Day one of the Mystery Tour – Suminagashi Paper Marbling

Japanese Countryside from the bullet train to Kyoto - book artist Ruth Bleakley travels to Japan

“NIPPON NI IKITAI!!” – this part of a series of posts and I highly recommend you start from the beginning of this crazy story: Re: Japanese media inquiry, Possible Filming Request

Day one in Japan: we started bright and early, catching the 7:30 AM bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto, with a brief stop at Starbucks on the way over for breakfast. When we stepped onto the train, we had to walk back a few carriages, and I was amazed at how smooth the train was! Not a single wobble or jostle, and it was surreal going so fast while walking in the opposite direction! The train travels at 200 miles (320km) an hour, and is very conveniently scheduled, with multiple trips per hour.

While I was on the train my translator made her way to my seat with a very neatly handwritten worksheet for me – “The Director would like you to learn these phrases so you can use them with the people you’re going to meet on the trip – ” “when will I be using them?” “this afternoon” – wow, better start studying!!
These are some basic phrases in Japanese

When we arrived in Kyoto we all bundled into another mini bus (after a stop for a green tea latte of course!) and drove around Kyoto as I was filmed – “no need to act, Ruth-san, we’re just filming your reaction to Kyoto so if you see anything interesting, you can say something, these will be in between shots.”

Finally we pulled into a small neighborhood, and half the crew hopped out of the van while I was left inside to attach my mic to the inside of my shirt and wait for further instructions. Finally it was time! I was handed a charming clear plastic umbrella (it was fairly rainy during my stay in Kyoto in late September – but very similar weather to Florida, otherwise) and told to “walk down the street and then into the building and up the stairs at the end – but very natural! And when you meet the person inside, do the greeting we practiced!”

Ruth in Kyoto Japan with a clear umbrellaSo I waltzed down a narrow alley, rain dripping around me and gleaming off the ferns and trees, and wholly thinking of the cat bus scene in “My Neighbor Totoro”. As I approached the building, I saw a narrow walkway of stairs, which I ascended and at the top…no one was there!

The film crew quickly caught up with me – “ok say your greeting” – “…Konichiwa!” and then a man dressed in all black, wearing a long apron and rubber boots poked his head out into the hallway – “Ah, Konichiwa!” I attempted to say “my name is Ruth, nice to meet you, thank you for working with me” in garbled Japanese, fortunately the man was very patient, and the translator was there to help me, but they did have me do the whole formal greeting until I got it relatively right!

“What do you think he makes?” I was asked – “ummm…paper??” I guessed, hopefully – he led us into this room, and all of a sudden it became clear – Suminagashi marbling!!!

This was also the moment I realized the “i” is silent in the word “Suminagashi” – it’s pronounced “Soo-me-nah-gash” – oops!

The paper marbler was very patient with my questions – one thing I thought was interesting was that he did colorful marbling as well as black and white – in Japanese “Suminagashi”, which means “floating ink” simply refers to ALL paper marbling, not just the black and white rings that I thought of as “Japanese marbling”.

I asked him what the marbling size (liquid in the tray) was – he said it was water mixed with “nori” which means glue – and the colors he mixed up himself – I went so far to ask what type of dispersant he used, but he just replied “it’s a chemical” – I was treading a little close to trade secrets, I could tell! Not wanting to cause any awkwardness I said I appreciated him letting us into the studio to see his process, and apologized if my curiosity was a little too specific, and assured him that I wouldn’t be offended if he chose not to answer my questions! I also asked if it was ok for me to take pictures, and he said yes:Suminagashi Marbling in Japan with book artist Ruth Bleakley

On with the demonstration! He showed a novel technique for putting the ink on the surface of the marbling size, which was mostly water with just a little bit of the glue size (probably rice starch) in it. Instead of alternately dipping the black and “white” brush into the marbling tray, he touched the black brush with the “white” brush in a circular fashion, causing varigated rings, and much faster spread of the color. (No picture of that, but it’s shown on the TV show).

After watching and listening to his explanations, he gestured toward the tray, looking at me expectantly.

“Ruth san! Your turn!”

Wow! really? I got to try my hand at the most enormous piece of marbling I’ve ever attempted – I went with my more traditional dipping technique, adding purple to the mix, and also doing some fanning of the pattern right before printing, just to make things fancy!! He helped me pull the print – and it came out perfectly! Not an air bubble in sight!

suminagashi master in Japan teaching paper marbling to book artist Ruth Bleakley

Here’s the paper marbling section of the show (sorry English speakers – it’s all in Japanese! and there are no subtitles – that means even I have no idea what everyone is saying…haha)

Suminagashi Paper Marbling in Kyoto Japan with Ruth Bleakley from Ruth Bleakley on Vimeo.

*phew* Time to break for lunch! The director’s assistant had been busy picking up some food for us at the local 7 eleven (yes, like actual 7 Eleven) which we ate in the marbler’s tiny kitchen/living room, along with his wife and 7 year old daughter. He and his wife met when they were both working as marbling apprentices in a fabric workshop in Kyoto, so she is also a professional marbler!

We all removed our shoes before stepping into the room, which was covered in carpets, with several flat pillows positioned around a low coffee table with all the food – “Please Ruth San, you choose! You’re the guest!”

All of it looked great, but completely unrecognizable to me, so I chose the one in the lower right:

7 eleven in Japan has tons of tasty food options

Then I got to pick a drink – I had no idea what any of these were, so I went with the far left one because I liked the bottle cap color. I cracked it open and took a swig –

“MMMMMFF” – I nearly spit it out! hahaha – the director looked at me in alarm – “is it ok?” – “yes” I said, quickly recovering “it’s just…umm… what kind of drink is this?” and the translator looked and said “well it’s a tea blend…and it has toasted rice and barley!”  – and that’s exactly what it tasted like! Cold…toasted rice water?
“wow, well it’s not bad, it’s just that in the US, we come to expect most bottled drinks to be sweet”

“sweet drinks? even tea?”

“yes, especially tea!”

a selection of cold drinks from Japanese 7 eleven

The tea I chose was the one on the left because the cap is one of my favorite colors.

Here’s the bento box I chose for lunch – I ate pretty much everything except all of the seaweed:

7 eleven bento box

This was my first time using chopsticks in Japan while in public – my translator leaned over when no one was looking my way and said:

“hey, you’re doing a good job with those chopsticks…but can I just show you something?”


“ok so if you’d like, you can try to hold them out much further to the end, and put your finger here like so… you may find it easier!”

“oh no, was I doing it wrong??”

“The way you’re doing it isn’t *wrong*, but you know, like, how some people hold a fork like this? *holds a chopstick in her fist and pretends to stab food with it* and they are still eating you know, but it’s not ummm…as nice? So this is just a different way to hold the chopsticks that is a little more like we hold them here!”

“Wow! thanks…so basically I was holding them like a toddler.”

“oh no no no! The way you were holding them was fine, but I thought you might like to see…another way

“oh ok well thank you very much!”

(*for helping me look civilized in public!*)

After we were all full of lunch, the marbler got up and said “Time to go to my real studio!”

Wow, real studio?!?!

NEXT: The adventure continues…in the REAL STUDIO


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Hi from Argentina.
I will be visiting Japan in November and I wonder if you know wether it would be possible to take a class in Kyoto. If so, could you provide me with contact details?.
Thanks in advance for your response!


Hi Paula!

Regrettably I don’t have any contact details for anyone I visited in Japan because the trip was planned for me. However, I bet there are classes available to the public in Kyoto! Perhaps check the Japan Tourism website? Thanks for reading my blog!



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