Hon’ami Koetsu was a calligrapher and artist in the early Edo period. He was also well known as the leading tea master of the time.
Hon’ami Koetsu was born into a family of swordsmiths who created and sharpened swords in Kyoto. He showed talent in a wide range of fields including calligraphy, pottery, lacquer, publishing, architecture and landscape design.
He especially excelled in calligraphy and, along with Konoe Nobutada and Shokodo Shojo, he came to be known as one of the Three Brushes of the Kan’ei Era (Kan’ei no Sanpitsu) . He founded his own personal style known as Koetsu-ryu, developed from the Japanese calligraphy style.
Hon’ami is also credited with founding the Rimpa School in the field of painting, together with Tawaraya Sotasu and Ogata Korin. His works include Rakuyaki Kamigawa-chawan ceramic teacups and Funabashi Makie Suzuribako lacquer work- both of which are designated as National Treasures, and Tsurushitae-wakakan painting, designated as an Important Cultural Asset.
In 1615, Hon’ami began an artist community called Koetsu-mura or Koetsu village in Takagamine, north of Kyoto, in the land granted by Tokugawa Ieyasu. He developed his own artistic style further and was also believed to have supervised all the work there.
Ryokan was a Soto Zen Buddhist monk in the late Edo period (1603-1868). He is also known as a calligrapher and poet, who wrote both Japanese waka poems and Chinese classic poems.
He was born in in the village of Izumozaki in Echigo Province (now Niigata Prefecture) in 1758. He was much influenced by his father, who was a Nanushi (village officer) and poet. Ryokan studied under Omori Shiyo, a scholar of Chinese classics and became his father’s assistant.
Later he visited and stayed at Entsuji Temple (in present-day Okayama Prefecture), where he was ordained priest by the Zen master Kokusen. It was around this time that Ryokan also took interested in writing poems and deepened exchanges with many poets of the time.
Ryokan attained enlightment and was presented with an Inka (a formal acknowledgement of a student’s completion of Zen training) by Kokusen at the age of 33. He left Entsuji Temple to set for a long pilgrimage and necer returned to the monastery life. He lived the rest of his life as a hermit and taught Buddhism to common people in easy words instead of difficult sermons.
He disclosed his own humble life, for which people felt sympathy, and placed their confidence in him. A lot of artists and scholars also visited his small hut, Gogo-an, where he talked with them over a drink of Hannya-yu (enlightening hot water, namely Japanese hot sake). He died in 1831. His only disciple, Teishin-ni published a collection of Ryokan’s poems titled “Hasu no Tsuyu (Dewdrops on a lotus leaf).”
The town of Kokuji in Daigo-machi, Ibaraki Pref. has been known for producing excellent material of inkstones. During the Edo period (1603-1868), the ninth generation of Lord of Mito Province (present-day Ibaraki Pref.), Tokugawa Nariaki, loved these inkstones very much, so he named them Kokuju Inkstones. The word “Kokuju” is a homophonic of the place name, Kokuji, and means “eternal prosperity of the country.” Its distinctive black gloss and patterns naturally appearing on the stone surface are simple but beautiful. As it is hand-carved, each product has its original taste. In 1930, when the special exercise of Japanese army was carried out in several places in the prefecture, the governor dedicated a Kokuju inkstone to the emperor. In the next year, an event to exhibit and sell Kokuju inkstones was held in Tokyo, and these inkstones were highly estimated by famous calligraphers, literary people, and business leaders. They were counted as one of Japan’s 3 Fine Inkstones at the time. However there had been no craftsmen who could make this inkstone for some time and it was called “phantom inkstone.” Later in Showa 30s (1955-1964), it was revived by Taiseki Hoshino in Daigo-machi. In its traditional making, Kokuju stone is cut and formed into the shape, then the both sides are flattened with a tagane (a Japanese engraving tool) and scarped with several kinds of flat and round chisels, and finally it is polished with a grind stone.
Nara calligraphy brushes are highly evaluated by calligraphers and specialists. The master skills and techniques with a long history and tradition have been handed down in the brush making in Nara. The origin of brush making here is dated back to about 1,200 years ago, when the monk Kukai, who had journeyed to China and studied about brush making, returned to Japan and passed on his skills to the people living in Yamato Province (presently Nara Pref.). The most sensitive part in brush making is said to be the selection of the material hair. Considering the overall conditions of a brush he is making, a craftsman selects the most suitable material out of more than 10 kinds of animal hairs including sheep’s wool, and the hair of horses or deer. The quality of hair differs according to a habitat, the time of capture, and the part of the body from which hair is taken. Craftsmen select and combine the hairs to create a brush that is best suited for the user’s taste, exerting his full experience and efforts. Every step in the making process is done by hand. Here in the making of Nara brushes, a machine has no role to play even today.
Ryukeisuzuri ink-stones are made of ryukeiseki (a biotite clay stone) found in hills to the west of the town of Tatsuno, in Kami Ina district, in Nagano Prefecture. About 170 years ago the Takatoo clan had no local core industry and were in financial difficulty. By chance, the clan headsman found a type of stone brought from a local mine that was suitable for making ink-stones . Later, he invites an ink craftsman to help independently develop a special manufacturing method, which resulted in the ink-stones of the Nabekurazawa area. During the Meiji period, usage of ink-stones decreased as demand for pencils, pens and fountain-pens increased. But at the beginning of Showa period, these ink-stones drew great attention and the governor of the area at that time renamed them Ryukeisuzuri. The skill and time that went in to making these high-quality ink-stones became famous across Japan, even catching the attention of well-known writers. Ryukeisuzuri ink-stones are carefully made, have exceptional durability, enhance the qualities of the ink, and are highly favored by writers, artists, and collectors throughout Japan.
Gogo-an is a hut located in the precincts of Kokujyo Temple on the mountainside of Mt. Kugami, Tsubame City (old Wakemizu-mach) Niigata Pref. and designated as a prefecture’s Historical Site. This is said to be the hermit hut of Ryokan, a monkof Sodoshu (a Buddhist sect), poet and chirographer in the Edo period. Ryokan is said to have lived here for 12 years, from 48 years old to 59, after his nationwide pilgrim journey. The name “gogo” comes from the story that Ryokan was contributed gogo (five cups) of rice from the resident priest of Kokujyo Temple every day. The simple hut with thatch roof is 3.6 meters wide and 2.7 meters deep, only with an area of present 6 jo (6 tatami mats). Here Ryokan did zazen, read classics, made poems and went about asking for alms. He was contented with honest poverty all through his life and might have attained a state of perfect self-effacement here.