Suzuka inksticks Suzuka sumi
The timeless and stunning beauty of black ink
Following the tradition of fine Japanese ink
What is Suzuka inksticks ?
Suzuka inkstick is made in the city of Suzuka, Mie prefecture. This is the only inkstick brand registered as a Japanese Traditional Craft. Today, only one family, Shinseido, still preserves the tradition.
Suzuka inkstick is generally made from pine trees growing in the local mountains, which are favored with the ideal climate for high quality inkstick production. To meet the demand, production techniques have been improved and today Suzuka inkstick 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.
The use of natural gelatinous glue called nikawa is the main characteristic of Suzuka inkstick. A long lasting exquisite beauty, blurred colors, sharp lines, and great feeling brush strokes can be created by upholding the traditional making process. Suzuka ink is also known to gain a deeper ink color when it is left for a while to mature in a storeroom, which is a characteristic of using natural glues. Among the many ink brands, Shinseido was the first to succeed in making colored ink, and today a wide range of colorful variations of Suzuka ink are produced.
Scholars believe that the history of Suzuka inkstick began in the early Heian period (794-1185). The pine resin harvested from Suzuka Mountain was burnt and the resulting soot was taken to mix with nikawa to shape an inkstick. Suzuka is blessed with good pine trees and weak alkaline water and both factors are essential to make quality ink.
During the Edo period (1603-1868), every ruling feudal family had their own family crest, which would be drawn with ink on the formal dresses; kamishimo for men and komon for women. This culture naturally gave a rise to the demand for this quality ink. From around this time, the nationwide spread of private elementary schools in temples also increased the demand for ink.
To satisfy the demand, production methods were improved and coupled with the protection of the Tokugawa family, which flourished in the Kishu domain. Moreover, the traditional manufacturing techniques are still practiced today. A variety of different inks are produced such as yuenboku made from lampblack is 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 inks such as irozumi, the color inksticks.
General Production Process
- 1. Glue
The main raw materials of Suzuka inkstick are soot, natural glue 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.
The inkstick production is only carried out between October and April when the humidity and temperature are low because the gelatinous glue is prone to deterioration. The work begins early every morning and is entirely done by hand. The gelatinous glue 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
Craftsmen use both hands and feet to knead and roll out the dough to ensure thorough blending of the glue and soot and to remove any air bubbles.
This task requires great strength and the finished lump is called sumidama.
- 3. Molding The well kneaded sumidama is shaped into several cylindrical bars called nejibou which are hand warmed until they are as soft as a child's earlobe before quickly placing them in wooden formers. Wooden formers come in different sizes and shapes, and the traditional scales are necessary to measure each bar even today. Adjusting the texture and moisture content is also very important as it requires 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 the ashes
The inksticks must be dried out as they are still a little moist. This process requires heavy attention since the inksticks are easily affected by the surrounding temperature and humidity. It will result in cracking if the environment is too dry and it may result in increasing the growth of molds if it is too humid. In the initial drying stage, inksticks are placed on the wood ashes and Japanese traditional paper (washi) in a box covered with more of the wood ashes on top. The ashes are replaced daily and the sticks are left to dry for 5 to 30 days.
- 5. Entwining and drying
For the second drying process, several inksticks are entwined with straw and hung to dry, which looks like drying persimmons or apple rings. They are left for two to six months, the exact time is decided by the artisan depending on the temperature and humidity. The quality of the finished product largely depends on their skills, experience and knowledge.
- 6. Finishing After they have completely dried, the sticks are cleaned off with a flat brush, ready for polishing to add a high gloss with a smoothed clamshell. Color and any artwork are applied and then they are left to season for more than 3 years and some quality products made from sesame oil require 5 to 10 years of aging.
Where to Buy & More Information
Igayaki Dento Sangyo Kaikan
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