400 Years Making Sumi

Sumi tools and materials for calligraphy

Sumi tools and materials for calligraphy.  Sumi stick, slate inkwell, calligraphy brush, sumi stick with finger impression by workman at Kobaien sumi factory in Nara, Japan.

While documenting Japanese culture for National Geographic Traveler,  I had the opportunity to photograph at Kobaien in Nara, the oldest sumi shop in Japan. The city of Nara produces 90% of the sumi-ink in Japan.  Kobaien sumi shop has produced sumi-ink sticks for calligraphy and ink painting for 400 years.

Sumi is made by collecting soot from burning pure vegetable oil, usually sesame or pauwlonia, and combining this with glue derived from vegetable starch.  This is then shaped into sticks and dried.  Ink is made by grinding the sumi stick in the slate inkwell called a suzuri until the desired consistency is achieved.

I requested Mr. Mitsuyoshi Nakano, chief at the Kobaien sumi shop, to have the workman making sumi press his fingers into a freshly made stick for me, shown here. Mr. Nakano then created the names Nara and Kyoto in Japanese calligraphy on washi, mulberry paper as a gift.

Kobaien sumi shop, 7 Tsubaicho, Nara, Japan Tel. (Nara 22)-4922

More images on Japanese culture in Kyoto & Nara.


7 thoughts on “400 Years Making Sumi

  1. Janet Brase says:

    Japanese calligraphy is such a beautiful art form. I had no idea there is special ink, much less, how it is made. Thanks for passing it on. Jan B. (TDB’s mom)


    • Janet, I agree about the beauty, it has a similar aesthetic quality as black and white photography and pen and ink drawings. The short life of the ink is a couple of days because it is vegetable based gives it an additional “preciousness”. Thank you for your feedback, I invite you to follow the blog, I am trying to share images which are information rich. Best, Wayne Eastep


  2. Elena, Thank you. I’ve have a privilege as a photographer to be given access behind the scenes to many wondrous things. The blog seems to be a good way to share. I am encouraged by the responses I am getting.


  3. Elena Prohaska says:

    What a fine blog and really good idea to share your knowledge and beautiful images with us.
    Thank you so much. Elena Prohaska, East Hampton, NY


  4. TDB says:

    Now this is my favorite blog yet. Fascinating. I really learned something here, well done. It’s also the first time I have been able to take a look at your wonderful collection of Japanese culture images. Just magnificent – colorful, informative and fun.
    Awesome Dude.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s