city of Nara, a calligraphy brush as big as a broom marks the gate to Chiyomi Tanaka’s shop. I follow a stone path down the flower-lined alleyway and duck under a mustard-colored noren curtain and into her tiny showroom. Inside, brushes in every size — some fine enough to paint a doll’s eyelashes, others broad enough to draw characters as tall as the person writing them — line the walls. With tools so old they are no longer in production, it’s the workshop of a shokunin (master craftsperson), but as cozy as an auntie’s living room. Tanaka is one of seven remaining masters of crafting Nara fude.“Fude” roughly translates to “brush,” but Tanaka uses the word only for the style of calligraphy and ink-painting brushes she makes in a tradition with roughly 1,300 years of history in Nara, the landlocked prefecture below Kyoto. In the fourth or fifth century, Buddhist monks, traders, government officials and immigrants brought Chinese writing to Japan (via the Korean Peninsula), which continued to spread with Buddhism in the sixth century. After Empress Genmei established the city of Nara as Japan’s imperial capital in the eighth century — modeling its bureaucracy and architecture on that of China’s Tang Dynasty — the monarchy used writing and religion to consolidate power. Ink and brushes were employed to record extensive histories, copy sutras and draft laws. The oldest existing brushes in Japan (housed in the city’s Shoso-in repository at Todaiji temple) date to that period.
ImageNara fude (made from mixed hair, left, and goat hair, right) for practicing calligraphy using sumi ink ground on an ink stone.Credit…Shina PengImageTanaka blends wetted hair from goat, horse tail and tanuki.Credit…Shina Peng

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