A potter’s pilgrimage: Bizen

During my third year living in Japan, in 2011, I made a potter’s pilgrimage to three historic towns where contemporary potters, many descended from old masters, still produce mingei, stoneware folk pottery. This trip had been long planned; I had spent years gathering information and improving my Japanese. For a week, I alternately traveled a day to each location, then spent a full day walking around the town, gallery, museum, and studio-hopping, along with a little sightseeing.

The Bizen Ceramics Museum was closed on Monday, my one day to explore Bizen, so when I arrived by shinkansen, the bullet train, in Okayama on Sunday afternoon, west of Kyoto and Kobe on the main island of Honshu on the inland sea, where I had booked a ryokan for the night, I stashed my bag in a train station locker and doubled back on the local train in time to catch the last hour of the museum, admiring mostly old and some new bowls and jars made explicitly for the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. The museum featured pieces from the six famous historic Bizen kiln families and included works by other artists from the area.

Bizen-yaki, or Bizen ware, made with local clay and fired bare, with no glaze, burns to a warm brown in long wood-fired anagama hill kilns. Various techniques are used to naturally create subtle and often unpredictable effects in color and texture, with strands of straw which burn off leaving orange marks, small pads of fired clay placed on the piece resulting in lighter colored spots, or mottled effects caused by ash. Many pieces were slightly asymmetrical or altered, but retained a natural feel. Imperfections are valued; they enhance the beauty of a piece. What a joy to be in places where these earthy arts were so revered.

When I stepped out of Imbe station the next morning, I was captivated immediately by smoke billowing out of a tall smokestack with vertical kanji down its length, the name of the studio, just off the main road. A kiln was being fired! It drew me like a magnet. I stepped into the adjoining gallery just as a short man, a cloth tied around his head like a cap, came in a side door wiping his hands. I asked him in my broken Japanese if that was his kiln firing. He was pleased that I noticed and after exchanging some brief introductions, motioned for me to follow him. Drying clumps of local clay were stacked on the outside of the kiln building facing a courtyard work area. He pointed to the surrounding hills to indicate the clay’s origin. The anagama kiln, attended by a younger man, was roaring. The potter pointed to a stack of wood nearby. The kiln had been firing for ten days and it would soon be time to add more fuel. The assistant opened the kiln door and let me peek inside at the bright orange heat illuminating the carefully stacked pots glowing inside, shapes barely discernible in the radiant light. He tossed in some logs from the pile. They laughed at my excitement when the fire surged.

This potter was descended from a well-known family of potters. In addition to one of his traditional tea bowls, I bought a small tray for tea bowls from his showroom and realized later that it included all three of the forms of decoration in one piece—straw, pads, and ash. I’m not a collector nor a great connoisseur of art, but I find it meaningful and satisfying to buy a piece of art when I have had the honor to meet its creator. So much more than just a souvenir, it’s a reminder of a connection, and that connection imbues the piece with the spirit of that person, a beauty beyond just the visual.

My Bizen pots
another gallery in town
inside a gallery
outside along a gallery wall

Amatsu-jinja shrine, a tribute to the gods of clay, earth, and fire, sitting up on a hill overlooking the town, was lovingly adorned with clay works of sculptured animals, interesting tiles and lots of pots. There were so many works of art outdoors there, with no one to attend them. The Japanese are so trusting.

Amatsu-jinja shrine
Ceramic gods

Around town

School bus route

An earlier pottery trip in Japan to Mashiko, home of Shoji Hamada: A Japanese treasure. Watch for further stops along this potter’s pilgrimage: Hagi, Karatsu, and Hiroshima (not a pottery town, but a stop along the route). This series is an excerpt from my book.

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Published by rkrontheroad

Writer, photographer, traveler

29 thoughts on “A potter’s pilgrimage: Bizen

  1. Thank you, Ruth. This was a lovely way to start my day. I LOVE pottery of all kinds. Especially these earthy ones. How wonderful for you to have had that experience. Hopefully the wind here will calm down today. Hugs, Nancy Onago

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love the tray you purchased, and the story of your encounter with its creator. The extent of my abilities as an artist would allow for a simple design on one of those square wall tiles, but that’s it. The pottery is best left to those with far more talent.

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  3. Pottery is certainly a work of art, and not many of us would imagine it to be a tenuous, yet subtle process! Your years of research to plan a trip over is admirable, and it’s excellent that you manage to make it over, especially with the timing of your visit. Glad you got to experience it before leaving the country!

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    1. Thank you for reading, Rebecca! I lived in Japan for three+ years and always knew I had to explore the pottery towns. It took a while to identify the ones that had the earthy works I love and work out the details.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow Ruth, this was such an exciting, deep and delightful journey into the world of Japanese clay creators. I have always had a liking to pottery, and even tried for a few months to learn the basics of the wheel, centring the clay etc but due to financial problems, i had to drop the idea. But somehwhere it always is close to my heart, apart from writing, i would say pottery comes closest to deep sleep rather meditation of some sort. Heartily thanking you for carrying me to these Sites, I will remember these images. The image of the Klin and what you bought are Joy to soul.

    Thanks again.
    Narayan x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for reading and leaving your thoughts, Narayan! Forming pots on a spinning wheel is like a meditation, a centering both physically and mentally. I’m so glad you enjoyed this story.

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  5. Such a beautiful, tranquil place. I’m not hugely into pottery myself, but would find myself tempted by several pieces here. I’m glad that after so much prep you got to see the place, we are often dogged by what we call Mei you Mondays. “Mei you” being a Cheese term that means “don’t have / unavailable / closed”. Wonderful pictures, history and culture Ruth.

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    1. I was also surprised about the tiles. There were some tiles defining sidewalk spaces as well. The ones on mounted on the shrine walls are so interesting. Even though they are not glazed, as most other pottery is from other places, there is such a variation in the decorations.

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  6. Reading this and looking at your photos I feel immersed in the spirit of Japan 🙂 I love the long line of pots in your opening photo, taken at the shrine – the ones on the far left have an especially appealing shape. Your purchases are lovely too – I also like to buy from artists and craftspeople I have met. When you mentioned how trusting the Japanese are I remembered our first afternoon in Tokyo, in a busy coffee shop. A woman sitting alone at a table near us left her phone and other belongings on the table when she went to the toilet. I can’t imagine anyone doing that anywhere in this country!

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    1. Thanks, Sarah, for your comment. I have never been another place where people are so kind and trusting. I often warned my students not to leave their purses in the open and walk away when they travel. It’s common for people to pick up items that are found – a scarf, phone, wallet – and put them in a visible place, like on the top of a wall or stair, so the owner can find them easily when they realize they have lost something.

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  7. The process of taking a lump of mud, mixing it with water, giving it form, sticking it in the fire and walking away with something beautiful, functional and completely unique is a magical experience. It brings an overwhelming sense of joy and satisfaction to anyone who does it. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

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