Izumiyama and the Shira Jiki

I’m working in a workshop in Arita, in Kyushu. I’m trying to learn something about working with single stone porcelain. The potters of Arita in Japan have been making porcelain ‘jiki’ pots out of this single crushed stone from the izumiyama mountain quarry for four hundred years and they have developed a technique or two in that time. I’m keen to learn just a fraction of that knowledge in the very brief 5 weeks that I have here.

Arita is famous for being the first place in Japan where porcelain stone was discovered and white porcelain was subsequently made here. This place has a very long history. The first porcelain being made here in 1616. Since then the industry has had it’s highs and lows. We are currently in a low. Just like everywhere else in the world, the industry here is facing steep competition from China. Only a couple of decades ago, there were 300 studios here in this little town. Now there are only 100 and falling steadily. No country or industry can compete with the low cost-base of China. The best hope that they have is to engage with people like me, cultural tourists. I’m prepared to pay for the experience of working here in this amazing place, with this unique material that they have here. Merging traditional porcelain manufacture with paid workshop access for artists could be the difference between financial survival in the future. This town needs more accommodation and restaurants, if it is to encourage more longer-stay cultural tourism. Something more than the usual casual day-visit for shopping.

I don’t think that they really understand how rare and amazing this stuff really is on a global scale. So don’t fully understand its true value and what they have to offer. It’s just so normal for them here, after so many centuries. They don’t realise the special nature of what they have. It’s bred by familiarity! As all the workshops seem to be struggling financially, People like me could be the cash cows of the future, or at least part of the fiscal solution.

In the early 1600’s, the great Japanese Warlord Hideoshi invaded Korean. He captured potters and repatriated them to Japan. Rendition! It sounds familiar? A potter, named Ri Sampei, he was actually a part time potter and part time vegetable grower (farmer). Sounds familiar. He was captured and brought to this place. He soon discovered the special porcelain stone in the mountain of Izumiyama just outside of the village of Arita. He recognised it for what it was and began to make the first white porcelain in Japan, called Shira Jiki. The rest is history.

First day, I start with a clean wheel and pot boards, + a few lumps of porcelain clay.


So I’ve come to this place to experience the special southern Japanese porcelain techniques that have been developed here. This stuff is amazing, sufficiently plastic to throw well enough, so that you don’t really think that you are throwing with a ground up piece of stone. It is quite strong and stands up well on the wheel. Not vigorous, but sufficiently robust to make reasonable forms easily. For me anyway.

It is miles away from what I’m used to. The hard rock that I grind up at Home is a solid, non-plastic affair. I know from my reading that this stone here, is highly weathered. In a form known to geologists as ‘hydrothermal weathering’, where hot steam has passed through fissures in the parent rock, reducing what was formerly hard granite, to a soft crumbly type of soft white mica called Sericite. Sericite is both slightly plastic, throwable and highly fluxed at the same time. Plus, it is very low in iron oxide. A very unusual combination of characteristics. Only a few places in the world have materials like this at hand.

I find that the clay is used so soft here in this workshop, that I can’t separate my pots from the wheel-head using a conventional cutting string and lifting technique that I’m used to. I find that I have to use so much force to allow air in under the pot to lift it, that it distorts the bowl. I take a moment to make myself an extra thick, double twisted, multi-stranded, cutting string. The texture that it creates as it passes through the ultra-fine porcelain clay allows air to penetrate, so breaking the vacuum seal and allowing the pot to be easily removed from the wheel head.


I settle in for a few of weeks of intensive work. We work together, side by side.


I’m, in the workshop of Tsutsui Tatsuya. He is very experienced, having spent 40 years in this workshop. Purpose built, up on the hill overlooking Arita’s U-Tan district. I spend half a day throwing my pots and then spend a week turning them, and so it goes for the rest of my time here. I soon fill my shelves and then I’m looking for more storage space in the overhead racks, above the wheels.


The turning here is a different story to what I’m used to. It takes me back to my student days working for the Japanese Potter Shiga Shigeo. He was trained in the porcelain techniques of Kyoto and worked for the ‘Nation Treasure’ potter Tomimoto in Kyoto, another porcelain centre of excellence in Japan. Here they turn not just outside, but inside as well. I’m not used to that. I have tried in the past to get my form just about right on the wheel, so that there would be as little turning as possible. Here they all seem to use the ‘nobebere’ profile stick to throw the forms. Another thing that I’m not used to. But I’m here to learn and to experiment.


This work requires you to be both meticulous in detail and therefore precise in your hand-eye co-ordination, I’m not too sure if I’m up to it, but I give it my best, roughing out on the next day and turning down to form on the third, then the precise thinning and finishing when it is bone dry on the next, or any time after really. It doesn’t matter once it is fully dried out. I get to use my new tungsten-carbide-tipped turning tools for the job. I’ve colour-coded them. I need to get out more!

IMG_0471made by Steve in Arita

IMG_0449First pot finished, 89 to go.

A gecko comes to visit me while I’m turning.


Today Tatsuya made us a cup of matcha for afternoon tea break. It was amazing. He offered me his father’s Karatsu tea bowl and chose to use the bowl that I had recently given him as a gift, for himself. The tea looked really good in them. We both reached for our cameras at the same time. We laughed! So funny!. We were both thinking that we ought to record the special image of this very particular event on our cameras.



It’s a modern world, in this ancient place. So full of history, you can taste it!

The perfect juxtaposition of then and now.

fond regards from Old Steve in the New Arita, Japan

Yes Way! – A Walk Along the old Tombai Walls

I decide to take a walk up to the old Izumiyama Quarry and visit the Folklore Museum that is situated just by its entrance. The upper part of the Kami-Arita street isn’t that interesting as most of the galleries and shops peter out towards the top of the hill and I’ve walked that way plenty of times. So I decide to detour off the beaten track and take a walk along the little stream and stroll what was once the old main street through the town. It winds and meanders its narrow way between the workshops, gardens and backyards, as it follows the course of the stream and its natural contours. There are several detours and by-passes, little bridges that take the walkway along the opposite side of the stream for a while, for no apparent reason.



These criss-crossings of the stream had their reasons in the deep past, but today just seem strange and quaint in a world of hi-tech engineering and straight lines conceived on paper and then engineered into reality, regardless of the local contours and conditions on the ground.



I really like the lovely, ancient, quality of the neighbourhood.  A lot of this area still has the old brick walls laid with mud called ‘Tombai’ walls. Tombai is the local dialect word for firebrick as a lot of the walls along this old road have been built from recycled

firebricks recovered from demolished kilns over the centuries. Their mottled surfaces variably shiny glazed, blistered and pock-marked from their years of productive work in the ancient wood fired kilns.



This old main road was little more than a walking track for people with baskets and hand carts and was so windy and convoluted that it was eventually replaced with a new road, capable of carrying traffic in the modern world. The old road remained because it wasn’t just a thoroughfare, but a vital constituent of the local economy, because all along the little stream, there were situated huge, water powered, timber stamp mills, called ‘Karausu-ato’ These mills were used for crushing the local porcelain stone that was the life blood of the local economy. At it’s peak, there were over two hundred and seventy of these water driven pounding mills, creaking, groaning and thumping their way through the day and night. siphoning water from the stream slightly higher up and directing it along leats to the mills, then discharging it back into the main flow to be used again lower down. In this way, the local economy was directly linked to the weather and rain fall patterns. There are no longer any working water-powered stamp mills operating along this stream. They have all been replaced by electrically driven machines. There are two of these mills preserved in the locality as educational tourists attractions. However, water powered clay crusher mills just like these are still in use in the pottery village of Onda, in the north of Kyushu.

see <“A Mecca called Onda” – revisited, for the first time Posted on 12/11/2014>

Not only are there no longer any water-powered stamp mills still working in Arita, but potters don’t do their own milling or clay prep at all anymore. That all finished a long time ago, with the specialisation of labour and business efficiencies. Just as all the pots are no longer thrown on foot powered, wooden, kick wheels, so all the clay for the potters of Arita is now made in just two large mechanised factories and one very small, husband and wife, family business.

It looks like I’m the anachronism. One of the last guys standing who chooses to try and do everything for himself, from digging the stone, through crushing and grinding the minerals, then ageing the clay and then finally throwing the pots on an antiquated, wooden, foot powered, kick wheel. Then firing the pots in a wood fired kiln, that I built myself with my own hand made bricks and fired with wood that I cut and split myself.

When the people here ask me how I work and I tell them. They shake their heads in disbelief. One looked gob-smacked and  just said “No Way”!

I reply “Yes way”!


The Temple Bell

Every morning at dawn, the temple bell rings. It makes its first gong at 6.00am and then about every 35 seconds until ten past. The next strike comes just as the last one has died away. It is a very gentle way to be reminded that the day is about to begin.

Luckily for me, I live some distance from the temple. if I lived right next to the giant bell, I might have a very different opinion. I lay in bed and ponder just where this temple is. There a so many temples and shrines around here. Everywhere in fact. The streets and lanes are crowded with them. I have some idea of the direction of the sound. But sounds are funny things, so influenced by the surrounding buildings and the hill, that I’m not too sure if i’m hearing the sound directly or as it bounces off another building.

Today, I wake just as the dawn in breaking and the new pale light illuminates the shoji screens of my room. It’s 5.30 am. A while before the bell is due to ring this morning. I decide to go out into the street and listen more closely to determine where the sound is coming from.


I’m up, washed and dressed. If I move fast, I will be able to find to source of the bell. It’s not that important, but I’m inquisitive. My instinct is that it will be coming from the higher temple, above the train line, up on the hill. but my ears have been telling me each morning that it is emanating from the opposite direction. I’m never really sure when I hear the first gong, but once I’m awake they enter my consciousness and become real.

I start by heading to where I feel that it has been coming from in the past. I have 15 minutes to find it before the monk starts his morning task. I walk down the street, I pass a gap between two buildings, there is a little lane way. I can see straight away that it leads up to some temple buildings. I walk up the lane as quietly as possible. I don’t want to disturb the Monk in his daily rituals, he might be meditating?


When I get up there, there is no-one to be seen. The temple is beautifully kept. It has a raked gravel garden with some large stones. I still have several minutes before the first sound is due to ring. I take a moment to look around the garden and courtyard where the bell house is situated. We are quite well elevated here, above the buildings in the street. The sound would carry well from here. It’s not as hight as the other temple up on the hill, but high enough.


Only a minute to go and there is no sign of anyone around. Suddenly the sound of a bell sounds out. It isn’t this bell at all. I was completely fooled. I could have sworn that the sounds were coming from the direction of this temple. I head off down the lane and out into the street. It must be the hight temple then.

I head off in that direction, up the street, then up the side street towards the temple. Just then it strikes again. I’m completely wrong! What’s happening?  The sound is coming

from the other end of the street now, back where I just came from. I turn and hurry back with as much dignity as I can muster, as I rush down the street, back past my place and further down the hill towards the sound. I want to get there before the monk or priest finishes his work. I only have 10 minutes max. to find it. Of course, I could always try again tomorrow morning, but I’m up now and on the job.


The sound is definitely coming from here. I walk up the lane and there it is, right in front of me. As I approach, the bell strikes again. Actually, that is wrong. The bell sounds as the log that is suspended on 4 chains swings back and strikes the bell, producing that marvellous resounding gong sound. I can’t see the monk in  underneath the supporting structure, so I walk around the garden wall to


where I can see the bell house most clearly. There is no-one there!  As I watch, the log swings back and strikes the bell again. It is an automated system, run mechanically. I have to say that I’m just a bit shocked and disappointed, for some reason, I was sure that there would be a person here doing some sort of ritual daily devotion.

So now I know, or at least I think that I do, but what do we ever really know? There are two temples and two bells. The first strike seems to come from up on high, then all the subsequent rings are from the lower one.

I’m sufficiently satisfied with this explanation to go home and prepare my breakfast of unsweetened natural yoghurt and fruit. The day has begun. No time to dally. There are porcelain bowls to be turned using my new hi-tech, tungsten carbide tipped kanna turning tools. If I have no problem adopting this brand-new technology for my work to make my life easier, then why shouldn’t a monk do the same?


I’ve just finished working on my stretchy stick, ‘nobebera’, and now the mossies are driving me inside. It’s time for dinner and I have most of the makings of an okonomiyaki pancake on hand, but I’m going to make an  Oka version.


Okonomiyaki is an interesting compound word, that has come to mean ‘pancake’ in common parlance, but if you break it down, okonomi can mean ‘your choice’, and yaki can mean ‘cooked’. So it has come to mean that you can make a pancake out of what ever you want to put in it.

I like that kind of recipe. I don’t have all the things that usually go into an okonomiyaki, but it’s my choice, so I will use what I have. Plenty of vegetables, held together with a bit of egg.

Okonomiyaki, can also mean ‘a stupid thing, of, my, pottery’. This could be a term used to describe my meagre efforts on the potters wheel here in Arita, so I have an affinity.

It’s quick, it’s fresh and it’s reasonably healthy. What more can you ask? I don’t have some of the normal essentials here in my tiny kitchen. I haven’t bought any mayonnaise and I don’t have any Japanese ‘tonkatsu’, BBQ style sauce, or any nagaimo, long yam root, but as the name implies, it’s my choice so I have what I want.

What I really like about this is that, apart from being really tasty, it is a one pan meal, so just right for my tiny kitchen, and so little washing up!




This could be enough for 2 helpings, but I manage to eat it all. I even have some bonito flakes to put on top. I love the way that they quiver around in excitement at the thought of being eaten! They know that they are delicious.


from Steve in Arita

Te sukuri nobebera

The hand made stretchy stick!

Following on from my visit to the maker of Kanna turning tools and other wooden pottery tools. This afternoon, I have just found the time to make my commitment to my new hand-made stretchy stick. An implement used here for throwing the inside of open forms. This particular one is specifically made for throwing and opening up bowl forms, stretching them out, as it were. So why would I want one? 🙂


It was impressed upon me at the time of purchase that this tool is a partnership for life. A tool made of superior, old, well seasoned, azalea wood, that will last my whole lifetime if looked after, but it needs to be customised to my hand and my feel for the clay, then adjusted for my technique and the specific bowls that I am making. I will probably end up needing several of these tools in various subtlely different iterations. I may make some of my own once I have got used to this one, and if I find that it can be accommodated to my own preferences for throwing. I have plenty of fruit tree pruning wood at home, some in reasonably large enough cross-section to be useful for this application. I also have some very old, well seasoned, red grained, eucalyptus. That might be good to experiment with?


This afternoon I went to the hardware shop and had a sort of conversation, if you can call charades with funny noises a conversation? I don’t have sufficient vocabulary for this situation and they didn’t have much English, but together we managed to laugh our way through all the options until we arrived at the objective which was sand paper. If I were at home, I have all this stuff on tap in the workshop, but here every little job, becomes a much larger exercise in communication and perseverance, as well as good will and humour.
I ended up buying two sheets of sand paper. No. 60# and 240# mesh, to sand my new nobebera, This tool looks like a shoe-horn sort of shape.
I spent 2 hours working on it, so that it would fit my hand better, and now it’s looking and feeling pretty special and a lot more comfortable. Smooth as glass. This old seasoned azalea wood is really tough and hard to work. I wasn’t expecting it to take 2 hours, but it did, and it isn’t finished yet.
After I was reasonably happy with the fit and contour, I wet it and let it dry to rise the grain. Then sanded it all over again with the fine grade paper, to get it very smooth, so that the raised wood grain won’t leave streaky scratch lines inside the bowl during throwing.
I need to throw with it for a few hours to get a better feel for what else I need to do to get the best out of it. Once it was mostly right, or as right as I can imagine to begin with, all the roughness sanded off and the tip smoothed out, made silky smooth and with an even curve. I gave it a thin rub over with some olive oil to finish it off ready for some work. It looks and feels good. When you buy these tools from the maker, they are only roughly shaped and need a lot of finishing to bring them up to your personal preference for the precise shape and finish.
Tatsuya san took me to the maker’s workshop last week and chose what he thought was the best one for me. He also drew on it with a pencil, to indicate what he thought should be the correct finished shape.
It was $50 bucks and not even finished!
Tatsuya demonstrated using his when we were there at his place this time last year and he threw for us. He has had his for the 40 years that he has been a potter. His are nicely wabi,sabi now and well-worn in. The azalea wood is very hard to sand. I can tell that it will be a good, hard-working tool with a long life.
Thank you Tatsuya. I am grateful!
Best wishes from Steve in the very special porcelain town of Arita

The Closest Thing to Perfect

I’m at the wheel, turning my bowls in the workshop, when two Japanese lady visitors come in to see what is going on. They come over to watch and start to ask questions in local, rapid fire Japanese. I can’t make out a word of it. It’s all too fast for me. I respond that I’m a potter from Australia and just here for a short time to study Arita porcelain techniques. I apologise for the fact that I can’t speak Japanese. They can tell straight away from my appalling grammar and strange accent that I can’t speak Japanese, but I’m apparently doing it well enough for them to look quizzically at the workshop manager and ask. “If he says he can’t speak Japanese, how come he is telling us all this in Japanese”? He explains to me what they have just said and we all get a good laugh out of it.

Today I had some time, as my last batch of pots are not dry enough to turn as yet, because it has been raining almost every day this week. I use my spare time to go out to visit the Gen-emon kiln studio. This is the last and only workshop that still does everything by hand.


The pottery was founded in 1753 and has been producing exquisite multicoloured porcelain ever since. They have worked continuously on this site since 1868, and the earth floor looks the part. I believe that these floors are made from a pounded down mixture of local sandy/gravelly clay mixed with salt.


The forms are all thrown and turned by hand on the wheel. I spent an hour there watching the thrower and the turner completing one form each. Everything is measured and then measured again. Everything is made to the most exacting standards, precise measurements are consulted for each part of every piece. All aspects of production are measured and checked, then rechecked, at every stage. Once the pots are finished, they are placed in the drying room to wait for the bisquet firing.


The turners precious tungsten tipped Kanna turning tools.

After the bisque firing, all the glazing and decorating is also done painstakingly and laboriously by hand. The decorating is quite complex. The initial design is roughed out in pencil, then laid out on the surface in brief detail in charcoal. Then it is passed to the decorators for the heavy line work, then the lighter line work, finally it is passed to the infill specialist, to complete the design by filling all the otherwise white, blank space with a dilute cobalt wash, as required to fulfil the pattern, leaving specific parts of the design in micro-detail left blank and therefore still white. It is an amazing skill to see done. The huge, heavily loaded brush, is filled with dilute ‘gosu’ pigment of cobalt.


I count 11 people busy working in the decorating room while I’m there.

Gosu used to be a natural cobalt ore, consisting mainly of iron and manganese, with just a little bit of cobalt content. The cobalt being such a strong colourant, that it over powers all the other oxides in the ore and still turns out blue. A soft blue admittedly. This is so much more preferable to straight 100% pure, modern cobalt oxide, extracted chemically from its complex cohort of other minerals. The older natural ores were a very impure blend and because of this, they tended to be a rather softer and washed-out tone of blue. These days potters like this tend to mix their own dilute cobalt pigments to break down the intensity of the royal cobalt blue.

I have discovered cobalt bearing ores where I live, and they are only 1 to 1.5% cobalt with twice that amount of manganese and a load of iron. The remainder being silicates that make up the ore. They give a soft pale blue pigment. I can imagine that the original cobalt ‘Smalt’ or ‘Gosu’ pigments were very similar materials to this?

Here the fully loaded huge ‘fudo’ brush just keeps moving, never stopping, working its way around the surface of the pot, draining it’s precious contents of gosu into the design in a carefully controlled and steadily flowing movement of the brush. It’s just like magic, it is an amazing and very impressive skill, every drop goes exactly where it is intended. It never overlaps where it shouldn’t go. Years of practice have gone into this level of achievement. I’m beyond impressed, I’m gob-smacked. I’m amazed that it can be done, in what appears to be such an effortless way.

I want one!

The glaze firing is done in a huge, single-chambered, wood fired kiln. It was told that it takes 1000 bundles of wood, at $7.00 dollars each, to fire up this big kiln. I’ve double checked the details, and this is the correct figure, or what I’m told is the correct figure. I find it hard to believe that you can spend that much on fuel on one firing of a kiln. No wonder that the prices are so high.



However, when I get into the gallery/sales room. it’s another matter. These prices are not for me. They start in the thousands. I’m completely out of my league here. The work is so impressive and so complex and the closest thing that I can imagine to perfection by hand methods. I’m absolutely convinced that these pots are worth every cent of the price. It’s just right out of my budget, for me on this trip. I eventually find a tiny dish that I can afford, in single tone blue and white. It’s tiny and exquisite and I can afford it at $35!  I can’t see anything that I can afford in 4 colour, over glaze enamel and under glaze cobalt, with a final firing of gold detailing.



It’s all pretty impressive, and I’m so glad that someone is still doing it, and even more glad that that someone isn’t me! I really admire the skills, I just don’t what to be the person doing it. I’m even more impressed that they can get the high prices that they are getting. They need to, to be able to employ all these amazing craftsmen and women.

Good on them!


Unless I had seen it done with my own eyes. I wouldn’t, couldn’t believe that it were possible to paint the negative space out like this in straight lines, without using some sort of resist to keep the pattern so clean, perfect and regular.


Eat Your Heart In

It is very easy to get used to the food here. For a start, everything is delicious and it is usually so well presented. It looks as good as it tastes. It the past I have found a little difficulty in finding somewhere that will serve a salad, most light meals seem to involve rice, noodles or something deep-fried of some kind. However, on this trip I seem to have no problem finding straight salad on the menu. Is there some kind of change going on here now? Or am I slow to figure these things out?


My main way to obtain a salad has been to go to the 7/11 or Lawson and find a  bag of shrink-wrapped, pre-shreded, cabbage salad in the fridge section. Cost $1 for what I think is a single serve, but may be intended for a family of 4? I have no problem putting it all away easily enough. Another favourite is sashimi, and this is always readily available in the supermarket fridge, fresh packed daily, at about $3 for 4 or 5 slices, or a larger tray costs $6 for 10 to 12 slices. All nicely arranged on a tray with a couple shiso leaves and some grated daikon and carrot. A healthy and nutritious light meal for $4.


When I eat out, which isn’t often, I always choose the cheaper places. Even so, the food is always so beautifully presented. While the interactions with the people are always so friendly, engaging and ever so polite.


I feel so inadequate and clumsy here. I don’t know all the rules and feel like a baby elephant crashing through sensitive cultural barriers without noticing and then shitting on the floor. But what can you do? I’m learning on the job as it were!

There isn’t much that I can about it either, except apologise. I do a lot of that these days. I’m enjoying myself, even if my hosts are finding me somewhat trying.

My supermarket supplied dinner for tonight. As I’m a ‘chunga’ here at the moment (bachelor). This kind of dinner is easily obtained, cheap, nutritious, fresh, and healthy. It’s just right for me at the moment in my unsettled circumstances.


The only processed food here is the natural yoghurt.

Lots of vegetables with some fish, is thought to be a very healthy diet. The Japanese are some of the healthiest and longest lived people on the planet, particularly the women. So something is right! Is it genetics, or is it the diet? Only time will tell, as younger people are adopting a more western diet and lifestyle.

This is pretty close to what I would be eating at home. Except that at home, all the fruit and vegetables would be home-grown in our extensive vegetable garden and orchards.

Best wishes from Steve in Arita