This semester I joined a calligraphy classroom for my CIP. We met once a week for two hours at varying locations in Kyoto. There is one sensei who sits and does his own work in the front of the class, periodically walking around to check out if the students are making progress with what they are writing. I actually joined a class where most of the students have many years of experience under their belt so I was given a lot of attention as the only first-timer. In terms of linguistic learning, I was at a serious disadvantage because you only speak with the sensei a few short times an hour. Culturally, however, I was able to pick up a lot.
There is a lot of consistency in the way the calligraphy class is held. First, the students arrive, then the sensei. Some students are at the classroom practicing long before the class starts, and the rest come within the five minutes before the start of the class. When students enter, age-related privileges are dropped, and despite differing skill level between the students, there is no concept of senpai or kouhai. There is just student and teacher.
In addition, I learned that you are not supposed to look at others’ work unless the sensei shows it off. Every now and then if the sensei wants to encourage a student, he will hold up the work, display it in the air for the others in the classroom to see, and remark that he is impressed, to which everyone nods and gives an emphatic one or two word agreement. I was surprised to see that the rest of the class will stop what they are doing each time to encourage the student who wrote the character. The reason I am so surprised is that unless someone is whispering with the sensei the room is totally silent. The idea is that every student should be totally focused with a very serious mindset when writing a character. As a beginner I have found it very difficult to get the right balance of focus without overthinking it, and when I do get in that zone, I am very reluctant to get out of it. So for every student to have that focus be interrupted so often by the sensei yet graciously smile every time without fail demonstrates incredible willpower.
I am fortunate to have learned a lot about the atmosphere and customs of calligraphy classrooms, but I am most happy that I can return home not just knowing more brushstrokes but having a deeper appreciation for calligraphy as a whole, as both a physical and mental skill.