I look back at my time in Japan learning ceramics at Kitagama Kasen (喜多窯 霞仙）pottery studio with incredibly fond memories. It’s hard to believe that 2 years have past since I spent about 6 weeks there, learning wheel-throwing from Kato Hiroshige-Sensei (a 12th Generation Pottery Master) and his apprentice, Megumi, alongside other students from different countries – all eager to learn the traditional methods of pottery making in the small but vibrant pottery town of Seto. I remember riding the train there and the nearest train stop to the studio was Owari-Seto（尾張瀬戸） (literally the End point of Seto), the very last stop of the local train line. It was with such a mixture of excitement and trepidation as it would be my very first time living for an extended period with others in such a manner. But after meeting the incredibly friendly and gregarious Sensei and meeting everyone who had already started their learning at the studio, the nervousness very quickly dissipated and what was left was an incredible period of discovery and awakening.
Being in the quiet countryside was such a breath of fresh air. Not only were we far removed from the hustle and bustle of city life, but it was a chance to experience and imagine what it must have been like for local Seto craftsmen in the past few centuries, who gathered clay from the hills (the area is known for the nature of its extremely white stoneware clay), fashioned tools out of what they could find in their surroundings.
One experience that really drove that point home was learning how to make our own Measuring Tools, also known as Tombo or Dragonfly sticks. These are created by ceramic craftsmen in order to have a simple, lightweight gauge to measure the diameter and depth of bowls, cups, and plates in order to produce a series of vessels of the same basic dimensions.
Sensei brought us to his back garden where there was a literal forest of Bamboo plants swaying in the wind, greeting us with their beautiful leaves. He guided us (well, mostly he did it for us) in chopping chunks of bamboo which we would then use to make the body of the Tombo. I’d only seen those Tombo in youtube videos or online ceramic shops and imagined that people probably just buy them from somewhere. But these were traditionally made by something easily accessible and plentiful in nature. What better material to use than the ubiquitous bamboo plant in Japan.
Creating these Tombo pieces tied in with our very first ‘homework’ assignment which all new students entering the studio for their period of learning had to undertake – making 10 straight cups of equal size and shape, throwing off the hump. Though it may sound easy, at the level that I was at at the time (with a 50/50 chance of centering a lump of clay well every time I put one on the wheel), I soon realised that it was no mean feat. We were all learning to throw off the hump, starting with a huge mound of clay and then making the cups from the top of the mound. There was no measuring of clay involved beforehand. Instead, we could use the Tombo we’d created to give ourselves visual guides with every piece that we were creating.
The first week was often the hardest for everyone learning the basics, getting used to the clay, figuring out how on earth to create 10 cups that were the same size from that giant mound of clay on the wheel with nothing apart from the bamboo made Tombo, eye-balling of the amount of clay to use, and fingers that were getting gradually more sensitive to the clay and techniques that we were learning. And funnily enough, after the initially exercise of creating the (not so equal sized) 10 cups was over, hardly anyone used the initial batch of cups made, because with further practice we managed to produce pieces that got better with time.
Pictured above are some pieces that came out of a glaze firing that was done. All the glazes that Sensei uses are traditional Seto glazes and comprise of raw materials that have always been found in and harvested from the area. Wood ash… feldspar… silica… with these three main raw materials and in numerous combinations, they were able to create a multitude of glazes that typify the style of traditional Seto ware.
In an article written by Rachelle Chinnery on ceramics, she writes:
”Both Yanagi and Leach believed that making objects of beauty required a centredness in the maker; that all aspects of the person – the “head, hand and heart” – very much reflected a Buddhist “mindful” approach to pottery wherein contemplation and reverence for the natural world converge in clay under the hands of a potter.”
“Reverence for the natural world” was very much something that was apparent in the every day creation of ceramics in the studio. Perhaps it might not have been something that the Sensei consciously thought of every moment when he was creating, but in his most natural state and environment, that was certainly something that was exuded and that was imparted to everyone who spent time there.
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