Perfect Timing

I’m only just home and we have hit the ground running.
It’s the end of spring, almost the beginning of summer and the garden is bearing fruit. Well, the orchards are. The vegetables are a little way behind, as all the small seedlings are annual and need time to grow on. Whereas all the orchard trees, being perennial, are well established. All those years of preparation; fertilising, mulching, pruning and irrigating have been worth it. It was mostly dry while we were away and has been very dry since our return, with only 8 mm. of rain in the last month. Not enough to swell up the fruit very much, but ideal warm to hot weather for ripening and no sign of mould or fungus anywhere. The Sherman peaches are small, but the crop is quite heavy.
The early peaches have started, as have the cherries. There was a time back in the seventies, when cherries were the earliest fruit, but now it is the earliest peaches. We have always chosen the very earliest varieties of each type of fruit tree variety for our orchards. However, over the decades, new and earlier varieties have become available, so when a tree fades away or dies of old age we replace it with another one. The earliest variety available at that time. This has moved the fruit harvest forward a month or two, especially when you consider the extra push from global warming.
We used to pick the very earliest young-berries just in time for Xmas day. Going around and picking the very earliest and ripest berry off each cane. Now, the full harvest is all over before Xmas. These are the same canes. We haven’t replaced them with new varieties. It just the effect that the increase in global temperatures are having on the fruit trees, vines and canes. So now we are picking the earliest peaches as well as mulberries, cherries and youngberries. It all has to be dealt with and it takes time. We can’t eat it all now. So we preserve most of it for later in the year. We don’t have any preserved peaches left from last year, so we can’t wait to taste that beautiful mix of sweetness and acid that the fresh fruit delivers.
Janine makes cherry jelly by boiling the fruit just covered with water and simmer for 10 mins. The fruit is mashed to extract flavour and colour, then sieved into a setting bowl and a table spoon of gelatine is stirred through and dissolved. You can add a little sugar if you have a sweet tooth. Lastly she adds a squeeze of lemon and allows it to set. Once cool, it goes into the fridge to chill for dinner.
We get stuck in and eat a lot of the cherry crop each day for breakfast, just standing under the tress, chewing and spitting, but there comes a time when the yield exceeds our appetite, so the The Lovely Garden Goddess, Miss King of the Kitchen, steps in and starts to cook up a treat or two. She starts by making a cherry jelly, followed by berry pie and berry pudding. I make a couple of jars of cherry brandy. We pick, peel and stew peaches for freezing and also pick and bottle youngberries. It’s all full-on busy. We picked over 3 kgs of youngberries this morning. Last year we picked 20kgs of berries in the season and bottled about 20 jars of them. There are just 2 jars left in the larder now. Perfect timing.
The Kitchen King up-dates her garden diary and preserving log.
I have a couple of kilns to build. So after the mornings fruit picking, I left Janine in the kitchen, making pies and went down to the kiln shed to finish work on a stainless steel kiln frame. This one has to be delivered before Xmas and another kiln frame has to be got off to the galvanisers as early as possible, so that it will be galvanised before the factory takes their Xmas/New Year maintenance shut down over January. I need to be working on that kiln early next year. Everything needs to be planned and given a suitable space within the framework of our self-reliant life choices. It is quite a full time job, just working in the gardens and orchards, but we also need to earn a living as well. Something has to pay for the up-keep of all this effort. Regrettably, sales of pots isn’t going to cover it. We live a fantasy life with-in the real world economy. But every now and then I have to do something that will earn enough money to pay the Council Rates, the insurance and car registration etc. etc. It’s a juggling act, keeping it all together.
I come back up to the house and the sweet, tangy smell of berry fruit sponge pudding wafts into my nostrils. I can’t wait for dinner!
Later in the evening I put on a couple of batches of beer, as we have almost run out of last summers bottling, with only half a dozen bottles left in the cellar. Perfect timing.
We can’t do everything, but we do what we can.
I love this time of year. I don’t get time to make any pots, because I’m making the time to preserve a lot of food for the rest of the year. This is a precious opportunity just too good to miss.
It’s how we have chosen to live our self-reliant life.
Best wishes from the perfectly timed, self-reliant King of the Kitchen and her juggler .

Welcome Home

After The Lovely Saint Nina (Betty/Buffy/Katherine) left me in Taiwan. She arrived back in Australia and was collected from the airport by our very good friend Len. It was a dark and stormy day. Huge thunder storms were raging and trees were down and many roads were blocked or closed by the intense down pours. The tunnel was flooded, so they took the longer, alternative route. This also had many problems and was detoured in parts by flooding or downed trees. As they approached our home in the storm on a narrow stretch of road, through the bush, a kangaroo jumped out onto the road directly in front of them and wrote off Len’s car. So Len the Unlucky and Betty, Buffy, Katherine the Forgetful, had to make their way home the last few kms in the rain to collect our car to get The Lovely’s luggage.
Len borrowed our car to get home and for the next two weeks while his car was being fixed. So Len now collects me from the airport, in my turn, in my car, so that I can drive myself home.
I’m home and its hot. Too hot for this time of year. I suddenly realise that although it was hot a lot of the time in Asia, the one thing that was missing was the smell of eucalypt oil.
I step out of the car and crunch into the dry gum leaf detritus/compost in the gutter, blown there by the strong westerly winds. I know that I’m home. The air is baking and the eucalypt oil smell welcomes me.
Annabelle Sloujetté has done a wonderful job of looking after our house and pottery. She is gone when I return, but I can see from the two tyre scorch marks in the lawn that she hasn’t been gone very long. The pottery is full to bursting with her new work and it’s very lively and an inspiration to walk into another persons studio, full of such exciting forms and decorations — even though it’s really my studio. It looks so different. Her work is so exuberant and joyful.  The Blessed Saint Nina the Forgetful, Buffy/Betty/Katherine, has returned home before me a few weeks ago. But she isn’t here either. She is working up the hill, manning our display for the Southern Highlands Arts Festival ‘Open Studio’ Weekend at our friend Elizabeth’s studio.
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I wander around in my ‘new again’ old home and garden. The cherries have flowered, set fruit, and the fruit is just now turning red. Almost ready to pick, they will be ready to pick in a couple of days. All this has happened in the time that I’ve been away. The air is hot and dry and it is perfect weather to ripen fruit. I walk around the garden and the stone fruit orchard. Everything was still pretty dormant when I left 10 weeks ago. It was really just the end of winter. Now, however, it is late spring and there is plenty to see. The single red poppies are out in force for the 11th of November and the nasturtiums are also adding a burst of colour in little clusters all around the garden. We don’t plant them any more, they just come up nowadays. We did plant a few seeds, many years ago, and since then they just keep on coming up everywhere. I don’t know how they migrate like they do, but they just seem to manage it somehow.
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I planted a small area, down in the Pantry Field Garden, to English cottage garden flowers a couple of years ago. It was a surprise for The Lovely One. She loves flowers, so after I ploughed up the area for potatoes, I left half of the ground for English flowers as a present for her. I broadcast 2 packets of ‘English-Country-Garden’ flower seeds into the freshly dug ground and watered them and waited. Sure enough, there was a small show of some annuals that year, but there were also a lot of bi-annuals setting their roots down for a great show for this spring. After looking at all the other parts of the orchards and gardens, I make my way all the way down to the Pantry Field. I can see a burst of local colour. It worked and it looks good. A small gesture, but a pretty one. It only survives the predation of all the local herbivores by being enclosed in a wire mesh fence. Not too pretty, but essential in these circumstances, if the plants are to survive long enough to flower and set seed. I’d like to see this little patch of English country garden flowers self-sow and regenerate on its own in future.
There are mulberries ready to pick, plus strawberries, and the very early Sherman peaches have turned red. I taste one, Yes, they are already ready to eat, soft, sweet and deliciously warm in the sunshine. The juice squirts out and dribbles down my chin. I slobber and slurp the delicious sweet warm fruit and its juices. One isn’t enough. I take a second and then a third. My fingers are sticky with the juice. My lips and chin are warm and sticky. I need to go into the house and wash myself. Such are the simple natural pleasures of the fruiting season.
The Divine Saint Nina – The Forgetful turns up. She has been out visiting other studios. It’s lovely to see her again. I missed her. We have always traveled together up until this time. We planned to, but circumstances intervened.
We settle back into our natural routine. Janine opens a new jar of marmalade, it’s sensational. I’ve really missed that taste for some months now. I’m sure that there is some factor of absence at work here, making the taste buds grow fonder, but this jar is really nice, so flavoursome. That lovely tang of the sweetened citrus flavours, but there is something else too. I pick up the jar and examine the small hand-written label. It’s my writing, so it’s one of my batches. It tells me that on the 22nd of July, I used Seville orange, Chinnotto, Meyer lemon, — and the secret ingredient in this batch, which may be why it tastes so extra good, is the addition of prune brandy stirred through the mix, just before bottling. I’d forgotten about that.
We had made some prune brandy a couple of years before, just as I make cherry brandy most years. It’s a simple operation of pouring brandy over the fruit in a sterilised glass jar and screwing down the lid. You forget about it for a year or two in the back of the pantry cupboard and just leave it to sit and develop. I always include the pips, because the best part of the flavour comes from the tiny amount of cyanide that is in the pips. This is slowly dissolved in the alcohol and gives the brandy a fruit + almond flavour. Yes, almond flavour is the flavour of cyanide. Just in case you didn’t know. And it’s fantastic, as anyone who loves amaretto will attest. So what made this marmalade so good was that last-minute addition of that rich flavoursome brandy stirred through just before capping off.  Wow. So good!
I struggle through the fruit-box-full of letters, parcels, junk mail and other postage that has accumulated over the couple of months. Then I start to deal with the hundreds and hundreds of emails, all queued up and waiting to be sorted, some answered, but mostly trashed. Still, they have to be looked at, so that I can decide which button to press. It’s late when I head off to bed. The Divine Miss N is long gone. I slide quietly under the covers, when suddenly, Buffy springs her trap. She flicks the sheet over my head. I know that resistance is futile and surrender to my fate.
Fond regards from Buffy and her fresh meat.

In Formosa, for-mos-a the time

Departing Japan
On the way to the airport the train is fairly full, all the seats seem to have been booked. Luckily we booked ours in advance. A couple of ladies get on and go to the last two remaining seats. There is nowhere to put their big suitcases, so they wheel them into the space between the seats where your legs might usually go. They then slip off their shoes and climb onto the seat and sit cross-legged in that narrow space for the one hour, 45 minute journey to the airport. They sit and chat comfortably for the whole trip. I’m impressed. At the station, just before we left, Betty/Buffy/Katherine found a beautiful little place hidden away where there was a red stamp to celebrate our visit to Kyoto station. We have made a point of collecting all of these where ever we find them. They are really for children, but we like to amuse ourselves by collecting them when we come across them. They go into our travel journals and remind us of our visit to various places. We got one yesterday from the Museum of Oriental Ceramics, to celebrate our visit there. This one comes with its own special sheet of paper with a circular gap in the printed matter to allow for the bright red imprint. I’m childishly thrilled with this little unexpected parting gift from Kyoto. As we are leaving now, this will be our last red stamp from Japan. Except maybe the one in our passports?
We arrive at Kansai airport very early and in good time, which is lucky, because it takes over an hour at check in with Poverty Air. First the machine won’t accept us and says to go to the counter and get help. The lady at check-in is lovely and very helpful. She sorts it all out, but it takes a long time. Every detail has to be checked and re-checked. Some of the problem is about my forward ticket out of Taiwan. I only have an electronic ticket and not a paper printout. So I have to open my lap top, boot it up, and show her the confirmation email, that I have an onward travel ticket out of Taiwan, before I can get a boarding pass onto this plane to go to Taiwan. Finally we get through customs, immigration and security and find our selves in the oldest part of the old terminal, that has been given over to Poverty Air – instead of demolishing it!  When we get there we find that there isn’t a departure terminal as we know it. Just a few chairs in an empty space. There is however a noodle bar that is selling ramen noodles, hamburgers, hot chips and beer. Not what I feel like early in the morning. So I give it a wide birth. There is a sign outside that shows sandwiches and coffee. I point to the sign. The man nods and hold up his hands in a cross pattern. Coffee and sandwiches are off today Luv! He walks out of the bar and picks up the sign and removes it to a small passageway beside the cafe. Coffee and sandwiches are definitely off today Luv! But Hey! This is Poverty Air, what was I expecting. I chose it of my own fee will. I’m not going to complain. The ticket price was half that of the other companies. I’m not expecting any service on the plane, but I was thinking that there might be a place to stock up before boarding. There was, but that was in the other terminal. That was then and this is now. There is no going back, so I have learnt something. Either eat something at 5.00am, even if you don’t feel like it, or wait till you get off the plane and have some lunch when you get there. I can live with that. The 400 dollar difference helps to convince me of it.
We eventually get onto the plane and while we are sitting in our seats, waiting, it sounds as if there is a man working underneath us putting the last few screws into the fuselage with a battery drill that is almost out of battery power. It whirrs and grinds slowly, on and on, ‘rhurm’, ‘rhurm’, ‘rhuuuurm’, finally grinding to a halt and stopping. I hope that he got that last piece of fuselage screwed down before the battery went flat. I’d hate to loose a vital piece of the outer coating at full altitude.
After a few hours on the plane, The Lovely and I are starting to feel a little peckish, so we decide to have a beer. The girl comes around and sells us one for $7 this is reasonably expensive for a half sized can of beer, but it’s much cheaper than the beer up at the top of that Hotel in Singapore, and we are much higher up than we were then, so it’s sounding cheap! That is if you think of it as if you are buying altitude and not beer.
We are given a ‘gift’ of a ‘free’ packet of Poverty Air peanuts and crackers loaded with salt to make us more thirsty. There isn’t much too them, they‘re all air, Poverty Air-ated! After finishing the packet with The Impoverished Lovely, I read the ingredients on the back of the pack;
Soy sauce, sugar, flour, protein hydrolate, chilli powder, bonito extract, vegetable oil, green laver? Glutinous rice, soy, almonds, almond oil, salt, MSG, peanuts, starch, cornflour, rice, high fructose corn syrup, powdered sugar, powdered chilli pepper, modified starch, seasonings, amino acids, colourings, paprika pigments, monascus?? spice extract, and wheat and soya bean products.
WARNING! May contain milk or egg products!
After reading all that list of chemicals. The last thing that I’d be worried about would be any milk or egg!
We are on a big AirBus, but the cunning accountants in conjunction with the engineers at Poverty Air have returned from Ireland after studying with Ryan Air and contrived together to reduce the space between the rows of seats to just 240 mm. My knees are touching the magazine rack of the seat in front. The solution is simple, the engineers will remove the magazine pouch. There is only a safety card in there anyway. You have to rent a magazine, if you want one. Our flight has a lot of turbulence but is otherwise uneventful. There is no charge for the turbulence! Our second free gift.
Katherine Hepburn and I arrive in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. I’m here to give a masterclass and a couple of presentations about my work with ‘wild’ materials, and I also have work in a show of Ikebana pots here. This is work that I posted over here ahead of us. Everything has arrived safe-n-sound and undamaged from its international postage trip. It all goes well.
While we are here in Kaohsiung we get taken to visit the studio/home of local legend Chang Quei Wei. He is famous for his oil spot tenmoku glazed tea wares. We are shown around and are invited to stay for tea. We get to use his lovely bowls.
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We visit a handmade, bamboo and paper umbrella workshop. It’s a small husband and wife team, working from home. All the umbrellas are hand painted.
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We stop off at the beach in the afternoon on the way home where the Divinity of The Lovely Saint Nina (Betty/Buffy/Katherine) suddenly becomes apparent.  As she blesses her friend Jo.
Interestingly, the sun doesn’t set here in Taiwan. The pollution is so bad that the air quality is such that visibility is reduced to just a couple of kilometres during the time that we are here. You just can’t see anything in the distance, even office blocks across the city, fade away into grey invisibility as they recede. A range of hills doesn’t go to off into the distance, but just disappears into grey shadows and become invisible. So when the sun sets. It sets high up in the sky, about 15% above where the horizon ought to be. The sun just slowly becomes more and more orange, then dull brown as it approaches the 15 degrees level, and finally becomes invisible through the thick brown haze.
It’s there. The sky is still light and remains so for another hour until the sun finally sets over the horizon. It’s a really weird sensation to see the sun turn dull and brown and become invisible while still ‘up’.
The next morning, The Divine St. Nina The Forgetful departs for the Airport to go back home to Australia – with her passport! While I catch the high speed train from Kaohsiung up to Miaoli. To go to the Snake Kiln Centre for the final part of my trip. It’s a very fast and comfortable ride, and quite cheap. I am here to take part in an international seminar called ‘Master Meets Master’. I don’t know how come I got chosen. I don’t feel like a ‘Master’, I feel more like a Journeyman, permanently trying to complete his studies, but I’m happy to be included, as it fits in very well with our trip around Asia doing conferences, workshops, firings and some teaching. I am finally in the right place at the right time! The concept is that there will be 10 ‘Master’ potters from around the world. 5 from Asia, and 5 invited internationals. I’m here representing Australia?
We will be hosted at one of the only two remaining snake kilns in Taiwan. This one is located at Zhunan, near Miaoli. There will be time to work and make pots and then a firing in one of the many kilns here at the Centre. While the kiln is cooling there will be a conference around the theme of ‘tea’ and then an exhibition of our work. I will also be giving a Masterclass on making glazes from local materials. I am here for a few weeks in all and as The Divine St. Nina The Forgetful has departed for home. I get to share a room with Chang Quei Wei. One night it becomes apparent that he has just been made something like the equivalent of a ‘National Living Treasure’ here. He is the first living potter ever to have his work purchased by the National Imperial Museum during his life time. Quite a big achievement for him and not without some controversy either it appears. He is whisked away to do television interviews and to be filmed by a Chinese film crew for a documentary about him in China. I get the impression that his career is now made! The good news for me out of all this, is that last year when I was in Kaohsiung for the Tea Bowl exhibition, I visited him at this studio and bought one of his small oil spot tenmoku bowls. I get the impression that it has just jumped up in value quite considerably!
In the morning, I set about making some work. I choose to make my pots on the traditional floor mounted kick wheel. There is only one in the workshop and nobody else is interested in using it, so I do. It’s quite a torturous position to throw in, but it helps to create a nice quiet feeling in the pots, as they must be thrown at a very slow speed, but quite ‘quickly’ or economically of energy. The slow speed imposes a very strict set of imperatives to complete the form in the given time, or should I say with a set amount of kinetic energy. I really like the natural restrictions set by the technique and respond well to it. The rims must be finished while the wheel is almost slowing to a halt. It really makes me concentrate and the day goes past in a flash.
My thanks to Chris Prinsen for these images
It is quite hot here and not too humid, so the work dries quickly and I am able to throw my bowls and turn them on the same day. We have 4 days for making, and then the kiln will be packed and fired. I also have to locate some local rocks, find something to crush them with and make some test tiles to fire the test glazes on. It’s a big ask.
I get all my pots made in the first 2 days, so that frees me up to be able to search out some local rock that might be suitable for making stoneware glazes. There is no surviving tradition of using locally sourced ceramic materials here. There used to be, but all the information is now lost, as the old timers have died, taking all their knowledge with them. There is no longer a continuing tradition. So I am starting from scratch. The clay used to come from the site here where the kiln is, but that was a long time ago, when it was out of town, but now the town has come out to engulf the pottery and the site is now completely surrounded. On one side by towering high rise apartments and on the other 3 by huge industrial factory buildings. There is only enough room left for the pottery building and kiln sheds.
We get some granite chunks from a local sculptor, but there is some interesting gravel in the path out side the pottery. The little stones look like they may be of some interest. There is plenty of ash from the firebox of the kiln. The granite needs to be calcined in the little kiln first to weaken it, so that it will spall and be easy to crush. I also need to find something to crush it all with. I have just two days to get all this organised and completed before my masterclass. Miraculously, everything gets done – with a lot of help!
After calcining, granite just crumbles easily into its various components, Felspar, Silica and Mica
The kiln gets packed with our damp pots and there is a 24 hour preheating, up to 160oC .
This is followed by a two day firing, up to 1400 oC!
Yes, that’s what the pyrometer said!
The kiln is then held at, or between, 1350 oC and 1380 oC for another 12 hours or so, before being closed down and left to cool for a week.
The timber used is 50% huge logs collected off the beach as drift wood and 50% very thin softwood off cuts from local timber industries. This appears to be a mix of particle board, plywood and imported SE Asian fine grained softwoods used for cabinet work. A complete mix. The use of huge salt impregnated driftwood logs collected off the beach means that what we are really doing here is a woodfired saltglaze firing.
While the kiln is cooling, we go out on a trip to the East Coast and then up around the North coast, before circling back around and down, visiting various local potters and sites of interest. We visit a family that makes a range of woodfired ceramics. I’m particularly taken by the very small tea cups used here in the Taiwanese version of the tea ceremony. Their work here is so very delicate. I want to buy one of these cups, but they are not for sale.
Later, we call in at an Art School, Ceramics Dept. Where they are half way through a multi-day firing of an anagama and are very proud of the massive reduction that they are achieving, but the air is already so bad here in Taiwan, you can only see for about 2 km before everything disappears into a grey, foggy haze of photo-chemical smog. I really think that they should be looking at other ways of firing that are cleaner.
As we all must!
We call in at the local markets, always an interesting place to spend time looking. And later to a fruit factory, where they sell preserved fruit. I’m not tempted to buy anything, as this is what The Divine Miss N and I do at home each summer, but their product looks very pretty in it’s jars, so I photograph it.
In the evening we stop at a resort town where the local attraction is the hot springs. It’s a little bit unusual here, because the main attraction is getting the dead skin eaten off your feet and legs by teeming schools of tiny fish, as you dangle your legs in the warm water.
We call in on an interesting potter who has his workshop out in the countryside, in an old ramshackle building next to paddy fields. Hi name might be Wang Chun Chang? I hope that’s correct! He works in a kind of organised chaos. He‘s a really friendly guy who welcomes us all warmly into his workshop and gives us tea. He clearly has a very creative spirit and I’m touched by the untamed creativity of it all. I just couldn’t work this way. Maybe I’ve got Aspergers or something, but I need a few clean flat surfaces around me to work on. Never the less. I really warm to him, this place and the artistic, creative spirit that has created it and is so apparent everywhere – even in the chaos.
The next potter that we get to meet is a very well known, tenmoku potter. Chiang Yu-ting.
He doesn’t seem to exhibit any more. Apparently he gets enough wealthy patrons coming to him now, such that he can make a very good living from occasional sales from home. His work is very slick, very professional. The prices of his bowls are also very high. Au$15,000 each for his very best works, Au$5,000 each for good pieces and Au$1,200 for little cups. I must say that I’m impressed. The work is good and it’s great to see someone being able to make a good living from their pots – and the twenty years of research that led to them.
God only knows how much Quei Wei’s work will cost in the future, now that he is a living legend?
We return to Miaoli and I go back to my usual routine, that I have been indulging myself in. Each evening after work, I join in with the many locals who do yoga, Tai chi, walking and running around the local sports field. The running track seems to be about 500 metres all around, so I join all the others in a brisk, but steady walk around the circuit. I do about 10 or 11 circuits, which I think should be about 5 kms. but I tend to loose track of time while I’m in the zone, engaged in my own thoughts, so I do an extra circuit, just to make sure. It takes about an hour. Then I go in for a good breakfast. In the evenings a I do the same again. I feel really good after the gentle workout and I feel somehow engaged with all the others, even though I can’t speak a word to them all. We are all doing the same thing for our own reasons, individually, but all together.
I feel really energised afterwards and always sleep well.
We eventually return to the Snake Kiln Centre for the unpacking of the kiln and to set up the exhibition of our tea wares. The Gallery is huge. It’s an intimidating space for such small works. There are sufficient plinths to display all the work and by the evening it all looks very good.
The empty gallery before we start                 After our days work
There are a lot of other places to see and to go, but I have a lot of work booked and lined up for me to do when I get home, so I don’t hang around. I need to be back home with The Lovely, Divine, Saint Nina, The Forgetful. It is already bush fire season and she is there with Annabelle Sloujetté, who has been looking after the house and pottery in our absence. So I take my leave from Taiwan and hop on the long, roundabout, multi-stop, red-eye, flight with Poverty Air back to Sydney.
I’ll be very happy to be home again, back into my own pottery and garden. It’s been a very long journey.
Fond regards from The Lovely, Devine, Saint Nina (Betty/Buffy/Katherine) The Forgetful  and her Journalist Journeyman.

More, not less, from Japan

The Oil spot potters
We are back ‘home’ in Arita, The Lovely One, The Wafer-thin, Betty Churcher look-a-like channeling Katherine Hepburn, Buffy the Mozzie-Killer, Miss Forgetful and her New Pass Port and I. All of us, find our way with the help of our local guide Miyuri San, to the home and workshop of a potting family who specialise in the making of oil spot tenmoku glazes. We are shown into the family store room where there are hundreds of oil spot glazed pots on display, all in stages of preparation for sale. This family has been here a long time. I can’t be sure exactly how long, but we are talking to the 17th generation of the family and his mother, the wife of the 16th generation, who have been potting on this spot. It is a very nice old range of buildings set around and creating an enclosed sort of garden courtyard with fruit trees and vegetables. The roof of the old main house is still thatched and has a lot of shibui about it. The prices are quite expensive and out of our range, the work is OK, but not especially good, so we only look and admire. I’m amazed when the matriarch leaves the room and returns with a tiny 7cm. oil spot glazed bottle, and presents it too us as a gift!
Tatsuya San
We meet a local potter, Tatsuya San, we have dinner together with Miyuri and a Canadian couple Michael and Judith, who are staying in the attached Guest house, while we are sleeping up stairs in the house’s loft or attic. It’s a good time and we laugh a lot together while preparing a huge shared meal.
Tatsuya San invites us to visit his studio and we spend a bit of time with him. We have tea and he shows us some of his pot collection. He has a very nice tea bowl that he inherited from his father. It is an old Karatsu bowl that had been broken and his father had repaired it with gold in the cracks It’s a ‘cracker’ all right, a really lovely thing. Creamy yellowish and probably oxidised. I can see in his show room that he has made a few attempts to replicate some of the qualities that are apparent on this bowl. I ask if I can buy one of them. He shakes his head, with a long explanation in a regretful tone, but one that I just can’t understand. I can pick out only very few words. I think that the dialect here is different from the ‘normal’ Japanese that I’m more accustomed too. I nod and make it clear that I understand, even though I don’t. Because I think that I do. I know that feeling of wanting to keep close at hand, test pieces that I don’t fully understand as yet. Works in progress that are infuriatingly difficult to really come to grips with. I do it, why shouldn’t he.
At least I think that this is what is happening.
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We get to try some of the local porcelain body made from Amakusa stone. It is slightly plastic, but not too bad. I wedge up a lump of the stuff and it is very floppy to handle, but still hangs together. I couldn’t do this with my milled porcelain stone body. Not unless it had been laid away and aged for a few years. This clay is typically short with all the usual porcelain body characteristics. However, it is plastic enough to throw with and holds its form, but it is very sluggish on the wheel. Janine and I both have a turn at throwing with it. It’s an interesting experience, not unlike throwing my one-stone bai tunse native porcelain body after it has been aged for 5 or 6 years. The difference is that this stuff is used straight from the factory in the town with no ageing.
After we have made our work Tatsuya San demonstrates how it is really done. He’s a very good thrower and is quite used to this material. He uses a lot of different wooden profiles for throwing, as is the accepted method here. I don’t really like to use too many tools. I like the ‘feel’ the clay in my fingers, and I don’t mind the odd finger mark in the work. I’m not a ‘proper’ porcelain potter. I love the irregularity of the human touch. The imperfections of humanity expressed in my work. I’m quite imperfect, there is no point in me pretending otherwise. I feel that my work should reflect honestly who I am. What I think and what I feel. I can’t really see the point of me practicing for ten years to be able to make something almost as well as the machine can already do. I can appreciate the skill that these potters have developed, but it’s not for me. I don’t aspire to that.
I wrote about this a few years ago in an article called “Perfect is the new junk”.
We watch and learn as we are taken on a tour-de-force of Arita throwing skills.  I like Him! He’s good and I have a real respect for him and his work. It helps that he is a really nice person to boot! As we leave the workshop I see that there are loads of blossom falling from the trees next to the driveway. i also notice that he disposes of his shards in a similar way to me.
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IMG_6375Tatsuya San takes us for a coffee at the local ‘organic’ cafe, ‘Hatakenowa’. It is really very quiet and nice in its back-lane location, a lovely ambiance. The young lady who runs it has a very gentle demeanour. We like the feel of this place a lot. The lady tells us that she will be serving lunch here on Saturday. A full vegan lunch. We decide that we will go. We do and it is really good.
Tajima San – The Dusty Miller
The porcelain body that is used here is made locally in the town. We have gone past the factory a few times, as it is along the road to the supermarket. This one-stone porcelain body is made by Mr Tajima, an umpteenth generation porcelain clay body maker. We see piles of the various rocks dumped in the driveway from tipper trucks. These stones look so uncannily like the stone that I collect out in the bush where I live. It has all the same characteristics, even the black sooty mould look on the surface. It has the fracture planes, even the iron staining in the cracks, it’s amazing. I suddenly realise that I’m even a little bit shocked. The hairs on my arms are slightly raised and I have goose bumps. I didn’t expect to see this here.
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We watch as the bobcat loads the stones into the tumbler and washer to get any ‘dirt’ off the surface of the rocks. It is then transferred to the primary jaw crusher. Both of these operations are extremely noisy and I feel that I ought to be wearing ear muffs. We are escorted inside where it is quieter, but only just, as the next operation is to go through the stamping mills, where the gravel from the jaw crusher is pulverised to dust. This is so archaic! These machines must be so old. I can see that they are really worn. They have done a lot of work in their time.
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The next step in the sequence is for the powder to go into the ball mill to be ground. The ball mills are huge, almost walk-in size. It doesn’t escape my attention that there is a pallet of New Zealand China Clay, Halloysite Kaolin next to the scales besides the ball mill! There are a lot of other pallets of dry powdered materials in there too, but all the bags are labeled in Kanji, so I can’t read them. So this is how he gets a freshly crushed hard stone to be so plastic so quickly. I assume that there are bags of bentonite and felspar in there as well?
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Next, the resultant mixture is put into a series of long white troughs of cloudy slip, where the slurry is treated and flocculated, passed through electro-magnets to take out any metal fragments that have been worn off the machinery that it has passed through, then into the filter-presses. The dewatered plastic body is then vacuum pugged a couple of times and finally ends up in plastic bags of what look to be about 15 or 20 kgs.
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I’m told that the stone being used these days no longer comes from the local Arita stone quarry, as it is fully worked out now. There is only a small amount of the white material left and it has already been bought and stock piled by a local pottery family, who make ceramics for the Imperial Family The remaining material in the pit is all iron stained. The ‘amakusa’ stone that they are using these days comes from Amakusa Island way down in the South of Kyushu. The felspar that is being used comes from an island way out in the ocean, further to the South west. It is called ‘Chouseki’, whether this is the name of the island or the stone, I’m not too sure.
It’s been a really interesting tour for me, not least because I’m weird and like this sort of thing. Who else would get so excited about seeing a pile of stones that would make your hairs stand up on end? But because, far from being just plain interesting it’s been very educational. We can’t buy that New Zealand kaolin in Australia. We used to be able to, however, the quarry was bought by a trans-national corporation and they choose not to sell it into Australia, but there it is, freely for sale in Japan. So the secret of Japanese Arita porcelain is actually Aotearoa! The land of the Long White Cloudy slip.
What I find most interesting is that the most workable blends of my bai tunse, native porcelain stone, came from blending with a local kaolin and some felspar that I extracted by froth flotation and blended with white bentonite. This is almost exactly what I have seen today. Same material, the same problems. Worlds apart, a different language, but the same solution!
Today we make the pilgrimage to Kuratsu. Kuratsu is one of those words that congers up images of exotic old tea bowls and other rustic cha-do wares. It is a place with a very long history. Regrettably, the reality is somewhat different. It’s a highly developed modern town, perhaps city is more a more appropriate description. There is a vast discrepancy between the old Karatsu wares and the new city offerings. I was particularly disappointed with the work of the local Cultural Treasure, Potter’s work. It seemed lost and desperately seeking sustenance from any and all sources. There were tenmoku pots, oxidised copper alkaline blue islamic pots, Korean slipped pots, Chinese tri-colour pots, anything but local Karatsu pots. And this was the best of it!  Very weird mixed up stuff. A total loss of identity, or so it seemed to me. Maybe there is an explanation, but none was offered, and I’m too thick to figure it out for myself.
 nice old kiln.
I eventually found a gallery that sold some lovely, simple pots as well as all the other mixed up tourist dross. I bought a very subtle tea bowl, quite small, in the lower range of sizes, in a soft, satiny dry, pink/grey subtle mat surface, quite under fired, but in a really delicate and gentle way. It has a few soft shades of black, white and grey in small highlights in places, which I decide will be the ‘face’. The clay body is yellowish with a soft sandy texture. It is really nice to the touch, in my hands. I ask who made it and the gallery owner writes it down for me on the makers card. I ask to see more from this potter, but alas there is nothing else quite like it in stock. She tells me that this is made by a student of a well known potter and shows me his work as well. I can see the references, but prefer the students tea bowl on this occasion.
I also buy a sake cup in a similar style and shades of colour, but a lot more shiny. It’s a pity that there isn’t a softer, matter one. It turns out that this cup was made by the gallery owners son. She is delighted and quite effusive in telling us this and everyone else in the shop who will listen.
So I don’t know what Karatsu is now, but the older pots in the museums are lovely, a sort of soft, grey muted celadon style. Quite dark and dirty-looking. The body appears to be a grey, vitreous stoneware with low silica content, such that the glaze is very finely and densely crazed.
No-one seems to be doing this style anymore. The modern pots that we saw in the artists studios and the centre of town galleries were so mixed and variable that I can only think that they are desperate for recognition to the extent that they will try anything and everything to stand out and get sales. I’m most likely missing the point, as I most often am. But without the guidance and council of someone more knowledgable. I’m unable to see through the dross and confusion of all the disparate styles. Anyway, whatever the reason, I think that what I have chosen to take home is a subtle example of some lovely understated qualities. Wether or not it is ‘Karatsu’ or not doesn’t matter to me all that much. It’s beautiful. I’m satisfied with that.
The next stop on our ceramic ‘Haje’, is Hagi. We travel by train from Karatsu to Imari, change systems and train to Arita. Change again from local rattler to an express and make our way back up to Hakata/Fukuoka. This is the main Station for Kyushu island and from here we transfer to the Shinkansen to go to Shin-Yamaguchi. It’s only a couple of stops on the Shinkansen express. Outside the Shin-Yamaguchi station we find the bus stop for the trip to Hagi. The bus goes directly over the mountains to Hagi station, on the other side. It takes an hour and a half or so. But is quicker than the local rattler train which goes all around the coast to get here and takes most of the day. We are already booked into the local ‘Royal Intelligence Hotel’ that is located directly at the station, so only a 30 metre walk with our luggage. We booked it before we left. They are expecting us when we arrive, which is nice. We aren’t hard to pick, as the only Gaijin here tonight.
After settling in to our room, we proceed to the tourist information office in the station, to find that the lady there speaks virtually no English, but is very keen to please and to be helpful. We point at the tourist brochures about Hagi-Yaki with some enthusiasm. She responds with a torrent of information that we can’t make head, nor tail of. We thank her and give up. All we want is a map of the town with the potteries and galleries that sell pottery indicated. As there is no-one here today who can translate for us we make our leave, with many domos, enhanced with a few arigatos and the occasional gozaimasu.
We are out on the side walk, deciding which direction to strike out in, when she comes after us, out into the street holding her mobile to her ear and asking us to wait, wait please. So we do and in a few minutes a man appears in a big black car. He is the owner of a very prestigious Tea Wares Gallery in the town centre. He speaks just a few words of English but has a fancy mobile phone with live Google translate. He speaks into the hand set and a moment or two, or three, later, the phone talks to us in English. But only in short sentences. So it takes a few minutes to discover who he is and that he will take us to visit a few of his stable of artists and then to his Gallery. OK, so we are off.
The car is large and expensive. Obviously there is money in Tea Bowls. The seats are huge and plush leather. There is even a small bar in the back for us with a selection of water or cold green tea. We visit a potters studio out on the edge of town. It is a small two story house with a very big shed out the back with a tantalising hint of a noborigama, just visible. But we are soon whisked into the Tearoom/Gallery where the potters wife duly prepares tea for us. We walk around the gallery and see that the prices are very high, to extremely high and a couple are coitusing high. Well for us they are. We can’t afford anything here, so we are a little bit embarrassed not to buy something, but we didn’t ask to be brought here. It’s all a bit of a misunderstanding. We are not well-heeled collectors. Eventually the master potter comes in and we are formally introduced with much ceremony and bowing, with many more domos, enhanced with lots of arigatos and plenty gozaimasus.
There is some small talk amongst themselves. I suppose that they are trying to figure us out. Mr Gallery translates through his phone and we all get a good laugh out of this. Especially as the software suddenly changes into German mode without telling us. We can’t understand any of the words in the Japanese or German part. We look very confused and at a loss to know what to say. I open with “I think that the translation sounds like it is in German” Mr Gallery looks at his handset, does a double take at the screen and looks again. Then he pushes his spectacles up onto his forehead and looks very intently at the screen again. Finally he passes the phone to me to read the text. I confirm that it looks and reads like German text as well. Well, to the best of my ability to tell. He fiddles with the phone and presses a few buttons and suddenly laughs. Yes, of course it is! How did that happen? Or words to that effect. We all laugh and the situation is greatly diffused.
We start again and all goes well this time. He asks if I am a famous potter in Australia. I tell him No. I’m not. Do I know the lady magazine publisher from Australia? I think that he means Janet Mansfield, and I say yes to that, if that is who he means. He nods, it is. She came here and visited him apparently, a few years ago.
We say that she has died recently, and he already knows this. We ask if he knows Paul Davis who worked here a couple of decades ago. He thinks about this a long time. Paul San? From Australia? In Hagi? Yes, Maybe!  A long time ago. He is totally non-committal on this. I feel that there is something that is being left unsaid here, so leave it at that.
As it is obvious that we are not going to buy anything, we are politely ushered out and into the car. We end up at the gallery, where the prices are even higher. I apologize to him for not buying anything, we didn’t expect the prices to be so very high. He very patiently and carefully explains the meaning of the Tea Ceremony in Japanese society and how this is the cream of the cream of Hagi pottery on show here. There are several bowls by National Treasure potters. It is a well known fact that Hagi is number one for tea bowls in Japan, then Raku and third is Karatsu. All the others don’t rate a mention.
It’s a funny thing, but in Kyoto, Raku is well known to be number one, with Hagi second and Karatsu third. But when we were in Karatsu just recently, they told us that Karatsu was clearly the number one choice for tea bowls, with Raku being number two and Hagi only just trailing along at the rear in number three place.
Well I don’t know and I can’t say, but Kato San in Shigaraki conferred with Sagara San and they both agreed that Sen No Rikyu, the first and greatest tea master had set down the order of best tea wares as No1 Raku, No2 Hagi and No3 Karatsu. Shigaraki didn’t get a mention in their version of the story. So I believe them, because they left themselves out. The three on the list all agree on the content of the list, but each of them change the order, putting them selves first. Not a usual Japanese trait, I wouldn’t have thought.
We spend the next day just walking by ourselves around the town. It turns out that there are any number of pottery shops in and around the tourist sector of the town, we visit the castle ruins, the temples and shrines, at least 30 shops. We even buy a few small pots. Not made by famous artists, but lowly local potters with no reputation to uphold, students or beginners perhaps, but they are all very competently thrown and turned and have some nice qualities. I limit my self to paying $30 max, so this limits what I can choose from.
I don’t need an amazingly good Hagi tea bowl, because I already own one, back in Australia. I’m really here to see a few different examples of what ‘Hagi’ has to offer. The Hagi style?, the pink blush style, the white crystal style, the blue/white opalescent blush with yellow highlights, the ‘spotted dog’ style etc. I find all of these in different places and at different times throughout the day. Eventually I find a very nice and simple fairly plain white glazed bowl with a hint of a pink blush, but it is $50, so I am forced to extend my budget just a bit. I also buy a spotted dog sake cup for $10. The nicer tea bowls are $2700 or there abouts. So they stay on the shelf.
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We visit the old castle ruins. The stonework is amazing. There is a very cute tea house in the grounds. It’s a lovely walk, we are out from early till very late. In fact it’s well after dark, by the time we find our way back to the hotel. We walked home via the sea shore to photograph the sun set over the water, only to find that it doesn’t set over the water, it sets over the island, but the ocean is very calm and the fading light illuminates it beautifully.
We have the same dinner in the same restaurant as last night, because we enjoyed it so much. Sashimi, sushi, tempura, miso, pickles, all the usual culprits and quite affordable. So, fortunately the food in Hagi isn’t rated the same as the pots. So we can at least afford to eat here. Because we return to the same restaurant, for the 2nd night, they remember us and are extra attentive. We get an extra serving each of Sashimi with this meal. It’s unnecessary and greatly appreciated by us. A lovely gesture.
This place appears to be a very prosperous town. I doubt that it is a ceramic tea wares led economic recovery, maybe its because it’s a small fishing port? What ever the reason, it’s nice to see a place doing well. Even if it means that we can’t afford any of the better work here. Never mind, I don’t need the best, what I want is to see, experience, feel, taste, hear all the interesting new sensations, feelings and hopefully insights that go with a different culture, I don’t need anymore things, but I somehow seem to collect them.
From Hagi we make the return trip over the mountains and back to Shin Yamaguchi and onto the fast train to Kyoto. We arrive just after lunch time and get the same room in the Chitta inn for the same price as before. Very good value for us. We make the train trip to Nara for the afternoon. Because time is limited for us this afternoon, we don’t walk the back streets of the old town, or visit the giant Budda. We just walk the main street and arcades, where Janine buys a loose fitting summer frock, in Japanese cotton print. I buy a piece of old kimono in indigo cotton. It has been repaired in a few places, but this gives it a nice Sabi Wabi quality. I don’t want anything too perfect, because it’s just not me, and because I’ll probably want to cut it up to make patches for my shirts and pants.
Nara is a city of deep culture and very old history, but we manage to spend a shallow afternoon in frivolous shopping.
We have been in Japan for a month now and so we have been lucky enough to catch both of the Kyoto markets The first at the Toji Temple and the second at the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine
We go to the Toji markets. This is a famous market, held each month in and around the Toji Temple grounds. We try and go there each time we are in Japan, timing our visit to Kyoto to fit in with the market day. The Toji market is always held on the 21st. of the month, regardless of the day of the week that it falls on. It’s a really great view into Kyoto life. I love to just wander around looking, smelling, tasting, hearing everything. The Lovely One finds a very nice white shirt with a few pleats that really suits her and it fits so well. I find a couple of small pieces of old ikat woven indigo cotton cloth and a couple of fragments of patched cotton kimono cloth that is beautifully woven but also has a remnant of faded pink printing in strategic places in the pattern. They are lovely and very wabi sabi.
We decide to have okonomiyaki pancake for lunch. We just can’t walk past this stall, it smells so good. It is also a great theatrical experience to watch them making it. They are great showmen and women. It’s a very hot day and they offer a place to sit under cover of shade. They even offer a cold beer to go along with it. I’m in heaven!
No! I don’t think so. I think that I ought to call it Nirvana, seeing that we are in the Buddhist temple grounds. It’s very tasty and cheap, and so immediately fresh, it all happens before your eyes, as you wait, just like the best street food always is.
As we wander more or less aimlessly along we bump into the stall of a young man who makes and sells very delicately decorated pots. We bought one of his cups a few years ago from this stall. His style is still very similar, the work has a soft feel to it and is light to the touch. He has a very sensitive approach. I remember that we liked him as well as his work the last time we met. We buy another cup. It’s small and easy to carry with us. It will also be quite light to post back to Australia. He tells us that he is opening his own gallery/shop in a few weeks, but we will already be gone by then. Maybe next trip? We take his card, just in case we can make it there sometime in the future?
As I’m meandering between the stalls and crowds of people. This market has fallen on a  Sunday today, so it is really full. I’m walking past an antiques stall. There are lots of them in this row. Suddenly I spot an old Karatsu pot, or something that looks a lot like it ought to be an old Karatsu pot. I stop and go over to pick it up to examine it more closely. The stall holder calls out  to me “Karatsu – Old Karatsu”. “Cha Wan”! That is exactly what I was thinking that it might be. I take the time to look at it very carefully. It really looks the part. I’m suddenly full of avarice and greed.
I wants precious, must have precious!
The stall holder calls out to me again “Very old!”
Maybe it is! But what would I know. I’ve only ever seen things like this at a distance from behind glass in a museum. The only one that I have ever handled was at Tatsuya Sans workshop, and it was quite different. What I am seeing is an object that has the look of age, the body is pale grey, dense and pock marked with a few small, even tiny, burn-out craters where little bits of organic matter were embedded in the clay before firing. I turn it over in my hands. The whole pot is warped from falling over in the kiln during firing. It has a chip on the dented side where it has been removed from whatever it was stuck to. The glaze is a soft, dark apple green and is very finely, densely crazed. There is a pale yellowish haze on the inside, where there may have been a little bit of oxidation during the firing. There are a few little grains of setting sand or something similar embedded in the glaze inside the bottom.
On the whole I like what I’m seeing and handling. It feels good, it’s well balanced and it has that patina of age which gives it some sort of gravitas. The stall holder sees that I’m interested and points to the old browned, wooden box that comes with it and on which it  was sitting, upside down. Because of the warping, it doesn’t fit evenly on it’s foot ring.
The old guy repeats, “Karatsu – Old Karatsu. Very old”!
I ask “Koray-wa nan deska” – how much is this thing here (that I’m holding)?
He answers in quick Japanese that I don’t understand. I’m not that good with number words, especially big ones, I can tell that the amount is not in the single digits that I do know! That’s not surprising. I hold out my phone with the numerical key pad. He types in 48,000. Ouch! OK. That is about Au$500 and a bit, no, a lot more over my budget than I was hoping. If I was going home tomorrow I’d think very seriously about it, but I’m not. I’m here for quite a while, and then still another month and then in Taiwan afterwards. I have to be very careful not to do silly things, so that my money will last the distance.
I sadly decline, but walk away with some regret. I shouldn’t, but I do. I can’t help it. I really want it. I feel that there is something to learn from this bowl. But I’ll never know now.
Afterwards, on reflection. I think that I should have bought it and gone without eating or something. It wouldn’t hurt my ever expanding waistline. I don’t even have a photo to reflect back on, as I had decided to travel light on that day and didn’t bring my camera with me. I’m appalled at my shameless desire and sudden need to own an object. This is not the person that I want to be. I feel that I should be above such things, but I’m not. Welcome to the human race.
Kitano Markets
5 weeks later, we go to the Kitano markets. It is very similar to Toji, all the usual suspects are there, maybe more antiques and less food stalls, probably because one street that borders the market is full of restaurants? I look in vain for the antique stall that had the lovely bowl, but it isn’t there. Miss Betty/Katherine/Buffy gets a fantastic white shirt with amazing pleating. It really suits her, She of the Driven Snow looks very pure and distinguished in it, you could even go to Church in it, Betty looks even more Churcher than ever!
We are woken early by the temple bell. It is very deep, full and resounding. There are only 6 gongs, about one a minute. It’s a beautiful sound to wake up to. It’s quite a contrast from the smaller higher pitched bell in Arita that was rung about 20 times over ten minutes. That was also really nice and I looked forward to it each morning. One morning I woke and wondered what had happened to the bell. It didn’t ring yet. I looked at my clock and realised that I’d slept through it. I felt somehow a little bit cheated.
We spend the next day in Osaka. It’s only a short train journey away from Kyoto. We get a map of the city precinct and manage to navigate our way from the station to the Museum of Oriental Ceramics. It’s a pleasant half hour stroll. There is a special exhibition of Imari porcelain. It tells us the story, that we are already familiar with now, of the history of Arita and Imari as well as Nabashima ware. Its a good show and well done. There are some very impressive pieces on show here, most of them from their own collection, but a few have been lent for the show. We dine in the Museum cafe and go to the other section of the Museum, where the permanent collection is on show. Japanese, Korean and Chinese works. So many beautiful examples.
As there is still time left in the day, we work out that we can cross town and out into the suburbs to see a special traveling show of French Impressionist paintings. We think that we have figured it all out, changing stations and companies onto a different line and we manage to get off at the correct station. Success! We walk to the gallery building. The private gallery is on the top floor of one of the tallest buildings in town. It has a sky gallery for city-scape viewing. When we get to the Art Gallery level, it is closed today. Apparently for no particular reason, just closed to the public. There is some sort of promotional event happening, as people are coming and going but we can’t go in. So that is a total bummer, all that way for nothing.
We now have to re-navigate the subway system to return to our original starting point without having to go back the same way. We figure out the most direct route and find the station. We can’t seem to buy a ticket though, even though we ask for help. It’s blindingly obvious to everyone and well signposted in Kanji. Finally, Janine, Betty, Buffy, the Bofin figures out the sign language and how to interpret it. She leads the way and Lo. There is the ticket machine for our particular line. There are 4 different companies and lines operating out of this one station complex. It’s something of a terminal for the intersection of several lines. It all works out well and we are back into the tube system, smack in the middle of peak hour. At Osaka main terminal we change to the Kyoto line and are back ‘home’ in the dark, but we know exactly where we are going here in this part of Kyoto. We go to a local noodle bar, just 100 metres from our ryokan and have a lovely dinner of Gyoza and Kimchi with a beer – not noodles. It’s so good that we have it all a second time. Yes. It was that good!
Walking home to the ryokan we see the complete eclipse of the moon!
We pack our bags and get ready to leave for the airport very early tomorrow morning.
With fond regards from Betty and her Precious

“A Mecca called Onda” – revisited, for the first time

So here I am now in Japan, all alone. I have taken the opportunity to visit my friend in Shigaraki because it’s not that far from Singapore to Japan. Although with the cheapest Poverty Air airline tickets, they go in a round about way and take off and land at odd times. We left for Japan at 2.00 am in the morning from the old terminal. The very old terminal. Now almost ‘terminal’ and only used by paupers and back-packers. When you leave at 2.00 am, you are already knackered, never mind the cramped hard seats and no-frills service. It was quite cold over night, so I was forced to rent an acrylic ‘blanket’ , read shower curtain, for $5. I agreed, but only had Australian money or Singaporean dollars. They only accept US dollars, Malaysian Dollars, Thai Baht or Yen. Luckily I had some yen, OK. So far so good, but not in the correct denominations, unfortunately. So I have to receive my change back in Thai Baht!
To pay 5 in one currency, I handed over a 1000 note in another and get back 90 in a third? Weird. I don’t understand it. But it was only $5, so I didn’t really care at 4.00am!
I arrive not looking or feeling my best and the first thing that the very polite Japanese man wants to do at immigration, is to photograph me and take my finger prints. I knew it was a mistake to hand over the passport photo that had me looking like a criminal.
On the train from the airport, I can see that the rice harvest is in full swing, or should that be full flail? Actually  it is probably in full head, as the little mini rice harvesters are very busy heading, stooking, binding, flailing and milling all along the rows. The milled and de-husked rice comes out one end in nice neat bags and the husks are all piled up in a big heap ready to burn. The straw is all over the shop, blown out in a shredded mess on the stubble. These bigger machines, I suspect, are owned by co-ops or by contractors. I can’t see a small farmer owning such a machine to just use it for two or three days a year. When I say big, I don’t mean Australian wheat harvester ‘big’. I mean very small and compact, about the size of a two-seater ‘Smart’ car, only lower and narrower. The little harvesters here are very small and compact, as are the rice paddies.
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In the very small plots, and just to make it clear, a big plot might be half an acre, a small one just 100 sq. m. So where there are small paddies, there are men walking behind hand held, 2 wheeled harvester machines. This machine only bundles and stooks the rice so that it can be carried to the barn or work shed, whatever the Japanese equivalent word is, and inside this shed, there is another machine that separates the rice from the straw. The husk from the rice grain and blows the husks out a pipe into the field outside, where the pile is lit and it burns for hours if not days. Smoking continuously.
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In just a couple fields I saw an old couple, something like my age – old! Working the field by hand. Dressed in baggy long pants tucked into boots, long sleeved baggy shirts, wide hat with a cloth hanging down behind to protect their necks and bending using a sickle to cut the stalks, then binding them together with another piece of straw tied in a loop and standing several of the bound sheaves together into a stook. Standing and bending backwards with hands on hips to straighten up for just a moment and then back to the work. The stooks are left to dry for another day or so. Eventually to be carried to the shed and threshed. The long straw is occasionally used to make pretty little circular, pointed haystacks. At other places it is hung up-side-down on long ‘ricks’ to air dry. I wonder what use there is for long, straight hand dried straw these days? I can’t imagine that it could be much? Whatever their purpose, it is a pretty little idyl.
This scene, or other ones very similar, must have been carried out in these paddies for thousands of years, umpteen generations beyond count. I suspect that this will be the last. No one wants to work this hard if they don’t have to. I read an article in the paper here that said that the average age of the Japanese rice farmer is 76! It’s such a contrast to Singapore and the investment banker working his calculator button pressing finger to the bone!
Because the long straw is hand cut, handled carefully and is undamaged. It is suitable for secondary use. There was once a time when nothing was wasted. Everything had a second or third use. The long, straight, hand harvested, undamaged rice straw was used to make all sorts of everyday items. It was woven, plaited or spun to make such useful things as sun hats, rain cloaks, straw sandals, straw rope and roof thatching. After these uses it was used as mulch and finally as compost. Until recently, the rice husks were used to make the porous holes in cheap local fire bricks in some Asian countries and possibly still are. After all, Janine, Warren and I were making our own fire bricks just 4 weeks before I left on this trip. I used clay, coffee grounds and some saw dust. Why coffee grounds and saw dust? Because we didn’t have any rice husks! So some of these skills are still being preserved in the most unlikely of places. Like Australia! There are still just a few thatched roofed buildings left intact here, but I believe that the cost of thatching is astronomical these days, so most are or have been covered with tin or replaced with tile roofs now.
Shigaraki – Janine Arrives
Janine will arrive in Japan today. After her long flight, via Hong Kong, she has to catch 3 trains and a bus to get here. I know she will be tired, so I catch the bus down to the station at Kibukawa and sit and wait for her, she could be some hours in arriving as there are many ways to miss a train and she has 3 connections to make. We have no way of contacting each other, as our phones don’t work here in Japan and getting a new sim card here is a bit of an ordeal – Even if you can speak Japanese fluently. Anyway, I shouldn’t be too concerned. Japan is only a small country, so we are bound to bump into each other sooner or later!
Tall white cranes
in the sandy river shallows
We are both waiting.
I arrive early and sit and wait. I’m prepared to wait till 3 or 4 pm, if necessary. If she doesn’t show up. I’ll have to come again tomorrow. However, there was no need to worry. She arrives at 10.30, half an hour earlier than I was expecting and a full hour and a half earlier than my Japanese hosts thought was possible. It’s a good thing I gave myself a couple of hours grace and was prepared to sit and await if necessary before giving up.
I can see her through the window of the train as it pulls in. She is distinctive because of her new hair cut. Just before we were about to leave on this trip, The Lovely decided to go and get her hair cut. Janine left and Betty Churcher returned. (For those of you reading this who are not Australian. Betty Churcher, was the very elegant and distinguished Director of the Australian National Art Gallery for many years and had a very distinctive look.) Since Betty has spent the last 40 hours in transit across South East Asia and has not really slept, she is now morphed into a hybrid vision of Betty Churcher disguised as Katharine Hepburn, but she can’t fool me. Her silhouette is easily spotted through the windows among the other petite Japanese ladies.
Taking Tea.
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Note; the small bamboo cake knife for later on in the story.
I have a very educational week learning a lot about ‘Tea’ – Chado, and the utensils, their history, manufacture and meaning. I get to have 3 tea lessons at a tea ‘school’ in Kyoto and a long session with a tea scholar in Shigaraki. He tells me, among other things, about the weight, balance and ‘face’ of suitable bowls. How they are to be handled and why this is important. He brings out several examples to illustrate his points and gives them to me to handle. For a bowl to be considered suitable for tea, it has to have a long list of suitable criteria. There are lots of variations and ways that this set of ‘rules’ can be interpreted and in his opinion, it all comes down to personal choice. If you have a sound understanding of the way that tea is appreciated and can justify your choices, then almost any bowl can be considered a suitable candidate. It all depends on the ‘quest’ that is chosen for the theme and how you decide to make it all come together. Really, it’s a bit of an intellectual quiz for the invited guests, a test of perception and the subtleties of appreciation. It’s all very complicated and a bit of an upper middle class game for the elite at one level, but a very beautiful, minimalist experience of mindfulness on the other. I have no interest in becoming a practitioner. I haven’t got a spare 10 years to put into it. I’m a Husband, Farther and Potter first, then a gardener, green activist, teacher, kiln builder, wood worker, etc. etc. Tea comes a very late 113th on my list. I only want to learn enough to be able to understand how to make objects that are more suitable, or acceptable for use in the ceremony, if anyone should wish to use my bowls for that purpose. I have my own way of appreciating tea that suits me and my way of being who I am. Which includes my own approach to mindfulness.
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We spend a day visiting some local temples. We climb the 700 steps up to the Moro Temple. I know that in Japan ‘less is more’, but after this climb, I wish that Moro was Less!
It’s an amazing view up from up there from the top of the mountain, and the giant cedars are spectacular. I can’t help but think of the incredible amount of work it must have been to carry all those huge granite blocks all the way up there to construct the stairs! It’s an awe inspiring place. It doesn’t make me want to believe in god though, only Nature. Construction was started on the temple in 608, so that’s about 1300 years, those trees have had quite a time to get growing and they look it.
We have caught the train down to Arita on the southern Island of Kyushu. It’s a long trip with a few connections and takes most of the day. There aren’t many seats on the platform, so the ‘wafer-thin’ resourceful one improvises.
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We are currently ensconced in a little house in Arita in the Southern Island of Kyushu. The owners, Cory and Shin are not here just now. They live in Australia for part of the year. So we have rented their loft for a few days. Cory Taylor is a writer and won the commonwealth book prize 2 years ago, Shin is an artist interested in ceramics, hence our connection through pottery.
Arita was the heart of Japanese porcelain manufacture for about 400 years. However, it has recently gone into a bit of a slump in the past few decades, due to the cheap cost of manufacturing porcelain in China these days. It is almost impossible to compete. I am here, because it is the site of the earliest one-stone porcelain body ever produced in Japan, and was world renown for its purity and whiteness in its time The mine is almost mined out now, with only low grade iron stained material left in the site. What was once a mountain is now a big hole in the ground, with a few underground seams that seems to be all but worked out.
This place exists here because the War Lord Hideyoshi Toyotomi brought back captured potters from Korea who understood about the materials needed for pottery making and one in particular, Re Sam Pei, discovered this porcelain stone here and set up the first porcelain pottery on this site. The rest is history.
They were so very successful at making the translucent white ware that it soon became very famous, being traded all around the world. They guarded their secret very closely and put up guard towers and gates at either end of the road that led to the porcelain district and porcelain stone quarry, so that the secret of its manufacture would never be divulged. They even called the Arita porcelain wares by another name, so as to obscure the origin of the wares. Arita wares were exported from the sea port of Imari, as Imari ware. The name of Arita was never to be mentioned.
To this day, there is a custom of secrets here in Arita. The main families still keep their recipes and techniques pretty closely guarded. Everyone is looking to get an edge on the other. There was a constant theme in our conversations with the potters that we visited. How “it used to be better, but the market has dried up. Not so many people come to buy anymore”. I suggested that they might get together and form an alliance and put money up to hold a ceramic festival, “Back to Arita”, not unlike they did in Shigaraki. This was pretty much dismissed out of hand. “We are too individualistic here. The old ways of family secrecy and independence are still very much alive here.”
Oh well. There you go. Welcome to Arita!
We have been visiting various potteries and small workshops. Nearly all of them have abandoned throwing, then jigger-jolly, then the motor-head machines. It is all seems to be pressure cast these days. Not a single ram-press in sight. We found one pottery company that still had throwers working on the wheel. The ‘Gen-Emon’ Kiln. Here we watch the throwers working. They throw very thickly, as the clay is not at all plastic. Then they turn a lot of material away. This is exactly what I saw in Jing-de-Zhen a decade or so ago. But in Jing-de-Zhen, there was no OH&S, just dry clay dust flying everywhere.
Here they work very cleanly, with extractor fans pulling the dust away from them directly in front of the turned pot. They were so exacting and painstakingly fastidious about accuracy of form, the exact curve and precision with dimension. They get it perfect by turning both the out side and the inside of the pot. No residual finger marks here. They even weigh the finished dry pot to make sure that it is perfect!!
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Needless to say, when we made our way to the decorating rooms, we were equally amazed at the accuracy of the decorators. Men do the roughing out of the design in pencil, then, apparently, they are the only ones to use the small fine brushes, loaded with the strong cobalt pigment, setting the design out in finished detailed outlines. Finally it is the women, who use the great big fat ‘fude’ brushes loaded with the thin watery cobalt wash. They are amazing in their skill to go around the detail design with such precision, never allowing a drip from their brush, always keeping the tip of the huge fat brush moving draining the mass of coarse hair of its precious cobalt, letting it flow effortlessly and continuously in around the lines. It looks so simple! I want one! I want that skill! But I’m not prepared to work that hard for it, so it will never be. I have too many other things that I want to do even more.
Of course when we get to go to the sales room. It’s a different story. Although I want to buy something. I can’t afford anything. Eventually I find a very, very, small, shot glass sized porcelain cup, decorated in 4 colours for $54. Two tones of cobalt, two colours of underglaze and a gold firing at the end to cap it off. It suddenly seems like a bargain. So much work, such detail. I love it. Having just seen all the steps that it has gone through to get here. Every step carried out by a wonderfully skilled craftsman or woman. It’s a joy to have as a reminder. Larger pieces, like a cup or a bowl soon escalated up in to the hundreds and then thousands of dollars. We want beautiful objects to remind us of our travels, but we also need to keep a very close cap on our budget if we are to manage our finances over the couple of months of this extended trip. So this is just right. It’s small and compact, easy to carry, shows all the techniques and is just affordable.
All the exquisite craftsmanship and amazing levels of skill that we have seen here rival those that we saw at Sevre in Paris last year. This family operation is very much smaller, but the quality achieved is just as great. I’m very impressed.
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The ‘Dirt Rope Kiln’ Potters
We are very lucky to get to meet an amazing couple who run the ‘Dirt Rope’ kiln pottery, It appears that this is the literal translation of the kanji for these words. However, Kanji can have several meanings depending on context. In this case, the Kanji can be roughly translated as ‘serendipity’. This couple dig their own clay, have built their own kiln and fire with wood that they collect from re-cycled or demolished buildings. They make a hybrid cross between Shigaraki and Bizen styles work. Unglazed, rough, dark, clay with plenty of small stones, showing charcoal and ash impingement on the surface. Completely out of keeping with the whiteness and purity of this areas porcelain tradition. I don’t know how they make a living here.
They live near the top of a mountain, down a long, winding, narrow, farm road, marked with a ‘No-through-road’ sign and then a dead end! Theirs is the last house. A very beautiful little hidden away spot.
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They fire a horizontal tunnel kiln, with a so-called ‘secret’ chamber at the back – that everyone knows about. I ask him if he is aware of the research of Mitchio Furutani in Iga/Shigaraki and he nods that he is. I suggest that his kiln has a few similarities. He nods. He asks me if I think that the ‘secret’ chamber is as crucially important as some claim.  I say that I can’t see why it would be and that maybe it isn’t so important. The test would be to build a kiln without one and fire it to see if it really is. He takes me outside and round the corner. There stands a smaller version of his kiln with no secrets. It is brand new and hasn’t been fired yet. So we both still don’t know. The answer is still a secret, but time will tell. Their work is very affordable and we buy a tea bowl, two sake cups and a small bottle. It’s lovely work and I’m really pleased to be able to meet this couple and see their workshop and kiln.
Later in the day we acidentally meet an old man whose family has been making and decorating porcelain in this village for hundreds of years. He lives in one of the oldest wooden houses in the village. One that survived the great typhoon of the early 1900’s. His house is full of porcelain decorated by his forebears. Every draw in the many cupboards are full of precious enameled porcelain. He tells us that whenever he digs in his vegetable garden, he comes across more old pots.
He takes the time to show us the old pattern books used by his Great Grandfather.
The next day we set off on an expedition/excursion to the little pottery making village of Onta/Onda (sp?). High up in the hills of north, central Kyushu. This is a very isolated area, or was. It now has a twice a day, bus service going up the little winding road into the hills that terminates at Onta, it’s the end of the road. The mountainous area is densely forested and this becomes quite apparent as we travel up the valley. There are 3 saw mills along the road up into the hills. There is a constant appearance of rice paddies, where ever the land is flat enough, or can be made flat in steps by building levy walls and terraces. The rice is being harvested at this time.
We watch the harvest going on as the small bus slowly winds its way up the narrow valley, following the creek. The little hamlets along the way are gorgeous, set in idyllic folds in the valley floor. Where ever there is enough flat space for a house and some paddies. We finally arrive in Onta. This is where the bus service terminates. It turns around and returns to Hita station. Although we don’t speak very much Japanese, we clearly understand from the driver that he will be back a 4.30, and that this is the only bus back down the mountain today. So we had better be here at this stop by then. The bus doesn’t wait.
The potters of Onta have been working here since the 1500’s. Originally Korean immigrant potters found the clay here and started working it. Part-time potters and part-time rice farmers. They have carved out a livelihood here from this dirt. Growing vegetables, rice and using the hard shaley clay to make their pots. The tradition continues today unbroken. The village is now internationally famous for its rough, simple farmers pots in the Mingei tradition. The dark local clay coated with white slip, ‘sgraffitoed’ or ‘chattered’, then raw glazed and wood fired in one of the 10 family run, multi-chambered, climbing kilns. They were firing a 10 chambered, climbing kiln the day that we arrived.
When I say that the village is internationally famous. It must be understood that this is among the cognoscenti of the Mingei enthused ceramic world. I first heard of the village and its potters back in 1970 from the late Denis Pile, former President of The Potters Society of Australia, who had made a visit there. I was still in High School then. I read his article in the Pottery in Australia Magazine. Vol 9/1, pp. 24-27. I just wanted to go there. The time just wasn’t right till now. So here I am. Here and Now. It’s been worth the wait!
All the materials for making the wares here are obtained locally, just as they have been for centuries. The rough, irony, hard, local shale clay is pounded in one of the many water driven clay pounding mills in the village. There isn’t a place anywhere along the 300 metres of road that the village occupies, where you can’t hear the creak, groan and thud of the water mills pounding the clay endlessly. We walk around the village at our leisure, taking our time and really enjoying the quiet ambience of the scene. The lasting memory, for me, is of the tinkle and splash of fast flowing water and the repeated creak, groan and thud of the water powered clay pounding mills. It punctuates everything, our foot steps are measured by the rhythm of the water and the pounding of the mills. It’s quite eccentric and uneven, each mill works at a different pace. The huge pine logs are mounted on wooden shafts and wooden bearing blocks, some even have square shafts, which wear down to roughly curved surfaces over time. Hence the creaking and groaning. The straining of  the wood against wood of the bearings. Punctuated by the odd rhythms of the thuds as the wooden hammer meets the shale. There are usually 2, 3, or 4 of these mills working in tandem, but at different frequencies. It’s unsettling and beautiful all at the same time. I love it! The glazes are made from the local clay, stones and wood ashes from the fires.
We take our time wandering, we enter each pottery as we come to it and examine the pots, then wander around into the workshop, we ask if it is OK and get a nod from the potter on the wheel, we watch him throw several bowls ‘off the hump’. He has one large lump of clay on the wheel. He has only ‘centred’ the top section, so that he can make a bowl from this amount of clay. He deftly cuts it from the lump with a string, and places it on the pot board along side him, next to the potters wheel. He is using a Korean style kick wheel, made from wood. His legs constantly kicking the fly-wheel below, while his body remains steady above. His hands quickly and skillfully swirl out another section of the clay lump into a perfectly even round ball, His hands lubricated with a little of the thick clayey water he keeps in a pottery bowl next to him on the wheel bench. This new wet rounded ‘ball’ of clay is soon spun out between his fingers into the same bowl shape as the last one, identical. It takes years of practice to get this kind of accuracy without measuring. This one is placed alongside all the others on the board. As soon as it is full, his wife? Or workshop helper, appears and whisks it away and it is replaced with another empty board, before the next bowl is lifted off the wheel. It’s a smooth system. These pot boards would normally be placed outside in the sun, but it is raining gently today. So the pots are placed outside under the cover of the overhanging roof.
His wife then goes back to her intermittent job of preparing the clay. The pulverised shaley clay powder is collected from the pounding mill and dissolved in water in a big trough. The clay liquid called slip, is then poured through a sieve to remove any unwanted organic matter and is left to settle in another pond or trough. When the clay has settled to the bottom, the clear water is scooped off the top and used again to dissolve more fresh powdered clay and the process is repeated.
The thick clay slurry in the settling pond is scooped out into clay dishes and placed on racks to air dry, After a week or so, depending on the weather and humidity levels. This clay has stiffened up sufficiently to be placed on top of a wood fired drying oven for the final de-watering stage. Another job for the wife to attend to is to keep a small fire burning in the clay drying oven. This provides a gentle amount of heat to rise up into the brickwork above where the clay is stacked, drying it out to the final plastic stage. It is so wet up here in these hills, that without this final forced drying stage, the clay would never really dry out in time and the potter would run out of stiff plastic clay.
When the clay is stiff enough, the potters wife brings each lump of clay into the pottery  and simply piles it up against the wall. It isn’t wrapped in plastic or even covered. It is so humid and wet here that it won’t dry out before it gets used by the potter.
We venture into every one of the many show rooms along this tiny section of road. There are only 10 families living up here. All potters, and they have established quite a name for them selves, achieving a National Cultural Intangible Asset Award for the entire village. No one signs their pots individually. Every pot is stamped with the name of the village and all the work is anonymous.
Towards the lower end of the village, there is a small noodle shop/cafe/restaurant. Built on the bend in the river with the building counter-levered out over the stream. We enter and immediately get a pot of green tea and two cups set on our table. This is a humble, simple country noodle shop. This isn’t Kyoto. The tea is served in the iconic blue tea pot that has been  made here for a very long time.
There is a menu written up on rice paper on the wall in beautiful calligraphic brush strokes. It explains everything, but the only problem is that we can’t read it. I struggle with my limited Japanese vocabulary to understand what this very charming and patient lady is offering us She is very patient, and tries several times, including a few charades. I understand ‘soba’ noodles, but can’t recognise the other words. I agree and nod, she disappears into the kitchen and soon reappears with our noodles. It is delicious. It is called something like “gobo” soba. We understand that it is some kind of root vegetable that has been deep fried and then added to the soup and noodles. Whatever it is, it is delicious.
Of course everything is served in their own pots.
We can’t help ourselves from buying half a dozen small pots. Bowls, plates, cups and a classic, pale blue, tea pot. We spend 4 ½ hours looking around and leave on the last and only bus, returning down the valley and back to the rat race of normality. We are the only two passengers on the bus.
I really loved this little village. I loved the self contained quality of it all. The self-reliant nature of the communal enterprise. Everyone in the village has a job. Everyone is employed doing something. Each at his or her own level of skill and endeavour. There is so much to do to be able to live like this. Someone has the work in the forest cutting the wood for the kiln fuel, Someone has to dig and prepare the clay, throw the pots. Make the glazes. Pack the kiln, fire it. Grow the rice and vegetables that fuels everybody. It’s a wonderful supportive system, keeping the whole community involved and employed.
If there were a place like this in Australia, I’d move there.
I am the crazy one who attempts to do all these jobs myself back home in our ordinary life. If we told anyone here what we did they’d scoff at us and call us nutters. No one can do all that and do it well. And of course they are right. I don’t do it well. We take on too much and end up being amateurs at everything that we do. I think that this is one of the things that I love about this place. The supportive nature of the community enterprise. This has been a very touching and meaningful experience for me. The pots are rough, simple, unpretentious and quite ordinary, but also quite beautiful.
Back in Arita we arrive home late and in the dark. We catch a taxi for the last 3 miles to our bed for the night. There are mosquitos in our room. They breed them really big here and they travel very fast too. It is almost impossible to catch them. I flail meaninglessly at the noise in the dark, only managing to hit myself in the head a few times. I eventually give up and offer myself up as fresh meat. I’m too tired to care or to do anything about it. But The Lovely is made of much sterner stuff. She’s had enough. She patiently waits and sets her trap. She waits until the time is ripe, and when the sound of the small chainsaw-driven tiny insect next appears in the ear drum, she springs her trap. Flipping the sheet up over her head with her arms and enveloping the annoying nightmare in the bed clothes with her. It’s huge, vicious and very tenacious. She battles with it and it is in no mood to give in and puts up a spirited defence. In fact it has the upper hand for a while, being able to function in the dark perfectly well. The commotion carries on under the bed clothes for quite some time and it’s touch and go for a while, but eventually, The Lovely re-appears, bloodied and shaken and somewhat worse for wear, but victorious!. The thing is now silent and is hopefully dead. However, The Lovely is taking no chances and proves not so lovely to the vanquished. She bites down hard on a knob of garlic and grabs a small bamboo tea ceremony cake knife and drives it down hard through its heart.
We sleep in peace for the rest of the night.
I decide that I had better keep a closer eye on this girl!
Best wishes
from the vampire-mozzie slayer and her fresh meat
Dr. Steve Harrison PhD. MA (Hons)


Potter, kiln surgeon, clay doctor, wood butcher and Post Modern Peasant.

Firing the Dragon Kiln

I’m here in Singapore to teach a Master Class in my very own flavour of environmental ceramics, using local rocks to make local glazes for local potters. I’m also here to give a seminar about this work. There is a tea bowl conference and exhibition. I’m here because people buy my bowls to use as tea bowls. I don’t call myself a tea bowl maker. I haven’t been trained, so I can’t really call myself a maker of tea bowls, I’d feel that I was a fraud if I did. However, if people want to buy my bowls for use in the tea ceremony, then I’m pleased about that and happy to sell them one. I’m also here to take part in all the other related activities that go with conferences, but more of that later.

I’m here alone, because The Lovely checked her Passport, that 6 months ago had almost a year of life in it, and that seemed OK at the time, but is now so close to being out of date,  having less than 5 months left on it, that I can’t check her in online at the Airline web site. A bit of a cock-up there. I should have checked in and confirmed, as soon as I bought the tickets. I thought that there would be plenty of time for that later, and there should have been. So it’s my fault. I won’t let it happen again.

We are flying on the cheap, very cheap no-frills, cheap, new Asian low-cost airline, Poverty Air. They offer you nothing, no service, no frills, no meal, no drinks, no movie, just a seat on a plane and it’s quite a small, narrow, hard one at that, with little leg room. But it’s cheap. Their flight path and service, if you can call it that, isn’t very convenient, but it’s cheap. What they do offer is a very cheap fare, and my-goodness it’s cheap! Imagine Ryan Air with all the luxury removed! I agree with the terms and conditions. It’s cheap and I expect nothing. I feel that it will be OK because it’s only a very short flight to asia from here, just 10 or 12 hours, depending on the route taken. Ours is a bit of a round about one to fit in with their scheduled flights to get us to where we want to go, But Hey! It’s cheap!

So Janine has no valid pass port, she can’t get on the plane with me. I go alone. She has already applied for her new Passport online and paid the extra $350 for an overnight/24 hr.  Express Processing, so she will follow me in a couple of days.

I arrive and soon check out the place. I have done a quick look around the area here surrounding the pottery site and found what I think is an aplite rock, just like the bai tunze that I found at home near Mittagong. It looks so similar I have high hopes that it will make some nice glaze. It looks to be a little bit darker than mine, so I don’t think that it will be as pale when fired. But the cleavage planes and the texture look remarkably similar. It might make a dark green ‘Northern’ Celadon, but who’s to know? I’m no geologist, but it does look promising. I also found some white granite that is being used as road gravel here. There is a large amount just outside the gate to the pottery, so I also tested that. Steven Low, who has organised this Masterclass at the Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle has also located a few samples of commercially available rock gravel as well as a local white sandy clay. I will test all of these if time allows.

I need to crush all these samples down to very fine dust so as to be able to make glaze tests out of them. All I have to work with is one kitchen mortar and pestle made out of granite and a dozen helpers throughout the day. I will need more than this if we are to get it all done. Steven takes me to the village street markets, where we buy another 4 stone mortars and pestles. He has arranged to get a steel stamping tube mill welded up, to be used for primary crushing and it is there when we get back with the mortars and pestles. So we are all set to go.

We all sit around in the shade and crush the samples. It’s very boring work, so I’m really pleased to have some wonderful, helpful people sharing the work load with me. The day before my Masterclass is due to start, many of the participants have turned up, they are here for the whole event and are happy to put in an hour or so to help me get it all done. I am very grateful. We only have one of my home-made stampers and 5 granite, food-grade mortars and pestles from the markets to work with. But with so much good will and great helpers, it all gets done. I couldn’t have done it all just by myself. Not in this time frame. So thank you very much to all those who helped me. I’m so grateful.



We don’t get all the materials tested during the Masterclass. There isn’t enough time. There is a bit of theory to explain, as the system that I have developed to analyse the various rocks and ashes for stoneware firing as glaze material is a little complex. If you haven’t done it before, it might seem a bit difficult to follow. So, the first tests take some time, but once everyone gets the hang of it, we get a lot done.

The class is over-subscribed. I have almost 30 students, but only 4 sets of scales and equipment, so we work in teams of 7 or 8 per table. It’s a great atmosphere of cooperation and fraternity. Eventually we run out of time, there is another session booked in for this room in the afternoon. We still have a few of the samples left untested. I go back each evening after work in the pottery and complete a few more samples until they are all finished by the end of the week. I’m interested to know the results.


Stamping mill                        Stone mortars and pestles

 56 Demonstrating where to start

These photos of me by Merrie Tonkins, from Qld, who was helping me on the day as assistant.


A few of the finished test tiles ready for firing.

My other, or real, reason for being here is to make pots and to fill, pack and fire this Dragon Kiln. We are being hosted for some of the time at the Thow Kwang Dragon kiln Pottery. This is the last remaining working dragon kiln in Singapore. There is another kiln close by, but it closed down some years ago and is now rented out as workshop space to local artists. ‘The Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln Pottery Jungle’ is in a small patch of what used to be jungle up in the North West of the island.


It’s a marvelous old structure, built into the slope and mostly underground to get the earth as support for the arch that runs the full length of the kiln. Just the stoke holes are visible at floor level. The kiln is 1.8 metres high inside, but only 500 mm. is visible above the elevated ground level.


Over the years, all the other kilns have been closed down and/or demolished. The sites leveled and used for modern developments. This last remaining old Dragon Kiln is threatened too. It’s a shame. It ought to be recognised as an historic site. It’s part of the Nations Heritage of this place, but I don’t think that the bean-counters in the Government are interested or listening. Cash is King here! And money doesn’t just talk, it shouts.

The Dragon Kiln has a 3 year extension on the lease for the site just now, but it can be revoked at any time. No one knows what will happen, but as this is Singapore, it is inevitable that the site will be concreted over in the not too distant future. The place used to be surrounded by dense jungle with a lot of wild life in it. There were jungle fowl, wild boar, monkeys and loads of birds. All living and thriving in this last remaining eco-system. However, the Singapore Development Authority decided in their wisdom to clear the jungle and replace it with a modern designer, jungle-inspired garden walk, designed by a famous German landscape architect. So Appropriate. So local.

Everything was bull dozed and replaced by what a German designer thought would best represent the concept of ‘jungle’ in the modern world. Once the real jungle was removed. It’s basically lawn with a few shrubs. This narrow garden strip, follows what used to be the old creek. Which is now concreted over and filled with imported stones, so that it looks ‘natural’ The rest of the site is being concreted over and high-rise is being built on it.

The new road is completed, and the first two concrete high-rise blocks are built, there are 9 more planned around the site. The district is not called Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle any more. It has a new identity now, The new road that circles the old kiln site is now called ‘Clean-Tech Loop’. Could anything be more insulting and anal? There is no wild life left here now, just a few birds to be seen. But the German designer has thoughtfully placed photographs of each of the animals that used to live here on plastic profile boards all along the walk so that we can be reminded of what was once here just a year or so ago, before its habitat was destroyed in the name of rampant development. Clean fucking Tech Loop indeed!

Welcome to Singapore!

For the pottery making part of the workshop, I chose to make my pots for the firing of the old Dragon Kiln from the local clay. This isn’t particularly smart. I know nothing about this clay. This is clay that was recovered from the local clay pit right outside the pottery, just before it was bull dozed, to become part of the new Post Modern Jungle-free, ‘jungle’ garden walk. In some way it is an ‘homage’ to the old ways, the old folk, the potters and throwers, to the labourers and unskilled workers that this place employed, before they were displaced by the bankers. I think of all that lost culture and history, all the lost techniques and skills. All bulldozed over and concreted in this very time of ours. We did this! We let it happen.

The clay that I’ve chosen is completely unprocessed, it is totally natural, yellow and sticky, straight from the ground. The ground that supported this venture for over a hundred years. It’s very soft and very gritty with huge chunks of organic matter and stones up to 10 mm dia or more. It is a little difficult to throw and to deal with. Probably better suited to making the old, large, thick jars, rather than small functional bowls as I am making, but I decide to give it a go and I persist. The alternative is to use clay imported from Australia. I didn’t come all this way for that. So I persist.


I choose to use the very old, traditional, floor level, 4ft dia. wide, kick wheel. It is essentially a very heavy flat disc. You kick it up to speed with your foot and the momentum keeps it going. You then bend over it, legs akimbo, in a torturous way that can’t be too good for your back, and throw the clay into a pot, as best that you can. As the wheel slowly looses momentum. You have to stand up and kick the wheel up to speed again to give it enough momentum to finish the pot. I made 7 bowls ‘off the hump’, from one big lump of clay, in this way. I was quite surprised that they came off quite well. I’m used to using a kick wheel at home, but not one like this! So the transition wasn’t too hard. However, I’m glad that it was only for 15 mins or so. I don’t think that my back would last all day working in this method.

Still, my pots have a nice soft, gentle undulating quality to them that I like a lot, and it’s mostly due to this method of making. I put my row of pots out in the sun to dry and turn them an hour later. The weather is very hot here and also quite humid, so the pots dry out relatively evenly without getting dry rims. Quite surprising to me. If I were working like this at home in 30oC heat, the rims would be bone dry in 10 mins.

Once my bowls are turned, I put them back out in the sun to dry further. They are eventually packed directly into the huge dragon kiln and the firing is started a few hours later around dark, full of raw pots, just made that day, some still quite moist. The kiln is slowly steamed over-night and then, in the morning, when all the pots are quite dry, the firing is allowed to gain speed and more wood is introduced more often.

The firing starts to go quite quickly, up to temperature by the following evening. More or less neutral to oxidised atmosphere. The fuel is industrial timber off-cuts and building demolition timber. The final temperature is achieved around mid night, and then the rest of the tunnel kiln is side stoked well into the night, stoke hole by stoke hole, metre by metre, it progresses up the slope, all the way along the kiln and finishes just before dawn.



The kiln takes two days to cool and I’m amazed that my pots turn our rather well for an unknown clay, thrown on an unknown wheel, with an unknown glaze and an unknown ash and fired in an unknown kiln. Luckily, the locals here have us all well organised and keep everything loosely under control. It all goes smoothly enough and I’m really glad that I’m just an innocent bystander and not at all responsible for any of it. I can enjoy myself.

I sell my 3 bowls in the ‘Chawan’ Exhibition in the city and all of my bowls from the dragon kiln at the on-site exhibition at the Dragon Kiln site. So I’m very pleased with this outcome. I give a few away to people who have helped me while I’ve been here. It is strange being here and traveling alone without Janine. I haven’t travelled alone since the 80’s. She is still back at home, waiting for her passport. We Skype each day to keep in touch. But it’s not the same without The Lovely!

They appear to have lost her new passport somewhere and can’t give her tracking number for it either. Sheer, utter incompetence! Someone ought to be hauled over the coals for it, but no-one will be. After two frustrating weeks, they eventually tell her that the Passport will have to be declared ‘lost’ and will be cancelled next Monday. That’s something, but not too much. It means that she will not be able to get to meet up with me here in Singapore. The whole adventure will have finished and be over. I’ll be in Japan by the time that she has the new passport and can then buy a new ticket. That is if they can get her a new passport and if the new one doesn’t end up ‘lost’ in transit as well? It means that we will forfeit two Poverty Air flights, as they are cheap and not transferable.

The only benefit, if I can call it that, is that I get to have an empty seat next to me each flight. So I have a smidgen of extra space to expand into.


I have accumulated a quite a few things over the time I’ve been here, things that I can’t carry with me. Mostly catalogues and tourist brochures, but there are also 2 pots. Just what I need!

I have navigated my way through the maze of shopping center’s to find a very small post office on the third floor of the 2nd tower of the 2nd mall just down the road from the hotel.

I’ve been told where it is by the staff at the hotel, but I doubt that they’ve ever been there themselves? I walk and I walk. It’s a long way. I walk so far that even though I’ve been told that it is in the second mall, I feel that I must have walked too far by now. Maybe I’ve walked  through the first Mall and into the second Mall already. Maybe I’ve gone too far?

I can’t help but feel that I must have missed it. I ask directions. No! You are still in the first Mall! Keep walking! I do, and it’s very dull. Eventually, I ask again and I am told that I am close. It’s such a relief. How much plastic shit can one man walk past without expiring?  Every shop appears to be either a women’s clothes shop or a shoe shop. Or so it seems.

Eventually I find the Post Office. It’s hidden away around a corner, in a back area. But there it is! It’s very small, with only two girls working in there. But they turn out to be quite efficient and it all gets weighed, stamped and sealed, then off into the bag.

So my parcel is sent and my load a little lighter for my flight this afternoon.  I’m very relieved.

Our hotel must be located in some of the ugliest, most concreted, un-natural ‘dead’ location of tourist shopping hell. Ringed by freeway overpasses and tower blocks. There is no-where to walk except to the nearest shopping mall. Which is connected to yet another shopping mall. You can walk all day in glacial air-conditioned comfort on concrete and terrazzo, endlessly, without seeing the sun or breathing fresh air, or seeing greenery or anything that resembles the natural world, unless it’s a photograph, and then it’s of somewhere else.

Luckily, I have no interest in venturing into the dead heart of this dystopia. The ‘Sensoria’ and ‘Vivocity’ Disney-Like plastic and concrete escapist unreality. In fact, I was looking for something to buy as a memento of my visit to this place. Something quintessentially Singaporean, but I couldn’t find anything that would not insult my senses and degrade me later through its ownership. There is nothing here but concrete and plastic and most of that is from China. This is a totally artificial environment, built around misrepresentation and fakery with strict governmental control, keeping everyone and everything in order. It’s the antithesis of my DIY natural philosophy of independence and self-reliance.

Welcome to Singapore!

I suppose that the people who are living here and doing well, making a lot of money in their business’s are happy here. I don’t think that I would be. I’ve been spoilt with too much open space and relatively clean air, a big garden and orchards. I can’t see myself wanting to pay 2 or 3 million for a 100 Sq. m. Apartment on the 9th floor, with nothing to do but work or go shopping. Of course not everyone is happy with the strict authoritarian system here. There was a riot here earlier in the year in the Indian district. Apparently, it shocked the authorities. How could it be that everyone isn’t blissfully happy here? Well, the poor, low-paid labouring classes for instance. The ones doing all the work building the city, repairing it and keeping the city going in every small detail. They can’t afford to buy into the dream.

They aren’t buying apartments or going shopping in the malls It’s street food and rough dossing for them.

Welcome to Singapore!

The taxi driver told me that this is the most boring place in the world. There is nothing to do here other than work and shop. He would love to leave here and live somewhere else, but he can’t, he has no way out. he also told me that there are about 5.5 million people in Singapore and that the Government wants to increase the total number of citizens in the next decade by almost 2 million more. I ask why. It already seems to be over-crowded here. He tells me that the Government is concerned that the percentage of Malaysian muslims in the population is increasing rapidly. They are having lots of children. There is a concern that they will soon out-number the ethnic Chinese part of the population and take political control. This can’t be allowed. So there is a big campaign to import emigrants from mainland China, to boost the number of ethnically Chinese citizens. It doesn’t sound too sustainable to me, but I have no say in the matter and it’s none of my business either. I can see the next step being the Fijian solution?

Welcome to Singapore!

A couple of young potters have asked me if it is possible to come to Australia. Once they are over 30, all I could tell them was that it is only possible to come as a tourist or student for short-term. There is no migration, unless you can get 100 points by being a preferred occupation, like doctor, lawyer, nurse etc. Potters don’t make the cut. Or, of course, the other option is that you emigrate with 100 points by being a millionaire!

Welcome to Australia!

Finally, yesterday, I found a lovely little piece of pottery in Little India. A small pouring bowl of 7cm. dia. Unglazed, low fired and slightly flashed porous clay. Probably fired to 800 oC by the feel of it. Thrown off the hump and cut off with a twisted thread leaving a nice shell pattern on the foot and un-turned.  Very understated, basic and honest. But of course, it’s not from here. It’s made in India!  The shop keeper asked me for 50 cents. I’m a tourist, I knew I was being ripped off blind, but I am comfortably well off in my own chosen frugal life, so I gave him a dollar. I think I have the better part of the bargain.

I get to fly out of here tonight.

I posted it home in the parcel by sea mail. The lady at the Post Office said that it will probably take a month. It ends up taking 6 weeks.

I brought a bit of spending money with me, but haven’t found anything to spend it on, so will convert it into Yen for Japan. There is nothing here that I want, so my money has remained in my pocket. My biggest expense each day is the $1.30 per trip on the metro into various parts of the city and back. The Metro has interesting carriages that are all totally open all the way along. It is the first time that I’ve been on a train like this. It’s a very good, clean, fast, cheap and efficient system. I like it.


Oh! Yes, we did go to Raffles one evening and have a Singapore Sling. We bowl up at the front door to be met by the biggest, boldest Seek Indian Gentlemen, replete with turban and loads of bling. He speaks with such a deep, rich Anglo/Indian Raj sort of accent. I’m quite impressed. He informs us politely and with a big smile that we are in the wrong place. This is the entrance to the Hotel. We need to go back out this entrance and around the back to the public entrance, where we can find our way to the Long Bar. We find our way and order our Singapore Slings for $33. It wasn’t worth it. What a rip off! Don’t waste your money, if you are given the chance! Go somewhere else and get a G&T at a more reasonable price. We left and went to Little India for dinner where it is hot, hectic, crowded, cheap and delicious. Later, we all went up the tallest building here and had a beer at the top in the bar for $20. Not my idea, but I went along for the ride. It also wasn’t really worth it either, but you get conned into doing these things at conferences.

I wouldn’t be bothered doing it again.

The most comfortable place here is the Botanical Gardens. We spent a day ‘off’ there. That was a nice bit of open space and greenery. I think that it might be the only bit of open space greenery in Singapore?

Best wishes from

the singular hot and sticky potter in this tropical heat!