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Like many other Japanese traditions, Shodo originated in China. In around the 6th or 7th century, Buddhist monks, in addition to converting people to their religion and beliefs, were also finding enthusiasts of their beautiful writing style. Done with a brush, this calligraphic writing was soon adopted by the Emperor and the highly placed nobles. Gradually though, the technique spread throughout Japan.

In modern Japan, while calligraphy is no longer the common way of writing, the subject is still taught in schools, as good penmanship is considered important and it is still used for special occasions and in some forms of employment. Students buy a small blue case which contains all the materials they need. These cases are available in department stores and bigger stationary stores. Good calligraphy is considered an art form and takes many years of dedicated practice. Museums and art galleries often have displays and exhibitions of calligraphy and run competitions to find exceptional calligraphers.

The materials
In the past, people had to make their own equipment before they could start writing. Now, all of the items are freely available throughout Japan and also other countries. Th typical tools you need for shodo are:

Fude - the brushes which have bamboo handles and come in different sizes.
Suzuri - an inkstone which has a slightly dented end.
Sumi - a stick of black ink which is rubbed in a little water on the inkstone to produce a black liquid.
Hanshi - calligraphy paper which is usually hand made.
Shitajiki - a writing rest made from dark felt which the paper sits on.
Bunchin - a paperweight that prevents the paper from sliding off the felt.

As well as the regular materials, sometimes special items are also used such as different types of paper. This paper can be very expensive, particularly if it has flecks of gold through it, and one mistake means the calligraphy will need to be started again. Calligraphy paper used by professionals is usually much larger and longer as entire poems and sayings are written on them. These can be displayed on scrolls or framed.

So what is "good" calligraphy?
Watching a good calligrapher is often deceptive, as they tend to look very relaxed about their work and make the process seem very easy. Try it yourself though and you will soon discover that there is more to calligraphy than just writing.

Things to look out for are a sense of balance with the work with regards to the positioning on the page and the size and shapes of the characters. You should also notice that straight lines usually are much stronger than curved ones which tend to almost vanish in some artists' work. While the work will have both thick and thin lines, there shouldn't be uneven writing or excessive ink anywhere on the page.

You will find that shodo changes as the person learning improves, from very legible "clear" characters, through a couple of intervening variations, to almost a painting-like effect which incorporates ancient versions of characters and is very difficult for Japanese people to read aswell.

Watch out in your local area for any shodo displays and demonstrations as they are becoming quite common. You may even be able to learn at a college or school nearby. It is mesmerising to watch and fun to try too! Just remember to wear old clothes.