Sumi Manufacturer - Kinkoen Interview

Sumi Manufacturer - Kinkoen Interview

For the seventeenth entry in the written "The Figure Behind the Ink" series, we have a special treat for you all - An interview with an actual sumi ink manufacturer @kinkoenjp.

Learn about how the culturally-significant, Nara-based Kinkoen has been manufacturing sumi ink for over a century, what makes sumi ink so special, and what is in the horizon for future generations.

This interview was originally published in the @waboripedia Instagram page on 4/5/2024, and constituted of (3) posts.

What is sumi, and what makes Nara Sumi special?

Currently, there are only nine ink shops in Japan, and eight of them are located in Nara City, Nara Prefecture.

Nara ink is known throughout Japan as a major ink-producing region because it accounts for more than 90% of the domestic ink production; essentially producing most of the ink. Another notable point is that these shops have continued to make ink by hand using traditional methods for hundreds of years.

Explained simply, what is the process of making sumi?

The manufacture of ink begins with the collection of soot from the smoke produced by burning red pine wood or vegetable oil. Then, this soot is mixed with a solution made by melting glue (gelatin) prepared by boiling animal skins.

Fragrances are added to suppress the smell of the glue, and the mixture is kneaded by hand or foot to create soft raw ink. This raw ink is then placed into ink stick molds, shaped, and left to naturally dry and harden for about one to two years. The finishing touches involve polishing the surface, applying color, packaging in boxes, and then shipping.

What can you tell us about Kinkoen?

Kinkoen was founded about 150 years ago when our founder, who was originally the chief craftsman at the renowned Nara ink shop "Kobaien," became independent and started Kinkoen. Currently, it is operated solely by the family duo consisting of the sixth-generation, Bokuen Nagano, and the seventh-generation, Atsushi Nagano, making it the smallest ink shop in Japan.

What are the different types of sumi ink and what makes them special?

There are countless types of ink, varying not only in the ingredients used, such as the type of soot and glue, but also in the method of collecting soot, and the proportions of soot to glue.

Additionally, differences in aging after production result in variations in color and how the ink bleeds, offering a level of expressive capability not found in other writing materials. This is what makes ink particularly special.

Are there any advantages or disadvantages between oil soot and pine soot?

Oil soot generally features a deep, bold color. In contrast, pine soot has a more muted, ethereal color quality.

Especially pine soot, due to the size of its particles and its rough texture, reflects light in such a way that it can develop a bluish tint over time, sometimes referred to as "blue ink."

However, oil soot is overwhelmingly more prevalent in Japan. This is because pine soot, which originated in China and was introduced to Japan 1,400 years ago, is considered the "original ink." However, there are hardly any manufacturers producing domestic pine soot today, making it almost impossible to obtain, and its cost is significantly higher.

Nonetheless, both oil and pine soot, along with all components of ink from the glue to the fragrances, are made from natural materials, which is a key feature.

What are some of the current challenges facing sumi manufacturers, and what are you doing to solve these challenges?

As mentioned earlier, challenges include securing and procuring materials such as soot and glue, and the scarcity of skilled successors. More critically, there is a diminishing demand for solid ink itself.

To address these challenges, it is essential to deliver more information to people worldwide through media, to convey the appeal of ink, to spark interest, and to encourage its use.

What is next for the Kinkoen family business?

While Kinkoen has long been in the business of making ink, we also see our role as conveying information about ink. It is important to continue efforts to let as many people as possible know about the charm of ink through the internet, media, and visitors to our workshop.

We aim to strengthen our position as a guide to ink by continuously disseminating information both domestically and internationally.

Please feel free to add anything you would like to share with international audiences.

We constantly update information about ink on our workshop’s website (available both English and Japanese versions) and on social media (Instagram, Twitter), so we would be delighted if you could take a look and find something of interest.

On our website, you can purchase ink via our online shop and have it shipped overseas. We also welcome any questions or consultations about ink, so please feel free to DM us anytime.


About Kinkoen:

@kinkoenjp is a Nara, Japan-based sumi ink manufacturer, whose beautiful sumi inks have been sought-after for over a century. Visit @kinkoenjp to learn more about the process of making sumi, sumi products, and more.


Important Note:

Although sumi has been used for centuries by traditional Japanese tattooers, note that its safety in application for tattoos has not been scientifically analyzed or vetted. Not all sumi is made equal, and some sumi can be quite toxic. Please exercise caution and good judgement when purchasing sumi for your purposes. This material is not meant for human consumption; it is produced for writing and painting.

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