An Artisan Well Versed in the Tradition of Japanese Brush Making

Among the low, tile-roofed wood homes of the historic Nara-machi neighborhood of the metropolis of Nara, a calligraphy brush as huge as a brush marks the gate to Chiyomi Tanaka’s store. I observe a stone path down the flower-lined alleyway and duck beneath a mustard-colored noren curtain and into her tiny showroom. Inside, brushes in each dimension — some high quality sufficient to color a doll’s eyelashes, others broad sufficient to attract characters as tall as the individual writing them — line the partitions. With instruments so previous they’re not in manufacturing, it’s the workshop of a shokunin (grasp craftsperson), however as cozy as an auntie’s front room. Tanaka is one of seven remaining masters of crafting Nara fude.

“Fude” roughly interprets to “brush,” however Tanaka makes use of the phrase just for the fashion of calligraphy and ink-painting brushes she makes in a practice with roughly 1,300 years of historical past in Nara, the landlocked prefecture under Kyoto. In the fourth or fifth century, Buddhist monks, merchants, authorities officers and immigrants introduced Chinese writing to Japan (by way of the Korean Peninsula), which continued to unfold with Buddhism in the sixth century. After Empress Genmei established the metropolis of Nara as Japan’s imperial capital in the eighth century — modeling its forms and structure on that of China’s Tang Dynasty — the monarchy used writing and faith to consolidate energy. Ink and brushes have been employed to file in depth histories, copy sutras and draft legal guidelines. The oldest current brushes in Japan (housed in the metropolis’s Shoso-in repository at Todaiji temple) date to that interval.

Nara fude (made out of combined hair, left, and goat hair, proper) for training calligraphy utilizing sumi ink floor on an ink stone.Credit…Shina PengTanaka blends wetted hair from goat, horse tail and tanuki.Credit…Shina Peng

Tanaka leads me upstairs for an hourlong workshop. I imagined I’d craft my very own brush from begin to end, however even Tanaka’s grownup daughter, who typically assists with workshops for teams of vacationers, has not tried to mix and assemble the hairs herself. The course of is so advanced that an beginner can do little greater than affix a brush head to a deal with. But I’m actually right here to fulfill my very own curiosity about how Tanaka makes her brushes — and to attempt to perceive how Japanese make-up brushes relate to this storied craft.

Japanese brushes have lengthy been well-liked with skilled make-up artists, many of whom grew up admiring the pioneering work of the Japanese make-up artist Shu Uemura. And now, brushes from esteemed Japanese corporations like Chikuhodo and Kashoen 1883 can be found the world over. High-end up to date magnificence manufacturers resembling Westman Atelier, Surratt, Rae Morris and others proudly share that their make-up brushes are made in Japan, utilizing conventional methods and supplies. Most Japanese magnificence brushes are manufactured in Kumano, a metropolis in Hiroshima Prefecture with practically 200 years of its personal (extra industrial) brush-making tradition. But these Kumano brushes are linked to Nara fude, as magnificence brushes have been born from the commemorated — and now disappearing — custom of crafting fude for calligraphy.

Samples of hair Tanaka makes use of, from left to proper: squirrel, Chinese goat, horse, itachi weasel and tanuki.Credit…Shina Peng

WHEN CHIYOMI TANAKA started learning fude making in 1982, her kids have been toddlers. She remembers bringing her daughter in a stroller to the craft college the place she’d enrolled in a yearlong program. It was uncommon then for girls to work outdoors the dwelling or household enterprise, however she needed one thing to do — a function of her personal. She was already licensed in ikebana and tea ceremony (however dismisses this mastery as marriage coaching), and he or she’d discovered to stitch kimono and Western garments, however nothing held her curiosity till she tried brush making. After commencement, she turned a deshi — a disciple or apprentice — to a grasp fude maker and labored for a brush firm, earlier than changing into an unbiased shokunin in 2009.

With Tanaka’s regular steerage, I exploit a blade to widen the opening of a bamboo deal with, prep it with tremendous glue (conventional nikawa, which is analogous to rabbit-skin glue, is finicky and slow-drying) and press a fluffy brush head into the opening. We squish the bristles right into a bowl of gelatinous funori, a water-soluble adhesive made out of seaweed, then comb them out. Finally, I wrap a thread round the brush, maintain it taught and pull the loop towards the tip to easy the bristles right into a form like a candle flame. I’m happy with my brush, even when Tanaka did all the actual work of mixing the hair and assembling the brush head.

The brush handles she makes use of are crafted by one other shokunin, who prepares the bamboo (or typically wooden) to Tanaka’s specs; it’s the head of the brush that’s the pleasure of Nara fude masters like Tanaka. She works on the brushes in batches — first mixing and shaping a stiff internal core, after which wrapping it in softer hairs — repeatedly wetting and drying the hair between steps. She can full a couple of hundred brushes over the course of two weeks. When they’re completed, her pal etches and paints a label on the stem of every brush by hand.

Brush suggestions made out of a mix of goat, horse tail and tanuki hair dry on a basket in Tanaka’s store.Credit…Shina Peng

It’s getting more durable as of late to seek out good hair for brushes — the final remaining provider in Nara closed a number of years in the past — however Tanaka has a lifetime inventory of supplies. Every fude shokunin should, she says, including that when brushes have been a necessity, artisans used to tackle a debt as huge as a house mortgage to arrange their workshop. She reveals me the varieties of hair she makes use of — squirrel, itachi (a form of weasel), horse, rabbit, sika deer, tanuki (raccoon canine) and Yangtze River Delta white goat — in addition to a diagram of a smiling goat mapping the dozen or so varieties of fibers that come from completely different elements of the animal’s physique. A goat’s beard has a special high quality than hair from its stomach or rump, for example. The stiffness or softness of a hair, how a lot spring and resilience it has, the quantity of ink it picks up and the way rapidly it releases that ink onto the web page — all of this issues to a calligrapher who wishes a selected variety of line, and feeling, from the brush.

Synthetic hair (which allays client issues about animal welfare) is now broadly used in beauty brushes and cheap fude. Tanaka thinks the subsequent technology of fude artisans would possibly make one thing nice with it, however she doesn’t take care of it herself. Polyester fibers don’t maintain as a lot ink, and deposit it in a short time. But Tanaka does mix some artificial hair into her most elementary brushes to make them extra inexpensive. She says many individuals are so used to the stiffness of synthetic-blended bristles now that they discover pure animal-hair brushes too delicate. Once you’re used to a selected high quality of brush, it’s onerous to change. Still, the first time Tanaka handled animal hair, she was stunned by the bits of dried flesh nonetheless caught to the fibers, and the odor of pheromones. The odorous work of boiling hair to take away oils and filth — and of later singing the base to fuse collectively a brush head — she does at dwelling. She dries and straightens the hair, dusting it with ash to soak up any lingering oil, and wraps it in delicate deerskin to convey it to her store.

While she waits for patrons — half of them collectors or calligraphers who stroll previous and are drawn in by the large brush, the relaxation mates or repeat shoppers — Tanaka kinds, blends and shapes bristles at a small desk. She divides the clear hair into 10 piles ranked by high quality. Learning to evaluate them rapidly and intuitively took her a decade of working together with her mentor, and regardless that he has died, she nonetheless considers herself his deshi.

The first time she went to her mentor’s workshop, she noticed stacks of money mendacity round; she thought she would get wealthy. But earlier than she turned an expert, Tanaka says, the world modified. In Japan, résumés are sometimes required to be handwritten so an employer can decide the applicant’s character, however ballpoint pens have turn out to be so customary that writing with a brush might sound ostentatious. Schoolchildren observe shuji, or penmanship, with a brush and ink, however few dad and mom will purchase even Tanaka’s least costly brush (which prices lower than $15) when greenback shops and stationery retailers promote cheaper ones made in China. For addressing the formal envelopes of cash company convey to weddings and funerals — or writing New Year’s greeting playing cards — a brush pen is extra handy than the actual factor.

Tomoshi Ogawa, the ninth technology brush-shop proprietor of Ryushido in Kyoto, tells me his grandparents used to arrange a stall at the weekend market and will promote lots of of brushes to farmers and craftspeople who wanted them to make tags for his or her merchandise. When the Magic Marker was launched in the 1950s, gross sales dropped off dramatically. Today, the village brush maker is a factor of the previous. Like Tanaka, Ogawa sells his greatest brushes to collectors and artists. Students purchase modestly priced fude and ink to take calligraphy lessons upstairs, however one brush lasts them a very long time, so Ogawa has crammed the entrance of his store with stationery; he does extra enterprise in postcards and letter writing papers than in brushes.

Tanaka blends goat, horse tail and tanuki hair. Each small, flat bundle of hair will make 4 to 5 brush heads.Credit…Shina Peng

A BRUSH MAY NO longer be a needed instrument for writing however, in Japan, calligraphy remains to be valued on the identical stage as poetry or portray. An emotively drawn character can stand alone as a piece of artwork. (Tanaka used to point out her brushes in galleries alongside different crafts, however to her they’re instruments for making artwork, not works of artwork themselves.) John Carpenter, the curator of Japanese artwork at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, tells me by e-mail that “even when the know-how for mechanical replica was accessible early on for reproducing the classics of Japanese literature resembling ‘The Tale of Genji,’ such works have been transmitted by hand-copied recensions by means of the centuries.” Beautiful handwriting was a talent anticipated of ladies in Kyoto’s imperial court docket, and “The Tale of Genji,” written in the early 11th century, is amongst the works of literature that emerged from their writings. “And through the Edo period [1603-1868], woodblock printed books replicated brush written manuscript versions,” Carpenter provides.

I choose a four,000 yen (roughly $40) brush Tanaka recommends — her costliest brush prices about $1,400, however most promote for $50-80 for studying shodo, the method (or path) of writing. Its mix of pure hair is springy and stiff sufficient for a newbie. Tanaka advises that if I exploit actual sumi (floor on an ink stone) with my new fude, I can clear the brush with cool water (by no means sizzling, as a result of that might harm the adhesive) and nothing extra. A softer brush — made out of itachi tail, or a mix of itachi and deer — takes extra talent to manage, however could make lengthy, expressive strains like the ones I’ve admired on scrolls in tearooms over years of taking tea ceremony classes.

In Buddhist temples, calligraphic works put in above sliding fusuma doorways supply teachings or poetic phrases, in writing that’s typically extra expressive than legible. Tanaka says the monks who write them typically desire versatile goat-hair brushes that maintain quite a bit of ink. And in grand houses and fancy workplaces, a extra simply learn calligraphic work could also be displayed as a dialog starter — its brief, clear strains executed with a agency, resilient tanuki or horsehair brush. Tanaka even makes a couple of brushes from feathers for strokes with an uncommon streaky line high quality.

Brushes Tanaka labels as dento kogei, that means conventional excessive crafts, meet inflexible requirements outlined by the authorities to protect and promote distinct native merchandise. Tanaka was the first lady to be awarded the designation of dento kogeishi, grasp of conventional craftsmanship, for Nara fude. But she says increasingly ladies are coming into conventional crafts. Japan’s slowly shifting gender norms proceed to put quite a bit of expectations on women and men to satisfy particular roles. But Tanaka thinks as a result of ladies don’t really feel the identical strain as males to be financially profitable, they will danger coming into a area with an more and more unsure future. (I’ve noticed the identical factor occurring with woodworking in the city the place I stay, Yamanaka Onsen, close to the Sea of Japan). If they fail, Tanaka says, they will fall again on being a housewife with out disgrace. If they succeed, they breathe new life into conventional craft.

The greatest Nara fude (for professional calligraphers and brush collectors) can vary in worth from 100 dollars to some thousand.Credit…Shina Peng

AS THE DEMAND for on a regular basis calligraphy brushes dwindled, some brush makers — particularly in Kumano — turned to a different supply of earnings: magnificence brushes. Today, Japan is an innovator and trendsetter in cosmetics, skincare and sweetness instruments. Across the nation, you’ll find Kumano brushes in loud drugstore make-up shows for lower than 5 dollars, whereas prestigious manufacturers promote luxuriously delicate powder brushes for upward of $80.

When I journey to the metropolis of Kyoto, lower than an hour’s practice experience from Nara-machi, to go to the flagship retailer of the Hiroshima-based brush firm Hakuhodo, I’m drawn into the world of beautiful magnificence brushes. The retailer is a contemporary white field, with glowing show circumstances and a skylight reminiscent of a James Turrell set up, in distinction to the staid Ippodo tearoom throughout the road. In Kyoto, brush making has all however disappeared — the remaining three fude shokunin are too few to benefit dento kogei designation — however the metropolis is understood for its conventional arts and excessive tradition.

Hakuhodo makes use of the phrase “fude” liberally to explain its lots of of make-up applicators, which appear to be extremely specialised variations of cosmetics brushes bought in department shops round the world. They are priced based on their supplies, and vary from roughly $15 to a number of hundred. One powder brush, enclosed in a plexiglass case on the wall, has Hello Kitty painted in lacquer and gold mud on its deal with (and prices roughly $800). I select a tiny fan brush for eradicating mascara clumps (after I attempt it later with Japanese Dejavu Fiberwig mascara, it makes me appear to be I’m carrying false lashes), and a double-sided brush-comb for eyebrow grooming that has a 24 Okay gold ferule attaching it to a pleasantly weighty deal with lacquered the identical shade of vermilion as a shrine gate.

A elegant saleswoman reveals me how a well-liked eye shadow brush works otherwise relying on the hair it’s made out of. Kolinsky (a form of weasel hair banned in the U.S.) applies delicate, light shade, and can be utilized for concealer and gel shadows. Horse applies the shadow extra thickly, constructing it up sooner. And goat is nice at depositing glitter and vivid shade. She explains that tufts of artificial hair are effectively fitted to making use of basis rapidly and mixing liquid shade, however pure hair picks up extra powder. A protracted, skinny brush for drawing on swoops of eyeliner appears like the menso fude in Tanaka’s store, designed for portray the face on a doll; its delicate, versatile hairs take skilled talent to manage, however could make a high quality line of unparalleled class.

Most of Hakuhodo’s brushes are, in reality, yofude, or Western-style brushes distinguished by a steel ferule holding the bristles in place. Kumano, the metropolis in Hiroshima the place they’re manufactured, first made its identify with paintbrushes — and now cosmetics brushes. Hiroshima farmers who labored in Nara throughout the low season used to convey dwelling fude to promote for additional earnings, and in the early 19th century, the Kumano area sponsored Nara artisans to show these farmers the craft of brush making. Now, 80 % of Japan’s brush manufacturing is completed in Kumano. The course of is split into discrete duties, every assigned to a special artisan, so it’s simpler to outsource to a machine or abroad manufacturing unit.

Tanaka says doing each step herself, completely by hand, is inefficient; but it surely makes you care about the entire course of. She’s devoted to persevering with the custom of Nara fude, however her pal inspired her so as to add make-up brushes to her repertoire. A small glass case in her store shows lip brushes like the ones depicted in 19th-century ukioy-e work of courtesans, and spherical powder puffs made of delicate pink-colored goat hair set atop a stout cypress deal with that appear to be these of Kumano brushes. These she calls “burashi,” a Japanized pronunciation of “brush,” to differentiate them from fude. (I purchase an itachi lip brush with a deal with made of bamboo and water buffalo horn, but it surely’s so lovely I’m afraid to make use of it.)

As passionate as she is about Nara fude, Tanaka tells me she would discourage virtually any younger individual from taking over the many years of examine, soiled, painstaking labor and uncertainty that include a profession making brushes. She earns sufficient to maintain her store open, but it surely was her husband’s salaryman job that supported their household. I ask why she’s caught with all of it these years. She replies, “Because it’s still fun and interesting.” In her coronary heart, she says, she needs her daughter (now a mom, too) might discover the identical pleasure in making fude.

How to Try and Where to Buy

Nara Fude Tanaka

Chiyomi Tanaka sells a big selection of calligraphy and ink portray brushes, and a small choice of lip and powder brushes — all made completely by hand in Nara by Tanaka herself. And you’ll be able to assemble your personal calligraphy brush in a half-hour or one-hour workshop.


Hakuhodo, which produces brushes for a lot of make-up manufacturers round the world, is predicated in Kumano, Hiroshima, however has a number of shops, together with ones in Tokyo and L.A. and a flagship in Kyoto. Choose from an unlimited array of specialised brushes, beginning at round $15.


If you go to Hakuhodo in Kyoto, don’t miss this brush store subsequent door, for stationery, ink and brushes (and for calligraphy, ink portray and the Japanese portray fashion referred to as Nihonga) made by Kyoto’s few remaining fude shokunin. The retailer’s homeowners, the Ogawa household, can hint the store’s historical past again 9 generations to 1781, however the enterprise might be even older.

Kashoen 1883

In 1883, Shozo Takamoto, the founder of this storied brush firm, got down to make calligraphy brushes, and moved into magnificence in the early 20th century and commenced to export its merchandise abroad a couple of many years later. You will discover each brush in each fashion conceivable at Kashoen’s Hiroshima store. Like Hakuhodo, the model incorporates different varieties of Japanese craftsmanship, resembling Urushi lacquer, into its brushes.

Rae Morris

Five years in the past, the hair and make-up artist Rae Morris started working with a Kumano-based shokunin (who, like Tanaka, specializes in calligraphy brushes) to advance her personal line of make-up brushes referred to as Jishaku. Made with vegan micro crystal fibers, Morris’s brushes are exactly designed for particular makes use of — from angled mixing at the eyes to making use of blush or bronzer simply at the cheekbones. The better part? The ends of these brushes’ handles are magnetized (“jishaku” means magnet in Japanese), and may hold simply from a steel show body for simple accessibility and good hygiene.


This New York-based magnificence model, which launched in 2012, was impressed, in half, by the co-founder Troy Surratt’s work journeys to Japan whereas he assisted the celebrated make-up artist Kevyn Aucoin. The firm has since achieved a cultlike following for its revolutionary shade and make-up know-how, and its Artistique line of brushes — all made in Kumano, half of them with grey squirrel hair — are prime of the line. The model’s smokey eye brushes are a favourite of Jesus Pulgarin, the model’s international educator.


Though Tatcha is primarily a skin-care model, its founder, Vicky Tsai, and Nami Onodera, Tatcha’s govt director of model and tradition, found — after visiting the Kashoen 1883 Tokyo boutique at some point — that their best-selling exfoliating Rice Polish Enzyme Powder might be whipped up in a bowl and utilized with a brush, equally to how matcha is made. In addition to a brush and bowl set, Tatcha now additionally sells an beautiful powder brush, made with kiri wooden and a 24 Okay gold ferrule.

Westman Atelier

The elegant brushes that accompany Gucci Westman’s breakout clean-beauty line have been impressed by the make-up artist’s personal assortment of Japanese brushes. “When I was starting out, brushes were an investment piece,” Westman explains. While working, she prefers to maintain her hand near the face for extra management, so these have handles (made out of FSC-certified lacquered birch wooden) which might be comfortably brief; the brushes, made with artificial fiber, are additionally cruelty free.

Additional reporting by Takuya Kodama.

Hannah Kirshner is the creator of “Water, Wood and Wild Things: Learning Craft and Cultivation in a Japanese Mountain Town.”