Saturday, April 9, 2011

Shodo - Japanese Calligraphy

I've felt turned off by shodo until recently. It seemed so serious. Some of my students have been learning since kindergarten. Like all Japanese traditional arts there is a definite right and wrong way to do it and it takes years of practice to even get close to doing it right. This is one of those times when I realize how American I really am. It feels like the Japanese way takes all the fun out of everything. One of my friends did an ikebana class (Japanese flower arranging). She said they were given no freedom. It was the floral equivalent of paint by number and the closer to the teacher's model you got, the "better" you were doing. The Japanese way is to try to perfect the form and reproduce the masters' as closely as possible. The American way is that every individual is their own creative master and whatever you make is unique and great because it's yours. Yes, this creates people with undeservedly large egos and high self-esteem, but it also makes the creative arts a bit more accessible and fun.

What changed my mind? I read the book Lost Japan by Alex Kerr. While he is fluent in Japanese and Chinese and definitely knows the kanji characters, he also talked about doing calligraphy in a bit looser way. He says the old zen masters would stay up late drinking sake and doing calligraphy. He himself plays with the rules, using different colored inks and whatnot. I got interested in doing shodo in this more Kerouacian zen way (I'm also reading Big Sur right now). I remembered seeing calligraphy stuff at Daiso (the dollar store) so I went over and bought up everything I needed for about $10. I'm just a beginner and just playing around so I don't need fancy stuff. I did some last night and it was fun and relaxing, as it should be. It takes all the cool parts of Japanese and leaves the boring memorizing. While they seem really esoteric and complicated, kanji are basically hieroglyphics so it's fun to read about each one's meaning while trying to reproduce them with the big ol' brushes.

Plus I have such a cute place to do it.

And I get to use that kanji book that's been collecting dust...

By the way, we're happy to report that John has perfected his black bean veggie burger. Yes, we can get black beans here. They're just expensive and dry so we have to soak them overnight and cook them for hours. It's based on this recipe but he tweaks it by adding carrots, broccoli and olive oil. For my part, I made homemade burger buns the other week and was pretty pleased with how they turned out.


  1. "Like all Japanese traditional arts there is a definite right and wrong way to do it and it takes years of practice to even get close to doing it right."

    Isn't this the truth? After doing tons of reading on Japanese textile traditions, including shibori and katazome, I've run into the "right way" attitude quite a bit. Perfection of technique--obtained through a lifetime of mindful, controlled, practice--seems to be an aesthetic ideal. The classes I've taken on the subjects were in the American-style: a bit more of "let's try this and see what happens". Very low pressure.

    As a newbie, the ideal of perfection is utterly overwhelming and disheartening. I mean, who can achieve perfection on their first attempt?

    But I can also relate to the idea that a long-term engagement with a process--with a concerted effort to get work toward an ideal--often leads to "better" results. You can get better at things. Maybe not perfect, but you can still try. For me it's about enjoying the process for what it is, rather than caring only about the finished product and if it measures up to some ideal.

    But clearly, all the baking you're doing is paying off. I mean, just look at those hamburger buns. Beautiful!

  2. I always soak my beans overnight and then cook them in my rice cooker. Typically the beans are done even before the rice cooker timer stops. Just a suggestion ;) and you hardly have to worry about it boiling dry.

  3. Wow - that's a brilliant idea. We love doing non-rice cooking in the rice cooker but hadn't thought to do beans. There's an adzuki bean recipe I've been wanting to make - so we'll have to try it soon! Thanks Jonathan ;)