I thought that the last stop on my potter’s pilgrimage, on the island of Kyushu, would be the most remote and provincial, but Karatsu, Japan is a thriving city, the women were fashionable, and it’s a bit of a resort town. Several school children called out “Hello, how are you?” giggling as they tried out some English; non-Asian foreigners were a rare sight. My hotel was on the Niji-no-Matsubara peninsula, right on the beach and surrounded by a dense, wind-blown, four-hundred-year-old pine forest, trunks twisting away from the sea. Rugged and churning, the Japan Sea tossed and turned the stormy afternoon I arrived, yet there was a windsurfer out there riding the waves.
Although the rates at my lodging weren’t those of a luxury hotel, the service was; I was treated like a visiting dignitary. Dinner at the hotel was among the best I’ve had in Japan. A table with a sea view had been reserved for me. After it grew dark, I could still see the white lines of the breakers rolling in to shore. Small, mouth-wateringly delicious dishes were elegantly presented on Karatsu-yaki. The sea bass sushi was garnished with a tiny sprig of Japanese maple leaves. A graceful young waiter described some highlights of the all-Japanese menu for me, using an English cheat sheet. He crouched on the floor next to my chair as he spoke, to show deference by looking up rather than looking down at the customer.
Learning of my interest in ceramics, the gracious hotel manager, M.-san, spoke with me, the two of us going back and forth between English and Japanese, about Karatsu-yaki and my travels to other pottery towns. At his urging, I brought my best purchases from the last two towns down from my room to show him. Delighted to touch and hold these small examples of Bizen and Hagi ware, he declared that I must visit a working pottery studio in his city. A good friend of his was a potter, but it would be difficult to get to his studio without a car, so he offered to take me in the morning.
We started with a drive up a nearby mountain to take in the view. As he drove, my impromptu tour guide noted that the trees were wearing their spring colors and that there were sixteen curves or switchbacks in the road.
Although his potter friend wasn’t in, his wife welcomed us. There were several people at work in the studio: two people trimming pots, one by hand and the other on a kickwheel, two others mixing clay, and one tending the area behind the kiln. Drying pots were spread along planks of wood and balanced high above on ceiling beams. Wooden tools, most handmade, were arranged along one wall. Large coarse paintbrushes were used in hakeme brushwork, a thick slip applied in circular motions, creating swirls of white glaze over a dark brown clay body.
We walked along the length of the hill kiln he had helped build as he described assisting his friend during firings, throwing in wood to fuel the blaze, keeping watch together on the progress of the firing. M.-san encouraged me to crawl into one of the low side openings and imagine how I would load pots into the kiln. I’m afraid that few of them would have survived the loading process!
After the studio, he left me at an exhibit hall, a showcase of local artists’ work, where he and a gallery employee mapped out some other places of interest for me to stop in town that afternoon on my own.
On this journey, I came to a greater understanding of the concept of wabi-sabi, a Japanese way of thinking. Wabi represents the appreciation and contemplation of beauty in the imperfect, the simple, the humble, and modest, a connection to nature. The sabi part refers to that which becomes more beautiful and flawed with age. It’s a philosophy that I would try to keep in mind after returning to the eastern metro area and wading back into the stressful work world.
An earlier pottery trip in Japan to Mashiko, home of Shoji Hamada: A Japanese treasure. Stops along this potter’s pilgrimage: Bizen, Hagi, and Hiroshima (not a pottery town, but a stop along the route).
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