E-tegami (picture postcard)

Seasonal Greetings

Japan is a nation obsessed with seasonal activities of all sorts. After all, there are few other nations that I know that have national holidays for the Vernal (Spring) and Autumnal Equinox. This year (2014), the Vernal Equinox will fall on March 21, one day after the traditional date.

But while haiku is fairly well known worldwide as a seasonal pastime, so too is letter writing. Even today, as most written communications between people has shifted to email, many people start their correspondence with a greeting that includes some seasonal reference. In Spring, this often refers to the warming, flowers, or other subjects related to weather or, often, food.

But it is in the more traditional correspondences that seasonal greetings get really special. Japanese snail mail is often a wonderful way of expressing thanks, friendship, congratulations, or just,"I'm thinking of you." In particular, the tradition of calligraphic painting - sumo-e - is a wonderful way of sending very personalized snail mail.

Visual Poetry

The trick, it seems, is a combination of minimalism and subtlety. Using a calligraphy brush, particularly with the black sumo ink that is made from the soot of pine branches, is very difficult. It is especially difficult to paint thin lines. A light touch, too, paints not a thin line, but a line that is not black, but gray.

Instead of starting with light colors, the black sumo lines are painted first. Sumi is used to create the outlines of the object being painted, as well as a few other strong lines. Then, color is added, sparsely, to add some depth. However, it is key to leave lots of white space, leaving a lot to the imagination.

Finally, text is carefully chosen to give a hint of the season being celebrated, or something else that one wishes to convey to the recipient. Congratulations, for example, would be a natural message on an E-hagaki, combined with a spring flower or fruit, sent to a graduating high school or university student.

"Power" - illustrated below - was my greeting to a friend, who was ill for most of the winter. Spring onions are a wonderful seasonal harvest, and the thick brush strokes were intended to convey strength and good health.

Fun for Everyone

Last weekend, both my wife and son Teddy also celebrated by painting postcards. Ted's celebration of "Life!" depicts a spring flower, a delightful red tulip. I don't know if he intends to send it to someone, or frame it to decorate our home, but wherever it goes, it is likely to delight and remind the viewer to celebrate the season.

It might not be easy to muster the nerve to paint an E-tegami, but it is sure to bring both you and its recipient some joy, so give it a shot!

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