Nara brushes Nara fude
The foundation of brush making in Japan
Extreme flexibility using many types of animal hair
What is Nara brushes ?
Nara brushes (called Nara fude in Japanese) are brushes produced in and around the neighboring cities of Nara and Yamatokoriyama, Nara prefecture. Nara is considered to be the birthplace of brush making in Japan. The oldest existing brushes in Japan are seventeen Tenpyo brushes, which are part of the imperial treasures that belonged to Emperor Shomu (the 45th emperor of Japan, 701-756). These brushes are kept in the Shosoin Repository*.
Nara brushes are composed of ten or more types of animal hair with varying levels of elasticity and length that are skillfully combined using a traditional method called nerimaze hou. The animal hair used for Nara brushes include squirrel, flying squirrel, weasel, Japanese raccoon dog, sheep, horse, deer, and rabbit hair. The quality of the completed brushes is affected not only by the species but also the difference in hair quality of individual animals, variation in body part, or time of year when the hair is harvested.
During brush production, artisans examine the specific features of the hair, adjust, and blend them many times so that different qualities of the hair are well distributed without any deviation. During the mixing step, the hairs are individually soaked in water to harden them, the composition and size is determined based on the characteristics of the hairs, and they are blended to complete an attractive brush tip.
*The Shosoin Repository is a building located in Nara, a former capital of Japan, that has been around since the eighth-century. It not only has a collection of treasures dating back to the Silk Road, it also preserves over 10,000 hand-written documents all dating from the Nara period (710–784). Today, the repository is under the control of the Imperial Household Agency.
Brushes have a long history and are said to have originated in China, about 2300 years ago, when a general presented a brush made from animal hair to the first Emperor of Qin (259BC- 210BC). Then, they were first brought to Japan in the early Asuka period (592-710). As Chinese culture was imported to Japan, more varieties of brushes were imported as well.
The brush making tradition began in Nara in the year 806, when a Japanese envoy to the Tang dynasty, Kukai (1185-1333, an important Buddhist monk and calligrapher), returned from China. He brought back production techniques and taught them to Kiyokawa SAKANAI in Nara. At the time there were a lot of monks studying in the area and the brushes were spread among high priest and scholar monks.
Later, when kana characters (Japanese syllabic script) started to be used, there was a new demand for delicate brushes due to the need to draw curved lines easily. Because of this, the foundation of Nara brushes was established by brush artisans. They brought out the best features of the animal hairs and skillfully combined them to make brushes.
General Production Process
- 1. Hair assembly and sorting The hairs that will be used are sorted based on thickness, length, and softness. Then, they are divided into different groups called the tip, throat, stomach, and the half top. The closer to the half top, the more flexible hairs are used. Ten different types of hair are chosen to create a balance between soft and firm, which gives good ink absorption to the brush head.
- 2. Combing out
The hairs are combed to remove any fluffs at the root. Then, they are laid out onto a board to be blended very well.
- 3. Hair rolling and plucking The hairs have ashes from burnt rice husk laid on them, they are warmed up with charcoal fire, then firmly twisted to remove oil content. After twisting, the hairs are rolled into buckskin. Then, they are straightened and the tips are aligned using fingertips to gradually remove unnecessary hairs.
- 4. Fixing and removing puffed hairs The hairs are placed on a handheld metal plate and their tips are patted with a handheld board. The vibration from patting with the board helps to align the hair tips. Then, frizzy hairs are picked off using a small bladeless knife.
- 5. Flattening
The hairs are soaked in water and flattened after the aligning process.
- 6. Shaping Each section of hair is cut to the required length, and the long and short hairs are used to form a gradation of the shape of a brush head.
- 7. Mixing hairs
After the shaping process, the hairs are carefully combined over and over again. During this process, hairs with inadequate tips are removed.
- 8. Core making
A type of glue called funori is added to the blended hairs to form the core of the brush. Next, hairs are inserted in a koma, a small cylinder tool to determine the thickness, and dried naturally.
- 9. Wrapping hair
The finer quality hairs are thinly spread and wrapped around the core, which is then dried again. This will become the brush head.
- 10. Tying with linen thread
The dried brush head is tied with a linen thread and a hot iron is applied to the base of the brush head to heat and solidify it. The brush head is now complete.
- 11. Inserting the brush
A brush holder is scraped with a small knife to be adjusted to the thickness of the brush head. The brush head is then firmly glued in the holder.
- 12. Finishing
The brush head that was inserted in the brush holder is dipped into funori. Then, a linen thread is wrapped around to squeeze out any excess glue. The brush head is given a final shaping and left to dry.
Where to Buy & More Information
Nara Prefectural Shoko Kankokan "Kitemite Nara Shop"
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