My handwriting is truly tragic. And that’s a fact. I vividly remember an incident in high school when a certain teacher held up my hand-written report (it was back in the olden pre-computer days) to the whole class and asked them just which way they thought it was intended to be read. Because she didn’t have a clue. And after that (and getting an F) I decided that typing my reports and essays was a really good idea.
So, you can imagine my general feelings towards calligraphy. I don’t do it and I want nothing to do with it. “Calligraphy” itself is a dirty word to me. As a child I was subjected to countless hours of cruel and unusual punishment that involved filling a notebook after notebook with practice writing. All in an effort to make sure that someday people other than myself would be able to decipher my chicken scratches. Yes, chicken scratches, because to the uninitiated, it really doesn’t make any difference if I write kanji, Arabic or the western alphabet, it looks all the same to them.
Unfortunately, my practice writing turned out to be an exercise in futility. All it did was imprint me with a morbid fear of calligraphy. And especially of calligraphy as an art form.
I’d been avoiding Japanese calligraphy (shodo) for as long as I could. I learned kimono dressing instead… and the tea ceremony… and sushi making (heck, I even worked as a sushi chef for a while)… and then bonsai cultivation, flower arranging, drag racing, racing in drag and professional shark hunting…. But I always drew the line when it came to ink, brushes and paper.
Until last Saturday. I agreed to accompany a friend to a calligraphy class. I had no intention of ever picking up a brush, but went along to take photos. And yes, I admit it, I was curious about what they did in there, too.
I’m not going to tell you about the history of Japanese calligraphy, you can look it up all by yourself on Wikipedia. All I can tell you is that calligraphy is as boring as it sounds, especially when you’re like me and have the artistic ability of a salt shaker.
There’s ink, there’s a brush, and there’s paper. And a set of highly involved instructions that are impossible for a mere mortal to follow. It requires a level of motor skills that are way beyond my simple “walk and chew gum at the same time” stuff. And while I may be ambitious, I am not THAT ambitious.
The class was organized by our local international association and sponsored by the city. And this is the real reason I wanted to talk about it today. Very few foreign tourists realize what a great resource those city-sponsored international associations, clubs, organizations and whatnots can be. Most (if not all) of their activities are open to anybody who wants to participate, and that includes tourists and other temporary visitors as well. And in contrast to professional hobby schools geared towards foreigners, those city-sponsored classes and activities are ridiculously cheap.
The international association in Utsunomiya offers the typical selection that most gaijins are after – Japanese classes (300 yen per hour, all levels, if you want just a single lesson that’s OK), kimono lessons, flower arranging, and yes, even calligraphy (two hour session, with all materials provided, and you even get a snack – 500 yen per person). All you need to do is to ask for a current schedule and tell them you’ll be coming.
Our calligraphy class was led by a licensed instructor who spoke English. She was very passionate about this whole ink and brush business and managed to talk me into giving it a try. You know, just a “no obligations, here, hold this brush for a sec” kind of try.
And then, one thing led to another, and before I knew it, I was busy scrawling 森 (forest) on a sheet of paper. And needless to say, I sucked at it.
So yes, I can honestly say that I’ve tried shodo and I don’t like it. No surprise here.
And oh, before I forget – how do you find an international association in cities you’re going to visit?
Google it, or ask at the local tourist office or city hall. Most (if not all) city halls distribute a very interesting English language publication intended to help new foreign residents settle in the area in particular, and in Japan in general. When I went to pick up my copy nobody asked me where I lived or why I wanted it, and I assume that they don’t really care if you’re just a tourist or a long-term resident.
And the best part? The publication is free. The classes that the international association organizes are cheap. And I don't know about you, but for me “cheap” and “free” are very important.