A Pottery Class in Japan
Written by Eric Wade
Here in Japan, the changing of the seasons is always the cause of some excitement, and great for small talk. September has come and gone, and now we can feel those evocative wisps of that longed-for and refreshing cool mountain air – it’s Fall.
Every year in October, there’s a pottery festival in Bizen, Okayama. It’s called the Bizen-yaki Matsuri. Though this year’s festival has already passed, as a pottery aficionado, I think it’s a great excuse to introduce Japanese pottery to you.
Why do I like Pottery?
I like playing in the mud. I like making things with my hands. I like the aesthetic marriage of beauty and functionality. I like the idea of continuing a prehistoric craft whose practice even connects us to the earliest civilizations. Pottery’s a ton of fun, heck, I don’t know what’s not to like about it!
Why do the Japanese like pottery?
There’s a saying in Japan:
食器は料理の着物 (A dish is the kimono of cuisine)
While it’s easy for me to say why it is that I like pottery, I have to guess when it comes to others. It’s my opinion that Japanese people feast on the appearance and presentation of things more so than other cultures. When I go out to eat in my home country, (USA!), I often catch myself giving a little eye roll when the meal is served. Even when the food is delicious, the tableware too often looks plasticky, cheap, boring. It just seems incongruous to me that we look for food with authentic, rich flavors, but don’t bat an eyelash when the dish it’s served in is something that looks like it was bought at Ikea. So I think that in Japan there is a stronger feeling among the general population that food is inseparable from its dish ware. And I think we all understand, regardless of background, that food is as much for the soul as it is for the taste buds.
How is going to a Japanese pottery workshop different?
I like experiencing the little differences between cultures (between people in general actually), but while people are people wherever you go, differences in culture cause us to live quite different lives. Likewise, in many ways, the pottery workshop is the same, and different. Let’s look at the little differences.
1. Living here in Japan means learning to do things in reverse. Japanese potters, regardless of which hand they use predominately, work on a wheel going clockwise. The insanity!!! And just as with driving on the left, there doesn’t seem to be on the horizon any attempt to change this situation.
2. I remember when I joined my local pottery workshop for the first time. I did what I had come to do, and when I finished, I cleaned up my mess and was about to walk out. My sensei looked at me like a kid whose balloon I just popped and asked, “wasn’t I gonna stay for coffee?” In Japan, when you participate in some hobby, any hobby, you’re part of the group, and being a part of the group in Japan entails that certain responsibilities and ceremonies be carried out. So in Japan, when you join a pottery workshop, you can expect to spend a bit of time each session with the others in a little circle having coffee and nibbling snacks – bonding.
3. Regardless of the hobby you practice here, you’ll hear the same refrain, whether it’s Kyudo, Kendo, or Shodo. My sensei said this:
Pottery is not just a matter of skill (or ability), but “spirit” is also important.
Having perfect technique and reaching a high level of proficiency will get you compliments, sure, but demonstrating the “spirit” will elicit exaggerated head nods and facial expressions of deeper appreciation.
4. In pottery classes in other countries, there’s no shortage of people making bowls, coffee mugs, and teapots. But you’ll also see plenty of people experimenting with wild shapes, assembling complex forms they just dreamed up. In Japanese pottery classes, there’s less of this (I’m generalizing, this is not absolute) and just more emphasis on the part of the craft that keeps alive the old, traditional forms. People love making the old traditional forms! These include: 徳利 Tokkuri, 湯呑 Yunomi, 茶碗 Chawan, どんぶりDonburi, the occasional 急須 Kyusu, and so on. Go ahead and Google search all these terms, and you’ll get a good idea of what I’m talking about.
5. In the US, we sign our finished work, usually on the bottom, by etching our initials into the still soft clay. Some potters, professionals especially, will make themselves a little stamp which serves as a cool way to attach their brand to their artwork, but it’s also a lot faster than etching initials. In Japan however, everybody has a 判子, or Hanko. In the pottery workshop,they make it themselves, and put it on all their work.
Has Japanese Pottery had much of an impact on Western Pottery?
Of course Japan was a closed nation for centuries, but her artists’ concept of
beauty has managed to reach around the world despite this. I think Japanese pottery is truly unique. In no other style is the appreciation of natural imperfections gloried in and marveled at quite like in Japan. The Japanese sense of humility puts the artist’s hand in the finished product bellow even the contributions of earth, water, and fire. This means the variations of color caused by different clays, clumps of melted ash drizzled down one side of the piece, and even cracks are admired in the final piece and spoken of with greater interest often than the craftsmanship. You can marvel at the clean lines and spotless glazes of other pottery styles, but in Japan, when you contemplate a great pot, you have to change your perspective and learn to meditate on the surprising randomness of nature. Potters love texture, weight, balance, subtleties of color and most of all, being surprised by the final result of the firing. The real influence of Japanese pottery around the world may be hard to measure – but it emphasizes all of these aspects.
However, without a doubt, Japan’s most well-known contribution to western pottery is the style known as Raku. Having said that, many Japanese would not recognize what it is that we in the west refer to as Raku, and vice versa.
What the Japanese refer to as Raku wares are usually hand built tea bowls, 茶碗 (chawan), for use in the tea ceremony. They are blackish in color with a generally austere, weather-beaten shape and aspect.
They are very humble, and prized for their contribution to the tea ceremony. In both western and Japanese styles, in a Raku firing, the piece is removed from the kiln when it’s still glowing red hot. In Japan it is then left to cool in the open air, while in the west it is then immediately thrust into a pit (trash can, barrel, etc.) filled with combustible material such as straw and other plant materials, sawdust, paper or rags. This causes oxygen reduction, which all potters know results in richer, deeper results in the glazes. The final piece is delicate, crackled, and not functional. But the colors are often surprising in strangeness and beauty.
How can you enjoy pottery in Japan?
As I mentioned, there’s a pottery festival every October in Bizen, Okayama. Bizen is one of what’s referred to as “The Six Ancient Kilns,” or 六古窯 (rokkoyou). There are six places around Japan where ancient kilns have either been discovered by archeologists, or where the old pottery tradition just never died out. Back in ancient times, kilns could only be wood fired, which is very inefficient. So they built huge kilns and fired them once or twice a year. To maintain the firing, which would take weeks, the whole town had to participate, tending the fire, collecting wood, and keeping an eye on things. Each of these old pottery centers has a bit of a distinct style. Pay them a visit! They are: Seto, Tokoname, Bizen, Tanba, Shigaraki, and Echizen. These are not the only places with thriving traditions, nor are they the most important. People in other pottery towns all around Japan often bemoan the publicity they get.
Another way to get a taste of Japanese pottery is to go to a festival! As with many other ancient cultural traditions, the participants and public alike are more and more dominated by the older generations. But don’t let this stop you. Get out there, and inject a little youth and vigor into the proceedings! Go get some culture!
Find one of those other important pottery towns, they each have distinct styles. My personal favorite style is Hagi-yaki, the pottery wares of the town of Hagi, in Yamaguchi prefecture. It’s a great town to visit and I would definitely recommend it! As with all things “Japanese Culture,” Kyoto is capable of serving you up far more than you can swallow.
Finally, wherever you are, just do a quick internet search for your local pottery workshop, 陶芸教室 (tougei kyoushitsu). Pay them a visit, and see what Japanese people are doing today to keep this ancient tradition alive. They’re all sure to be very nice people, and it’s a great way to make friends in the community!