Of all the works of calligraphy I have ever seen in Japan, my favorite is the late style of Kukai [空海] (774–835), the founder of Shingon Buddhism. He had experimented with many different styles throughout the course of his life, and methinks he reached the height of his artistic powers when, at the age of 52, he wrote Masuda-ike Himei Narabinijo [益田池碑銘并序], the original of which is now stored in Koyasan Reihoukan Museum [高野山霊宝館]. The calligraphy of this piece was said to be engraved on a commemorative tomb for the creation of a (now extinct) reservoir in Nara called Masuda-ike.
The calligraphic style he used in this piece is called Zattai-sho [雑体書]. Zattai-sho emerged during the Six Dynasties (222–589) – a period in Chinese history in which the intelligentsia was (uncharacteristically) obsessed with all things metaphysical, esoteric and occult. It was the hippie period of Chinese history during which it was considered cool to be counterculture, to drop out of the system and overall defy social conventions. As you can see in these screencaptures from NHK BS Premium’s 3-part documentary series entitled Kukai Shihou to Jinsei [空海 至宝と人生] (2011), it was a decorative style which, in the hands of Kukai, became something of an artistic cross-over between Taoist magical sigils and his own creative interpretations of Chinese letters.
For instance, the word ‘ki’ [気] which means ‘air’ or ‘aether’ became three lines of waves. The word ‘hoshi’ which means ‘star’ became three star-like circles connected through a human-like body. The word ‘go’ which means ‘five’ became, as the documentary series explained, two tadpoles. (Although the series did not go into details to explain why two tadpoles, a search on Google reveals that a hieroglyphic representing a tadpole was used to denote the value of 100,000 in Egyptian numerals.)
I also particularly like Kukai’s calligraphy on Shingon Shichisouso [真言七祖像], which is a series of portraits of the heads of the Vajrayana tradition which he inherited from his master Huiguo (746 – 805) in China. It is now stored in Toji Temple in Tokyo. As you can see below, the strokes resemble flags flying in the wind, or ink dissolving in water, or incense smoke rising up in the air. This calligraphic style is called Hihakutai [飛白体].
If you like Kukai’s calligraphy, I would also recommend following a contemporary artist named Kouhei Okamoto [岡本光平] (1948 – present). You can see some samples of his work here.
(On a further side note, should you fancy producing mysterious-looking letters in Japanese on your own and assuming that you are not handy with a brush, consider purchasing a type of computer font called kinbuntai [金文体]. This font is perhaps most familiar in the West through the logo of the anime series Ghost in the Shell, and is known for its characteristic of having a shortened upper half and an elongated bottom half.)