I first become interested in Japan in my college days, when, along with a generation of hippie potters, I was inspired by the works of Shoji Hamada. Declared a Living National Treasure, Hamada and his twentieth-century contemporaries created functional stoneware vessels. Sturdier-looking than decorative ceramics, in simple but graceful shapes, but with a strength and freshness, often decorated with brushstrokes, intended not for wealthy collectors or for museums but for everyday use. They sparked a renaissance of folk art. I had always dreamed of visiting the place where he shaped his forms. When I landed my teaching job in Japan, I checked tour books and found some towns specializing in traditional pottery far away from the Tokyo area, but oddly enough, the popular guides of that time had not yet discovered Hamada’s origin.
Then I found Nihon Mingeikan, the Japan Folk Crafts Museum in Tokyo, with its exhibits of ceramics, textiles, wood, and metal works. Soetsu Yanagi, the museum’s founder, friend to Hamada and leader of the Japanese folk-art movement, described mingei as art of the people. My heart soared to see the collection of Hamada’s pots and those of his contemporaries and colleagues, many of whose names I also knew, such as Kawai Kanjiro and Bernard Leach, the British potter who studied in Japan with Hamada and who wrote books that brought Hamada’s work to the western world. At the museum, I learned that Hamada’s workshop and many other modern-day working folk potters could be found in the northern town of Mashiko, a day trip from Tokyo by train and bus.
One of my first stops in Mashiko was to a small pottery in a country style home. I fell in love with a little white bowl, intentionally misshapen, modest brown brush strokes around its rim evoking birds in flight, small rough lumps giving texture to the otherwise glossy surface. It rested in my cupped hands perfectly, as if it had found a home. The potter, absorbed at her potter’s wheel when I had entered, worked alone at what appeared to be a home studio and gallery. A board of upside-down cups sitting near the wheel were wet, having been just formed. She seemed almost as pleased as I was by my purchase, honored by my interest, proud to show me her cramped workspace, and bowing low to the waist in gratitude as I left. I had a difficult time taking a photo of her shop through teary eyes. I was really here, breathing the clay-clouded air of Mashiko, Japan and had touched the life, however tangentially, of a modern-day Japanese potter following in Hamada’s footsteps.
The Mashiko Sankokan, or Reference Collection Museum, is a grouping of picturesque thatched-roof wooden houses that include Hamada’s home, workshop, and several other buildings displaying his creations and his collections of other artists’ works. Behind the houses stretched the anagama hill kiln, a long cave-like wood burning kiln climbing up the natural rise of the hillside to lead the heat upwards, a lumpy shape with arched openings for loading and unloading pots, and several other small kilns. Wood and straw were stacked as if ready to fuel the firing. You could almost smell the wood smoke in anticipation. In the workshop, illuminated only by natural light from sliding windows open to the air, large pots and jars, some partially finished, as if waiting for glazing, sat on boards next to wheels spaced along a polished wooden counter, too clean for a working studio but organized as if to suggest that potters had worked there and might again someday.
Small studios and galleries lined the country streets. I’m sure I didn’t get to half of them in the hours I spent there. In one outdoor space, shelf after shelf of bowls, plates, mugs, cups, tea bowls, and more were piled for sale. After talking to a potter’s daughter, I bought two bowls made by her father, one white with blue fish sketched outside and in, the other a striking cobalt blue with a brushed flower inset in a circle. A square, curved plate cut from a wheel-thrown form, a brown glaze drizzled in one corner, also caught my eye. It was difficult not to fill my backpack with pots, the prices were so ridiculously low. The pots were unsigned, because in true folk art, the maker, the individual, was not important.
At the Iwashita pottery, I was the only one who had wandered in so far that day, the woman at the counter told me with a smile. The aging potter, probably her husband, saw me peeking beyond the gallery space and motioned me into his studio with a waving hand pointed down, as is the custom in Japan. He let me peek into both his hill kiln, open but full of newly fired brown-glazed pots, and into the peephole of a tall, red-hot brick kiln, just fired the day before, heat still emanating like an aura, still too hot to open all the way. The shapes of the pots were barely visible in the orange glow.
This piece is an excerpt from my book, Go Wherever You Want (working title).
Email me at: RRontheroad@hotmail.com