Specialist stores have their own calm. Inside is shaded and cool, they never try too hard to please. No loud displays or big sales push. Sometimes walking past them, you wouldn’t even know they are there.

Like on this rainy-season afternoon in the backstreets of Kotobuki. A scholarly-looking Chinese fellow with his wife and kids is taking photos of the building, when you notice for the first time that it is a store selling ink, stones and other items for brush-writing, or shodo.

shodo 2 staff

Well, fancy that. Houkendo has been here for 70 years, in the same family for three generations.

Young staff member Nobuharu Kure shows you the brushes and inkstones. Many are antique, all are Chinese, from Canton. A craftsman comes in some weekdays to work upstairs, repairing old stones.

shodo int hangingshodo 3 brushes

Kure shows you how to mix ink from a delicately embossed ink stick. They are made in molds and sometimes have added scents such as musk to cover the raw odors of plant ash, animal fats and other things they contain.

The smells are part of shodo. So is the sound, as you grind up the carbon gently in its small puddle of water, you create a ringing tone. Then there is touch, the feedback through your fingers from the ink stick as you move it, and, Look, says Kure, feel this stone, as he drips water on it and lets you swirl your fingers over the gorgeously veined purple slab, a particular sort of stone with such a good look the craftsman has left it perfectly flat. Your fingers are floating, as if on oil on steel.

shodo purple stoneshodo scroll sampleshodo inksticks

Do the staff practice calligraphy? Kure says he does a little, then introduces his tall colleague, Tomohiro Moriyama, who is a university shodo graduate.

What must you go through to be able to write as freely as grass – the sousho style?

Moriyama says, You must first learn to copy the orthodox characters exactly. Then you can be free.

He flicks through a big book to show you the hundreds and hundreds of different character styles – perhaps you could even call them fonts. The sample character is sho, or “to write”.

shodo looking up bookshodo grass1shodo grass2shodo grass3

On a magical piece of cardboard, on which he writes in water and from which the characters completely disappear within minutes, he draws the final grass-style version of “sho” in the middle, then writes three other characters connected by arrows to show its evolution. You can still see the original in the final – if, of course, you know.

shodo shop sign
Houkendo sign by calligraphy master Sanu Aoyama

shodo ext

Houkendo is at 4-1-11 Kotobuki, Taito-ku tel 03-3844-2976
The Mainichi Shimbun sponsors its 67th exhibition of calligraphy at the National Art Center, Tokyo, July 8 to August 2, but there is almost no website information yet.
There is a nice old article on a calligrapher here