Suzuka inksticks Suzuka sumi
The Timeless and Stunning Beauty of Sumi Color
Following the Tradition of Superfine Japanese Sumi
Suzuka Sumi is made in the Shiroko District of Suzuka City, Mie Prefecture, and is the only sumi (inkstick) brand designated as one of the Traditional Crafts in Japan; today only one family, Shinseido, still preserves the tradition. Suzuka Sumi is generally made from pine trees growing in the local mountains and the climate of the region being ideal for sumi production helps ensure very high quality products. To meet the demand of the times, production techniques have been improved and today Suzuka Sumi is much appreciated by people practicing calligraphy or painting; it is also known as a quality dye and an artistic handicraft product useful for coloring and carving.
Since Suzuka Sumi upholds the traditional making process using a natural gelatinous glue called nikawa, it has an exquisite beauty seen in long-lasting and blurred colors, sharp lines, and great feeling brush strokes. Suzuka Sumi is also known to gain a deeper sumi color when left for some time to mature in a storeroom; this is a characteristic of using natural glues. Among the many sumi brands, Shinseido was the first to succeed in making colored sumi, and today a wide range of colorful variations of Suzuka Sumi are produced.
Scholars believe that the history of Suzuka Sumi began in the early Heian period when resin harvested from the pines of the Suzuka Mountains was burnt and the resulting soot mixed with nikawa and shaped into sumi sticks. Suzuka is blessed with good pine trees and weak alkaline water, both essential to make quality sumi. In the Edo period, every ruling feudal family had their own family crest, which would be drawn in sumi on formal dress; kamishimo for men and komon for women. This naturally gave rise to the demand for quality sumi. From around this time, the nationwide spread of private elementary schools in temples also increased the demand for sumi.
To satisfy the demand, production methods were improved and coupled with the protection of the Tokugawa family and the Kishu domain the industry flourished; the traditional manufacturing techniques are still practiced today. A variety of different sumi are produced such as yuenboku made from lampblack known for its glossy deep and pure black, while shouenboku made from pine soot has a range of ink colors from dense black to bluish gray; there are also special sumi such as irozumi, color inksticks.
General Production Process
- 1. Glue
The main raw materials of Suzuka Sumi are soot, a natural glue called nikawa, and natural incenses. The first step is to burn pine tree, bamboo, rapeseed or sesame oil, and then collect the soot from the inside of a lamp cover. Nikawa is gelatinous glue made by boiling the bones and hides of deer or cattle; being prone to deterioration sumi production is only carried out between October and April when the humidity and temperature are low. The work begins early every morning and is entirely by hand. Nikawa and water are heated to make a strong jelly-like solution which is clarified by passing through a sieve before blending with soot, and then adding incense like musk or borneol to the mixture.
- 2. Kneading
Craftsman using both hands and feet knead and roll out the dough to ensure thorough blending of the glue and soot and to remove any air bubbles. The task requires great strength and the finished lump is called a sumidama.
- 3. Molding
The well-kneaded sumidama is shaped into several cylindrical bars or nejibou which are hand-warmed until they are as soft as a child’s earlobe before quickly placing in wooden formers. Wooden formers come in different sizes and shapes, and even today, a traditional scales are necessary to measure each bar. Adjusting the texture and moisture content is also very important, requiring years of practice to get the right balance. Bars are pressed firmly using a vise for 20 to 30 minutes before unmolding.
- 4. Drying with ash
The inksticks still contain a certain amount of moisture which must be dried out. The process requires careful work, since the inksticks are easily affected by the surrounding temperature and humidity; too dry will result in cracking, and too moist may result in the growth of molds. In the initial drying stage, inksticks are placed in a box on a bed of wood ashes and Japanese paper sheets, and then covered with more wood ash; the ashes are changed daily and the sticks left to dry for 5 to 30 days.
- 5. Entwining and Drying
In the second drying process, several inksticks are entwined with straw and hung to dry, rather like drying persimmons or apple rings. They are left for two to six months, the exact time being decided by the artisan in response to the temperature and humidity; the quality of the finished product largely depends on their skill, experience and knowledge.
- 6. Finishing After drying is completed, the sticks are cleaned off with a flat brush, ready for polishing to a high gloss with a smoothed clamshell. Color and any artwork are added and then they are left to season for more than 3 years; some quality products made from sesame oil require 5 to 10 years of aging.