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A guide to Japan’s ancient arts

Japan’s creative pastimes have a long heritage that offer a fascinating insight into the culture of local communities. The swirling marks of shodo calligraphy; sharp lines of ikebana flower arranging; shapes of mokuhanga wooden block printing; ingeniously designed origami models; and shimmering kirikane gold leaf decoration, are all results of a long history of artistic ritual.

Each technique is a proud and respected tradition, and will be practised many times before it is learned and perfected. In this blog we explore some of the historical culture’s many exquisite artistic techniques, performed by hand in the same way over generations

Shodo calligraphy

Japanese calligraphy, shodo, meaning ‘the way of writing’ is a practice originating from the ancient Chinese dynasties. It was introduced to Japan, initially as means of communication between the two countries, in around the sixth century AD. Intrinsic Japanese characteristics were developed and it evolved into the sophisticated and revered art that it is today. Today, children in Japan will learn the art from primary school, with the skills being as highly prized as good handwriting is in the West.

When visiting Japan, it’s possible to try your hand at this ancient craft in a calligraphy class. Learn some basic skills such as preparing black ink by grinding the ink stone across a tray and mixing it with a little water, and learning the three writing systems of kanji, hiragana and katakana that make up Japanese script.

Ikebana flower arranging

Ikebana, meaning ‘making flowers alive’, and also known as kadō, ‘the way of flowers’, is another ancient Japanese art form. This flower arranging technique has been practised for more than 600 years and stems from the Buddhist custom of offering flowers to the spirits of the dead. Unlike Western styles of flower arranging, ikebana floral artists will use the practice as a form of personal artistic expression despite the rules governing shape, line and form.

Taking an ikebana flower-arranging lesson is the ideal way to understand a little more about this beautiful Japanese art form. Taking place in a traditional geisha house with a licensed teacher in Kyoto, the experience provides an authentic insight into local culture.

Mokuhanga wood block printing

Mokuhanga was popularised in the Edo period (1603-1867), however, sporadic usage of the printing technique has been documented from as early as 764AD. This first recorded instance of mokuhanga came about when Empress Kōken commissioned one million wooden pagoda models, with a block printed Buddhist scroll in each, as gifts to temples throughout Japan.

Using wooden blocks and water-based inks, as opposed to the oil-based inks used in similar Western techniques, produces a wider spectrum of results, from vivid colours to transparency. The most recognisable instance of this traditional style, and perhaps of Japanese art in general, is The Great Wave off Kanagawa, by the ukiyo-e artist Hokusai, with original prints now housed in the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York amongst others. It was the first print in Hokusai’s series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji and was produced at some point between 1829 and 1833.

Origami paper folding

Origami, literally meaning ‘folding paper’, is perhaps the most famous of Japan’s traditional arts and crafts. The exercise of turning a flat, square sheet of paper into a three dimensional model – with designs of varying difficulty – has also been practised since the Edo period. Generally, the transformation from flat paper to finished sculpture is done using nothing more than creasing and folding by hand, however, these conventions have sometimes been eschewed by cutting, gluing or starting with differently shaped paper, in order to attain a more complicated end result.

The pastime has proved so popular that it has spread from Japan all over the world, and its principles have been ingeniously applied to a vast range of technicalities from packaging, to stent implants and car airbags.

Kirikane gold leaf artistry

The intricate decorative technique of kirikane came to Japan from China during the ancient Tang dynasty (618-907 AD). Originally a method of decorating Buddhist statues with thin sheets of gold, silver and platinum, the art form dropped in popularity after the 14th century due to a decline in Buddhist artwork. However, it is still practised by many in the city of Kanazawa as their signature handicraft.

Nowadays, the work is still as painstaking and meticulous as ever, and carried out by highly skilled artisans. The process involves passing sheets of gold through rollers, then between sheets of paper and pounded thousands of times, until the sheets have been thinned to a mere 0.0001mm. By using special bamboo implements to delicately cut the sheets into shapes, they are then mounted on board and used to decorate various artworks.

Find out more about Cox & Kings’ Japan’s Cultural Treasures escorted group tour, which includes a gold-leaf making class. Alternatively, speak to one of our experts to organise a tailor-made holiday to Japan.