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.
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.
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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