Nara Ink

Japan’s oldest and largest sumi ink production area

By Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

By: Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University in collaboration with Kyoto Women's University

Saien (“collecting soot”), Nara inkArt Research Center, Ritsumeikan University


The history of Japanese ink (sumi) is said to have begun in 610 AD when the production methods were transmitted to Japan by a Korean monk named Damjing (Donchō in Japanese). Production of ink, essential for writing characters and recording text, moved to Nara with the relocation of the capital in the beginning of the 700s and has continued there for about 1,300 years since.

Shoen (pine soot), Nara inkArt Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Pine Soot Ink (Shōen Zumi)

Even after the capital moved to the Kyoto area in 794, Nara remained a place of religious significance with many Buddhist temples. Much ink was needed for tasks such as sutra transcription, and there were abundant forest resources nearby to provide the carbon soot that is the ink’s raw material. Nara, therefore remained a site of high-quality ink production. In the Nara, Heian and Kamakura periods, shōen—soot from pine, which has a high resin content—was the preferred material for Nara ink. This was obtained by chopping pine wood into small pieces and burning it in a stove.

Glue (nikawa), Nara inkArt Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Glue (Nikawa)

Besides carbon soot, the other ingredient of traditional Japanese ink is animal-based glue (nikawa). This is extracted by boiling the dermis (the layer of skin below the epidermis) of an animal such as a cow or a deer. Nikawa is highly adhesive and is widely used as a bonding agent in traditional art forms. Sticks of ink are produced by mixing the soot with this glue and drying it. In addition, in order to ameliorate the unpleasant smell of the glue, fragrant substances such as musk, borneol or Japanese apricot blossom essence are added. This gives rise to a clean smell when the ink stick is rubbed down.

Yuenzumi (lamp-soot ink), Nara inkArt Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Lamp Soot Ink (Yūen Zumi )

Ink is indispensable for those responsible for administration and culture. For this reason, ink was produced all over Japan in ancient times. Circumstances changed, however; there is a reason that Nara became famous for ink production. This is because, at the beginning of the Muromachi period, a monk at the Kōfuku-ji Temple tried making ink out of the soot from votive oil lamps lit in front of the Buddha statues. This gave rise to lamp soot ink (yūen zumi), made from soot obtained from such lamps. Yūen zumi became the most commonly used ink because it gave a deep black color. Nara, with its early adoption of lamp soot ink production, became known as place where high-quality ink was made, a reputation that it maintains to this day.

Teneri (fine hand kneading), Nara inkArt Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Production Processes: Kneading

Few of the processes involved in ink making can be mechanized, for which reason ink is still today manufactured by experienced artisans using ancient methods. The collected soot is mixed with heated glue and kneaded, until it forms a ball. The ball of ink is further kneaded using the maker’s full body weight (ashineri; foot kneading), and then teneri (fine hand kneading) is carried out.

Shaping and drying, Nara inkArt Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Production Processes: Shaping and Drying 

When kneading is finished, the ink is pressed into the compartments of wooden frame molds and clamped in place. This forms sticks of ink of the desired shapes. These wooden frame molds may be carved with various traditional designs and lettering—these patterns are in turn impressed into the soft ink. The ink sticks split and crack if they dry out too quickly, so they are then covered in wood ashes in a temperature-controlled area to allow their moisture to extract slowly over a period of between about 10 and 30 days.

Finishing, Nara inkArt Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Production Processes: Decoration

After drying in ash, the ink sticks are strung together and hung from the ceiling to dry completely. After drying, the sticks are taken down and their surfaces polished with a clam shell. Other finishing touches are added at this time, such as decoration with gold dust or colored pigments. Because the animal-based nikawa glue tends to go bad in high temperatures, ink can only be made during the colder months, from fall to winter. Few areas in Japan are equipped to engage in the production of ink, which requires such a variety of processes and specific materials. Ink produced in Nara now accounts for 95% of all sumi ink manufactured in Japan.

Inkstone as an art form, Nara inkArt Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Artistic Ink Sticks

Ink is perhaps the most fundamental medium in East Asian calligraphy and painting. Before starting work, a calligrapher or painter turns to the inkstone and, while clearing his or her mind, grinds the ink stick back and forth along the wet stone to make ink. Only after the ink has been thus prepared can the creative process of writing or painting begin. In order to enhance artistic inspiration during this essential process of ink preparation, ink sticks have often been embellished with delicate designs. This tradition is continued today, as evident from the wide variety of elegantly artistic sticks of ink.

Credits: Story

Information provided by Nara Ink Organization

Text written by Murata Takashi, Osaka International University

Exhibition created by Wada Azusa & Yamamura Misa & Mao Jiaqi , Kyoto Women's University Lifestyle Design Laboratory

Editing by Melissa M. Rinne, Kyoto National Museum

Directed by Maezaki Shinya, Kyoto Women's University

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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