“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)

blog; tonightmyfingerssmellofgarlic.com


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