Every region has its artistic styles, as well as every time period. The same may be said for production of the suzuri, with a classical shape and style modified according to era and taste. The most common suzuri is a rectangular stone with a deep well on one end, and a flat surface sloping into it This makes sense, as it is practical and probably fairly easy to accomplish. Decorative elements and embellishments in the non-working areas are certainly possible, and I would be inclined to say almost inevitable for the expression of the carver’s creative force.
Besides the impact of regional and time preferences, the economics behind the stone’s production itself may be seen. Stones for the masses – the daily stone – are probably more plain than those for the aficionado, simply because of their utilitarian role. These can be made quickly, with or without attention to quality or aesthetics. Today, stones for tourists may be pretty but worthless as far as usability; other stones may be far better in quality and less ornate. A good stone is absolutely necessary, whether for calligraphy or painting, if you are using an ink stick.
Today’s stone is from Japan. It does not have a rosewood box, but it is very nicely encased in a kiri wood box. Unfortunately, I cannot read the label! (If anyone can translate for me, please let me know.) This is the only stone in my collection I have not yet used, and I am still deciding on whether or not I should – it is so beautiful as it is! Knowing me, though, I will at some point when I am not rushing around – I want to take the time to enjoy it.
I am under the impression this stone is carved from nachiguro, a lustrous black slate or river shale unique to Japan, and has been used since the Nara period (710 – 794 CE) for carving practical and ornamental items, such as suzuri, go stones, and suiseki, This stone is a sedimentary shale which originates in the upper side of the Kumano river in Japan’s Mie prefecture, and is characteristically very dark and shiny.
Many traditional Japanese themes and symbols may be considered by a master craftsman in creating a high-end suzuri, but this artist has taken a considerably more modern approach. The abstract elements of the lid are suggestive of many things, and certainly some traditional themes as well. Just in a glance, I can envision falling leaves or swimming koi. The carving is very subtle and pleasing, working very well within the smooth borders of the circle. To the touch, the different textures are smooth and rough at the same time, without any sharp edges.
The smooth elegance of the polished stone is a bit more rough on the grinding surface and the well, having the necessary tooth to create sumi ink. The borders of the well are polished and shiny, in keeping with the rest of the stone. The contrast of these two areas repeats the circular motif of the suzuri’s shape, as well as the framing of the lid’s pattern. The underside of the lid is as smooth and reflective as the underside of the lower portion of the stone. Even the underside of the suzuri well is smoothly finished, and follows the circular motifs of lid surface and underside, and the well. This stone is not especially old, probably produced in last quarter of the twentieth century. It is a large, heavy stone, measuring more than 8 inches (20 cm) in diameter.
I expect this stone could be considered something of a luxury item, for oneself or as a special gift. Given this, I cannot help but wonder if the beauty of the stone is all it has – can it be used to produce good ink? Even if it does not, there is something to be said for simply beautiful objects. The suzuri’s circular shape is pleasing, the lid’s carved surface intriguing, and the soft, candescent glow of the stone subtly elegant. Aesthetically, this suzuri is a sculpture to be appreciated in its own right.