Suzuka inksticks Suzuka sumi
The timeless and stunning beauty of black ink
Following the tradition of fine Japanese ink
What is Suzuka inksticks ?
Suzuka inksticks (called Suzuka sumi in Japanese) are made in the city of Suzuka, Mie prefecture. This is the only inkstick craft registered as a Traditional Japanese Craft. Just one company, Shinseido, continues to produce Suzuka inksticks.
This craft is mainly made from pine trees growing in the local mountains, which is the ideal climate for high quality inkstick production. To meet demand, production techniques have been improved and Suzuka inksticks are greatly appreciated by people practicing calligraphy or painting. It is also known as a quality dye and artistic handicraft product useful for coloring and carving.
Suzuka inksticks use a gelatinous animal glue called nikawa. Suzuka inksticks gain a deeper color when left to mature for a while in a storeroom, which is a result of using natural glue. Among ink brands, Shinseido was the first to succeed in making colored ink, and now a wide range of colorful Suzuka inksticks are produced.
Scholars believe that the history of Suzuka inksticks began in the early Heian period (794-1185). The pine resin harvested from the Suzuka Mountains was burnt and the resulting soot was mixed with nikawa to shape an inkstick. Suzuka has good pine trees and low pH water, both essential factors to making quality ink.
During the Edo period (1603-1868), every ruling feudal family had their own family crest, which would be drawn with ink on formal dresses: kamishimo for men and komon for women. This custom gave rise to the demand for quality ink. Also, the nationwide spread of private elementary schools in temples increased the demand for ink.
Production methods improved in response to these demands and the craft flourished due to sponsorship by the Kishu branch of the Tokugawa domain. These traditional techniques are still in use for production in the present day. A variety of different inks are produced such as yuenboku, made from lampblack and is a glossy deep black, while shouenboku, made from pine soot, has a range of ink colors from dense black to bluish gray. There are also special color inksticks, irozumi.
General Production Process
- 1. Glue
The main raw materials of Suzuka inksticks are soot, nikawa, and natural fragrance. Nikawa is a gelatinous glue produced by boiling the bones and hides of deer or cattle. The first step is to burn pine tree, bamboo, and either canola or sesame oil, and then collect the resulting soot from the inside of a lamp cover.
Inkstick production is performed only between October and April because the glue is prone to deterioration when the humidity and temperature is high. Work is done entirely by hand and begins early every morning. The glue and water is heated to make a strong jelly-like solution which is filtered by passing through a sieve before blending with soot, and then musk or borneol camphor fragrance is added to the mixture.
- 2. Kneading
Artisans use their hands and feet to knead and roll out the mixture which is now in dough form. This is to ensure thorough blending of the glue and soot and remove any air bubbles.
This task, which requires great strength, results in a finished lump called sumidama.
- 3. Molding The sumidama is shaped into several cylindrical bars and hand warmed until "as soft as a child's earlobe", as a Japanese expression says, before quickly placing them in wooden templates. The templates come in different sizes and shapes and traditional scales are necessary to measure each bar. The texture and moisture ratio needs to be balanced, requiring years of practice to perfect. The bars are pressed firmly using a vise for twenty to thirty minutes before unmolding.
- 4. Drying with the ashes
As the inksticks are still damp, they must be dried out. This step requires careful attention as inksticks are easily affected by the surrounding temperature and humidity. If the environment is too dry, the inksticks will crack and if it is too humid, mold may grow. In the initial drying stage, inksticks are placed on 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 five to thirty days.
- 5. Entwining and drying
For the second drying process, several inksticks are entwined with straw and left to dry for two to six months. The exact amount of time is decided by the artisan based on the temperature and humidity. The quality of the finished product largely depends on the skills, experience and knowledge of the artisan.
- 6. Finishing After they have completely dried, the inksticks are cleaned off with a flat brush and are ready for polishing. A smoothed clamshell is used to add a high gloss. Any color or artwork is applied and then the inksticks are left to season for more than three years. Quality crafts made from sesame oil will require five to ten years of aging.
Where to Buy & More Information
Igayaki Dento Sangyo Kaikan
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