Traveling South to Kyushu

We say a temporary good-bye to Kyoto with its cherry blossoms all finishing up. Mostly on the ground. Its raked gravel gardens and Maiko make-over girls. We’ll be back, we always seem t find an excuse to return here.

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We take the long train ride south to Kyushu. We leave Kyoto, and after a while the concrete high-rise scenery starts to diminish slightly and is replaced with low-rise. After a very long while we realise that the buildings are far less common and there is farm land starting to appear. It’s not that there isn’t any farmland near the bigger cities. There is a small, very small, plot of rice being farmed only 1 kilometre from Kyoto’s main central station. Amazing!

As we rumble on, we pass through farming districts and extensive fields of golden crops already for harvest with their heads golden of bearded barley ripening in the sun. I can’t imagine that harvest time for these crops is very far off.

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We also see farmers out in the flooded fields with their mini tractors and rotary hoes, working up the inundated mud, presumably preparing the silt for the coming planting of the rice crop. Ploughing now, if you can call this ploughing, is to kill off the weeds and any competition for the young rice seedlings that will be planted soon.

When I was last here 6 months ago, they were smack in the middle of rice harvest in the autumn. We arrive in the far south in Kyushu, not too far from Kumamoto, about an hour away. Everything here is OK, different strata or geological sequence? We only had a level 2 shake up here. So the kilns are still standing and all the pots are still on their shelves.

It’s all foggy, rainy and damp when we arrive and the hills are coated in a beautiful mist.

Our first visit here is to a place near Karatsu on the North West coast. We visit an old pottery studio that has existed in this little secluded valley for a couple of hundred years. The old lady tells us that her family have always been potters here since the arrival of the Korean potters 400 years ago. The war Lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi launched 2 failed invasions of Korea in 1592 and 98. Each time he captured and brought back prisoners of war. Some of whom were potters. One in particular found and developed the first porcelain pottery in Japan in 1616. Exactly four hundred years ago this week.

She is a sweet old thing and at 83, has seen a bit of life. Her son is now the resident potter here. She tells us that there were once 300 houses in this valley, most of them making pottery and farming rice and vegetables. Now there are only 5 houses here and only one potter.

They are in the middle of packing the kiln when we arrive. It’s a well-loved old nobori-gama wood fired, 3 chambered climbing kiln.

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They pack the pots on rice husks to stop them sticking to the kiln shelf during firing, as rice husk is composed mostly of silica, which is refractory. It also creates a shiny ‘flash’ of colour on the exposed clay at the foot of the pots.

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Later, we travel home to Arita via the ‘Hitakata’ ancient kiln site. This little valley once had a number of korean potter families working and farming here. But they are all gone now and only the archaeology remains. This site has been fenced off now to stop looters from stripping the site of old artefacts.

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It was one of the first Korean kilns built here way back in the late 1500’s. It is set in a beautiful forested glade with a small but fast flowing stream nearby. Quite idyllic! This kiln was built without the use of fire bricks. It was constructed out of rammed earth. The local soil here doesn’t look particularly refractory, so it probably had a short life and needed to be rebuilt often.

I can’t read the Japanese on the information board, but the illustration shows 9 steps or doorways into the tunnel-like chamber. My teacher back in 1973, the Japanese potter Shiga shigeo, to whom I was apprenticed,  trained near Kyoto after the war and his teacher,  Saburo Saito had a 3 chambered climbing kiln, all made from rammed local refractory clay and home-made bricks. I was told that the fire-box needed rebuilding after every firing and the first chamber arch was likewise re-built after every 2nd or 3rd firing. This was the traditional way back them and is still used by some potters even today, if they are keen on reproducing the old effects.

Janine and I made all of our own fire bricks to build our wood fired kiln. The current kiln has had twenty firings and is still going strong. However the time will come when it needs to be pulled down and rebuilt.

Such is the way of the world.

Nothing is ever finished, nothing is perfect, and nothing lasts!

Fond regards from Steve and Janine in the shaky isle of Kyushu.

The Harvest

I started here a month ago. Empty pot boards, clean wheel head, heaps of storage racks all waiting for pots. 100 kgs of clay waiting in its plastic packs. I’m here in a fertile frame of mind and ready to experience and learn. I’m here to harvest what I can from this fertile environment.

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Now after weeks of intensive work I’ve made about 115 kgs of premium Arita porcelain clay into about 100 pots. I’ve ruined 3 of them by accident and turned all the others into fine, thin, beautiful bowls. I’ve gone through them over and over as the turning, re-turning then finishing and polishing has progressed. I’ve narrowed them down to just a dozen nice ones to be fired and glazed.

It doesn’t seem like much for a months work, but I’m quite happy with what I’ve learnt. Ideas and experiences are mingling and germinating. It’s what I’m taking away in my head that counts. The work that I’ve done here is the best way of getting it in there. I haven’t come here to take pots home. I’ve come to learn some skills. I think that I’ve done that, and of course I didn’t spend every day at the wheel. I managed to get out to visit people and places of interest on a lot of days, and that was very good. It was great to get some insight into this place and the people that make it all happen.

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I’ve also eaten a lot of wonderfully flavoursome food. Most of it I cooked myself, in my little kitchen, often for me alone, but also for others who dropped by at times. I quite enjoy cooking , and Japanese food is a favourite influence on what I cook at home.

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I cook a bastardised version of Japanese food at home using the ingredients that I grow in my garden and what I can get hold of locally and substituting the closest things that I can find to make an approximation of what I have in mind. I’m not very good at it, but I enjoy doing it and everybody eats it politely and compliments me on what I cook for them. Japanese people are so polite!

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I don’t cook for myself every night. sometimes I get to go out. I’ve had a coupe of meals out. Sushi, sashimi, tempura, shiso and kelp salad, It’s all so lovely. But it costs money. So I get better value by staying in and cooking for myself. It’s no problem. I love cooking and very good sashimi and fresh vegetables are readily available in the local supermarket. You can’t beat it, fresh, delicious and cheap! What more could you want?

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I did manage to find some good salads finally. I took a while, but I got there eventually. Mostly I just bought the salad greens from the supermarket and made them myself, but occasionally , when I saw what looked like a good salad, I’d lash out. Hang the expense! A ten dollar treat every now and then didn’t break the bank.

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Mizumi salad, with tofu skin and roasted seaweed, Yum!

Not only is the salad delicious, but the plate is a joy to examine after I’ve eaten its contents. Beautifully warped, with a thick application of white slip, over a dark iron body, under the clear glaze. Beautiful.  Sugoi!

Before I finish up at Tatsuyas workshop. I decide to spend my last day making glaze tests. I have collected a few pieces of Izumiyama stone from the access ramp at the quarry site on a previous visit there last week. I crush it in Tatsuyas huge stone mortar. I ask him if he has a mortar and pestle. He nods and shows me a 100mm dia one that he has made himself for grinding pigments. He has several of them. But they are just too small and light for crushing rock. Then we go outside and there in the garden is the mother of all mortars. It’s huge. It has to be about 50 kgs and carved out of a solid block of volcanic rock. I’ve seen little versions of these in Asian markets in Sydney and other countries around the world. I have used them for my lectures/demos in Singapore and Taiwan recently. This has the be the biggest one that I have ever seen, let alone used.

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I set to work and make some tests out of the powdered stone with limestone and wood ash added in various proportions. I’m keen to see how it melts. It isn’t any use to me. I won’t be using the glazes, but I’m inquisitive to see how it melts from an intellectual point of view.

Finally its time to leave. My time is up. When I arrived here 5 weeks ago, the rice crop was green and lush, and starting to bolt upwards. Now it is all yellowing and has set its heads of golden grain. As I set out to leave on the train, I see that the first of the harvesters is starting their work.

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I say good bye to Tatsuya san and Miyuri san. My place here is going to be taken by another Australia, Keiko Matsui. She arrives and I leave. It’s an all Australian event here this month with a brief visit by Nicky Coady and her friend Erica during my time here.

This image by Keiko Matsui

This image by Keiko Matsui

I must say that I’m quite sad to be leaving but I have achieved everything that I set out to, and then some more on top of that which I just couldn’t have imagined before arriving here. Thanks to my friends, Tatsuya and Miyuri san.

I am very grateful.  Thank you!

A Day in Karatsu and the Old Ochawangama

I make the trip to Karatsu. It’s actually not that far from Arita, via Imari. The first time that I came here, Janine and I made the trip on the train. Two trains actually, changing lines and companies at Imari. I’ve written about Karatsu previously, so I don’t want to repeat my self here, so will just stick to new places and observations.

I want to re-visit the workshop and kiln of Nakazato Taroemon the 14th. But who’s counting? This family have been important potters in this town since 1516!  I wonder if the 14th generation Nakazato Taroemon has a first-born son? No pressure! Just wondering?

Interestingly, I’m told that Ri Sampei, came here to Karatsu first, before travelling on to Arita, where he discovered the now famous porcelain stone deposit at Izumiyama. Then again, I’ve also read that he didn’t really exist at all and is a convenient character to hang a whole lot of speculative psudo-history. Or, it may have been a whole raft of Korean potters who came and established the high fired pottery industry in this area in the late 1500’s?

We make our way to the Nakazato Family compound. There is a lovely old family Gallery here in one of the back streets. Personally I don’t care for much of the work on display here. It just doesn’t speak to me at all. What I am keen on seeing is the old family climbing chamber kiln. The ‘Ochawangama’. It is located up one of the nearby alleys and is one of the most beautiful old kiln ruins that I have seen. There is one in Shigaraki that almost rivals it, but this one has the wabi/sabi edge I feel.

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It’s a beautiful thing.

We peek into the private workshop window to see if there is anyone in there and sure enough, Taroemon the 14th is at work on Saturday the 19th. And the 14th is turning his 7th tea bowl of the morning.

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Later, we visit Mike Martino, on the outskirts of Karatsu He is a really lovely guy, very welcoming and so open to questions and very giving of information. He makes time for us, even though he is quite busy. We have tea from his wood fired cups and made in one of his traditional lidded bowl tea pots. The centre of his studio is dominated by a rather large old stone grain grinding wheel. It makes a rather nice, if somewhat unusual table. It manifests the character of both shibui and wabi. Mike uses both electric and gas kilns as well as a large wood fired kiln outside the pottery. He has a courtyard path, not unlike our own driveway, composed almost entirely of shards.

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We all find that we have to dispose of work that isn’t quite successful. Pots that aren’t either firsts or seconds, but something quite other. Work that we don’t want anyone else to see. Yes! That bad. Failures can become something quite beautiful collectively as shards. It has worked for us in our driveway.

It comes out in general conversation, that both Mike and Tatsuya lift weights for a hobby. It shows!

Best wishes from the so unfit Steve In Karatsu

Okawachiyama, The Secret Village of Twice-Kidnapped Potters

Today I go to visit the hidden village of Okawachiyama. I have already recounted in previous letters, about how the captured Korean potters started the porcelain industry here in Arita in the early 1600’s. The industry started off slowly, but then with the technical successes of high fired translucency. The shogun soon heard of it and wanted his share. It just so happened, that at about the same time in China, there was great upheaval and the export trade to Europe of fine Chinese porcelain came to a sudden grinding halt. The Dutch traders that had control of the industry at that time, desperately looked around for another source of porcelain to fill the growing demand for fine white porcelain in Europe. They soon discovered the Arita porcelain and with lucrative export contracts looming, the former cottage industry in Arita soon boomed and within a few years the production of porcelain was quickly ramped up to fill the European demand. Also about this time polychrome enamels were developed and widely introduced into the workshops in Arita. The net effect of this convergence of vectors, was that the technical quality and visual impact of the Arita polychrome product was quite stunning – and very profitable.

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Of course where there is rarity, demand, profitability and opportunity, someone will want to step in and take their share. That was and still is the ‘mafioso’ way. It was a much more brutal world back then. Hideyoshi simply kidnapped the Korean potters that started the porcelain revolution here in Arita, and likewise, the ruling war lords of the area, decided that they wanted their cut of the action. The Nabashima Clan were the local thugs who ran Kyushu for Hideyoshi. They simply marched into Arita one day and ‘stole’ the best 13 potters from their workshops, and took them closer to Imari port where their castle and stronghold area was. They simply installed these twice-kidnapped potters in a remote valley just out-of-town and locked them away in there with instructions to create the very best polychrome porcelain, that they could. Better than they had previously been making in Arita, on pain of death!

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This isolated valley, with incredibly steep mountains all around, was the perfect place to install these twice-kidnapped potters and keep them contained. It had a fast flowing stream to power the stamp mills to process to Izumiyama stone and they were soon producing very fine work. A Samurai guard-house was built lower down the valley to check the movements of everyone in and out of the secret valley, so that no-one could escape. This secret potters village in the hidden valley was called okawachiyama, and no-one knew about it at the time. Such was the importance and value of polychrome porcelain in those days.

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Guard houses and gates were built at each end of the valley in Arita to check the movement of not just product, but Ideas. Any one with any technical expertise was forbidden to leave. The secret had to be kept secure. No-one was even allowed to see the porcelain stone quarry, or know anything about the process. They kept their secret very closely guarded, as did the Nabashima clan in Imari. The twice imprisoned potters set to work in okawachiyama. No thought to their feelings of separation or their families back in Arita. You don’t get to be the ruling clan of thugs by being nice.

Threats, violence and coercion were the order of the day. Under such pressure, the renditioned potters, mostly Koreans, set to work and very soon developed an astoundingly good product that soon rivalled the Arita porcelain. And why not? Arita had lost its best 13 workshops and artisans and they were now in business under extreme duress to make a superb product. This product became known as Nabashima Ware, named after the ruling clan who owned the total production. This ware was not for export. It was destined solely for the tables of the ruling elite class of Japans warring factions. Much of it given to Hideyoshi, his Clan and their hangers-on, lackeys and sycophants as tithe or tribute.

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Most of the potters worked there until their death and there is a special Korean cemetery on the opposite side of the river, dedicated to these early potters.

They used the same climbing chambered kilns that were used in Arita. There is a beautiful walk up the hill to the site of two of these old kilns they had up to 14 chambers. This lovely mossy, green, damp walk is very pleasant to-day, as there is no sign of the misery and hardship that these Korean captives endured. The walk even passes through some of the footings of the old kiln chambers.

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Modern Okawachiyama climbing kiln. The descendants of those original potters still live and work in the valley today. We stand on a walkway paved with discarded porcelain setters called ‘hama’ locally.

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Not everyone involved could put up with this pressure and imprisonment. One potter was known to have escaped by climbing the cliffs and making an escape in the dead night, but he didn’t know the way over the mountain and was soon missed and recaptured. He was persistent though and made many more simple, low-key, night-time reconnaissance missions, preparing for his eventual successful escape.

When he was ready, he made his move and with detailed preparations in place he made a clean get-away. He made his way up to honshu and eventually to a pottery town on shakeku, called tobe, where he found employment as a porcelain potter and was able to introduce his advanced technical skills to the potters there. This new highly accomplished work made its way into the sophisticated market place of Kyoto, Hideyoshi’s capital, and was very much appreciated and soon became in demand.

It just so happened that a Samurai warrior from Imari travelled up to Kyoto on some official business of the clans and saw this new, advanced porcelain work and straight away realised that the only way that this work could have been made there, was if someone had leaked all the techniques and secrets. Only one person with that knowledge was missing, so he must be here. The Samurai made discrete enquiries as to the origins of this new work and followed the trail back to the workshop of the escapee. He was re-captured again! Three times unlucky.

Tragically for him, he was returned to Okawachiyama and publicly executed. His body left  by the main entrance gate into the ‘not-so-happy-valley’. A warning to all the others!

Later in time, because the secrets of porcelain manufacture had leaked out to the wider world. The potters of the Okawachiyama village were allowed to intermix with the other villages. They discovered a local stone called ‘tiger’ stone, because of its naturally occurring yellowish stripes. This stone produced a lovely blueish celadon and is still used for that purpose today by a couple of the local potters at the top of the steep road that leads to one of the ancient kiln sites at the top of the hill.

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Today, this pleasant little village is serene and peaceful. Surrounded by its steep mountains and cliffs that once emprisioned it. Now they serve to keep the outside world at bay. No unwanted, polluting, industrial development here.

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I love the romance of this isolated, self-reliant, little place today. However, I choose not to dwell on its gruesome past. I almost got here two years ago, on my last visit to Arita, but didn’t quite manage it. The good things are worth waiting for!

There are some very lovely hand painted polychrome pieces still being made here today. I love this little dish particularly and give it a second look, only $15 direct from the maker.

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Once smitten, twice buy.

Best wishes from Steve, in the secret village of okawachiyama

Reprise clay making, recapitulation and Coda

Today I go to visit another of the local porcelain stone clay makers. It is the 3rd of the 4 that I know off and the largest of the Amakusa stone processing factories in the area. So I’m re-visiting a lot of concepts that I am already familiar with, but it doesn’t hurt to reinforce what I think that I know and take a different perspective on it. This clay factory, I call it a factory, because that is just what it is, It’s huge, is owned by Mr. Coda. So it’s only fitting to reprise my clay making experience with a recapitulation with Coda!

The port in the distance , down river.

The port in the distance , down river.

Coda san’s factory is out of town, quite a long way out-of-town, almost to the coast. In fact the reason that it is located here, by this river, so close to the port, is for two reasons. The river provided all the energy to power the stone crushing and stamping mills in the early days. But the other important reason is that the Amakusa stone quarry is located on an island to the south of here and in the past, the only way to get the rock to the main island was by boat. These days there is a bridge and a ferry. But back in the day, it was all done by boat. So the larger boat would come to the port and the porcelain stone cargo was off-loaded to smaller craft and floated up here at high tide, so this location proved to be crucial.

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The remnants of the levy, leat and water slouches still remain in the river, although substantially rebuilt after some devastating floods that raised the river level to 3 metres above the roadway and half way up the walls of the factory buildings.

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As this is the largest of the processors, there is a very large holding area where the new shipments of porcelain stone are sorted and stock-piled on delivery. The factory receives about 100 tonnes of stone per month on a regular basis. This averages about one 10 tonne truck load every 3 days. They hold about 800 tonnes of stone in total, in stock here. This is because the deliveries of the stone are all varied. The deposit, as it is being mined, produces different variations of the stone at different times, so over the year, the material seems to come in differing grades at different times.

The quarry at Amakusa has horizontal strata of weathering, but the mining is done to some extent vertically down the face, for technical reasons to do with stability and safety in quarrying. The whitest and most desirable material is close to the bottom, so a lot of other iron-stained material has to be removed first. For these reasons, it has proved to be necessary to hold a lot of stock to make sure that there will always be sufficient of any one variety, or variation of the material to fill specific orders. I think I understood Coda san was telling me that the quarry also closes during the hottest months of the summer? Meaning that sufficient stock has to be held to get the factory through the lean times.

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During our tour, it evolves that this factory supplies clay to Malcolm Greenwood and Simon Reece in Australia. A friend has done all the paper work and organising of the complex, import regulation form filling. So far there have been 3 or 4 orders for 3 tonne lots in the past two years. So that is very interesting. I didn’t know that. I’ve come all this way to find out that my friends are customers here too.

For some special customers the whitest stones are still hand chipped to remove the iron staining from the fissure surfaces. This was once common, but these days it is hardly ever done due to the high cost of hand labour. Coda san gives me a demo, but reiterates that he is glad that this type of processing is in the past. They carry such a huge stock of stone to choose from, that these days they simply choose from the whitest material as it comes to them.

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The first thing that you notice as you approach the factory, is the music of the double quick-time rhythm of the stamp mills. These mills run 9 to 10 hrs per day, and there are several batteries of them. All still made of wood, not because they are old, but because the wooden structures have two essential benefits over steel. The first is that they don’t rust and drop iron particles into the stone powder as it is being worked. The other is that wood takes the percussive stresses of the intensive, pounding rhythms that fatigues metal structures.

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Once the stone is reduced to powder in the stamp mills, it is transferred to the wet processing area where it is blunged and levigated to remove the excess silica. This is done in a two stage process. Spring water is used in the factory, as they have a beautiful garden just behind the factory buildings and what appears to be a decorative pond, but is actually the water supply for the processing. Once all the fine silica is sedimented out of the slip, it passes through two sets of electromagnets to remove any stray bit of magnetic iron, such as pieces that have worn off the machinery during processing. Magnets can only remove metallic iron particles. The yellow iron staining that is naturally present in the stone, as it comes from the quarry is in the form of iron oxide and hydrated iron oxide. These minerals cannot be removed by magnets. The slip is then transferred to the filter press area to be de-watered and finally vacuum pugged and bagged ready for delivery.

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There are 4 separate production lines for the basic yellow iron-stained, medium creamy-white and special high quality white products, plus yellow-stained clay for slip casting that doesn’t have to be so fine and plastic. It’s quite an extensive operation and very well organised. Very modern and very efficient for such an ancient process. Very impressive indeed.

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After this very musical, further development and recapitulation of the clay making theme. I pick up my stave and walk to the bars before 4 time!

I’m very impressed with the modernity and efficiency of this slick operation, but there is a part of me that identifies with the romantic idyl of the small rural clay making business of the humble Fuchino family. Having tried clay from all three of the clay makers that I have written about. I rather prefer the idea of rustic, hand-made clay of the Fuchinos.

When I grow up, I want to be like the Fuchinos.

Best wishes from Steve in Arita

Four Generations of Porcelain Stone Clay Makers

Today I am going out to visit the very smallest of small-scale porcelain stone clay making workshops. This family have been crushing and grinding the local porcelain stone here for four generations. The building is located so far out of town and in such an isolated place, that even my friend and driver, who is a local, has difficulty finding his way there. So many little winding roads and intersection.

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Eventually we arrive. Another liminal site, perched just above the edge of the rice paddies, on the edge of the farm track and just below the tea plantations higher up the hill. The family building is absolutely original and built by the great-grandfather here over 100 years ago. It’s a beautiful old wooden structure. Even the supporting frame-work for the stamp mills is completely original and made of wood. The machinery looks pretty original too, especially the stamp mills. The only real concession to modernity here now are the filter presses and the vacuum pug mills.

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The family, Mother, father and son still do all of the initial work of sorting and selecting by hand. It is the only way to get the very best quality result. And the result is exceptional. No one else does this to every piece of stone that enters the workshop. One other factory, The Coda Factory, can put through small special batches of hand cleaned superior white stone body, but it is very expensive and only occasionally done these days. The other factories, like Tajima san’s, appear to just take the stone as it comes, wash it and run it all through the jaw crusher. (see, “More, not less, from Japan Posted on 16/11/2014)

On the other hand, this small ‘Fuchino’ family run business puts in a lot of effort to hand sort and classify all the minerals as they are all dumped in a 14 tonne pile straight from the tip truck that delivers the stone from the quarry.

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First all the stones are sorted and classified into one of 3 groups. The native Amakusa stone is quite varied in its mineralogy with bands of various minerals throughout the deposit. The quarry doesn’t really discriminate that much. A truck load of this mixture can be processed all together as one composite material, as happens at the ‘Tajimi’ and other two clay makers. Here they spend an enormous amount of time sorting and classifying the mixed load into its components. There is felspar, silica and mica. The silica is deeply inter mixed with the felspar and looks for all intents and purposes, the same as the white sericite mica. However, there is a subtle difference in colour and weight. Added to this there is a very slight difference in hardness. Going on these minor differences alone and using 40 years of experience. The miller can tell the difference instantly and throws each of the stones onto a different pile as it passes through his hands.

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To complicate matters, there are veins of iron, that have been leached from the parent material over the millions of years and found itsself concentrated in the cracks that permeate the mass of rock. The iron is slowly leached from the degrading stone as it weathers and concentrates there in the cracks and fissures in wet periods and then dries out and becomes insoluble. This concentrate of iron in the cracks, builds up over the millennia and makes for a red, orange, brown, blackish surface coating around each lump of rock.

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To get the best result. The miller sits and patiently chips away the iron coating on each stone, to reveal the white mineral content inside. Hour by hour, day by day. The miller and his wife and son chip and scrape their way through the entire 14 tonnes of hard rock, until it is all sorted and cleaned. It takes them one month to process the 14 tonnes of stone. The result of this gargantuan effort of exacting perfection is three piles of stones which are processed separately.

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First they are put through the stamp mills and reduced to a fine powder. It is then sieved and sorted again before blunging and sent to the levigation tanks, where the heavier, coarser silica particles are sedimented out and the finer clay and sericite mica fraction is floated off. This slurry is then concentrated and stiffened using a filter press, the only concession to modernity introduced since the great-grandfather built the operation over a hundred years ago. The stiffened filter cakes are then vacuum pugged and bagged ready for delivery.

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The number one product is a very fine white sericite and kaolin based body perfect for the creation of the wheel thrown items. It fires pure white and translucent with perfect glaze fit. This is obviously the most expensive grade and is in very limited supply. The second grade material is creamy white, with a slight iron contamination, but only very slight. It fires white and translucent with perfect glaze fit. Number 2 body is plastic and throwable, just like number 1 body, just not as pure white. The third grade is somewhat yellowish and is made up of all the chipped, hammered, and scraped off iron fragments from the surface of the coloured stones. This is the cheapest grade and the least white, firing a bit grey, with reduced translucency and low plasticity, but with excellent glaze fit.

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During my life as a potter, I’ve spent years, cleaning and sorting my collected native porcelain stones. I never really mentioned this to anybody lest they thought that I was mad. Now I know that I’m not. There are at least three other people in the world who are as committed to excellence as I am. The difference is that this family are well paid to produce this special clay for the most famous pottery families in Japan, and can boast that they supply clay to at least three ‘National Treasure’ category potters. These famous, Nationally awarded potters couldn’t have gained their unique status without the sustained diligence and commitment to excellence of this family.

It is an amazing experience to be able to be with these people, if only briefly. To see this old Wabi/sabi building. To learn of it’s long history. To speak with this couple. It’s all a bit amazing. They are so special and yet so ordinary and humble and uncomplicated. Just dedicated to their exacting work and very proud of their achievement. There is no other place like it in all of Japan, that I am aware of, and as this kind of work is pretty special to Japan. It might be safe to say the entire world. The effort that they have put in is rewarded with the status that they have achieved.

Myself, Tatsuya and Fuchino san

Myself, Tatsuya and Fuchino san

I’m thrilled to get to meet someone a little bit like me and to be able to throw my pots out of this unique material. Needless to say there is a months long waiting list for this couple’s product. There should be a National Treasure Award just for clay makers like these, who work at a very unsexy job, but who have elevated it to stratospheric levels of excellence.

I still find it hard to believe that it is possible to do what I have just seen with my very own eyes. I just didn’t really think that people still worked like this in a modern world. Taking so much time to be the best in the world, while not caring that anybody, other than their customers even know what they do. While we are there we buy 5 bags of this amazing stuff, but only the No.2 creamy white body today. There isn’t a skerrick of No.1 to be had for months yet. It appears to be all sold on advance order to the 3 National Treasure potters. I guess that this is one way of cementing your advantage over your other porcelaineous competitors?

I consider my self so lucky to be associated with Tatsuya san, and therefore able to use both the creamy white and hand selected, ultra-pure white varieties of this family’s clay while I am here. Tatsuya san has had a 40 year relationship with this clay making family and I am lucky to be able to tag along and reap that benefit.

I am grateful.

Best wishes from Steve on the outskirts of Arita

The White River Box Maker

I’m here in Arita and the layout of the little town follows the meanderings of the river and its feeder streams. This is a modern Japanese town, perhaps city? That has developed over its ancient foundation of porcelain footings. The little river that has prescribed the subsequent development has a few stories attached to it. I was told that the first Korean potter to come to this area, as a prisoner of war, called Ri Sam Pei, noted the absence of fish in the smaller upper river and that this was one of the signs of being in the vicinity of a porcelain stone area that he recognised from back at home in Korea. The water of this stream or upper river drains down from the rotten granite mountain of Izumiyama.

This water, as it drains through the fissures in the granite, leaches out both soluble potash alkali from the decomposing felspars in the granite, but also a tiny amount of kaolinized clay particles from that breakdown process. The mountain was once a molten granite pluton that was pushed up during a very ancient volcanic event, leaving the molten rock to cool slowly just below the surface. Once cooled and slightly eroded by surface weathering the exposed granite would normally take millions of years to degrade by normal surface weathering through the action of wind, rain and winter frosts and snow. What makes this place so unique is that something else happened here.

In just a few places in the world an event called hydrothermal-weathering take place. This involves the passage of superheated steam at hundreds of degrees centigrade rising upwards through the earths crust and passing out through cracks in the rocks of the mantle. In this particular case, it passed up through cracks in the granite mountain. The superheated steam strips out the soluble alkalis from the parent rock.  In this case, the felspars in the granite, reducing it to pure white kaolin clay and altering the micas present in the granite, stripping them of their iron oxide and creating a unique form of white ‘plastic’ mica called ‘sericite’. This special combination of pure white plastic kaolin and pure white plastic mica, is a very rare find indeed and makes the perfect combination of minerals to create white, translucent porcelain.

The small amount of this pure white material that then slowly leached out of the rotten granite and into the stream killed the fish and turned the water a milky white. So the river became known as the ‘white river’, or ‘Shira-kawa’.

I don’t know how complete, accurate or even true these details about fish and sericite  are? This is just what I was told.

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I walk or bike along the Shirakawa river every day, just like all the locals who now drive along it here. The river doesn’t run white any more. Perhaps because the quarry is all but mined out now. Perhaps because of stringent, anti-pollution laws? I don’t know. There are ducks making living on the stream these days. I can’t say that I have seen any fish in the river.

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However, I can see that there is a pretty good deposit of porcelain shards in the river bed now. At each bridge that I come to, there are shards to be seen in the shallows below. It would be interesting to walk the river bed and do a sampling of the various dates of those shards, at some dry period in the seasons. I’m sure that it must have already been done. There’s a PhD or MA Hons in there for sure, just waiting to be retrieved and analysed!

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Today we are travelling along the stream on our way to visit the box maker. He lives a little out of town. On a beautiful little winding road, up through the forest. It’s all covered in moss and is deep in shade from all the tall trees on each side and the abundant humidity. There are springs trickling out of the rocks on the roadside. I call this part of the road the ‘shibui-dori’. It’s caught on with Miyuri and Tatsuya. It made them laugh. Now they are both calling it ‘shibui-dori’.

Working from home on the liminal edge, where the rice paddies stop and the forest begins. The box-maker has a small, humble house and next to it, large, industrial work shed, where he has all the machinery to make the boxes. The timber planks go in one end and the milled boards are planed and thicknessed, then edge glued to make large sheets, which are subsequently sawn back down to smaller sizes for the individual boxes required dimensions. The four sides fitted and glued together, then squared up and the bottoms installed, then the lids made. It’s all very exacting and precise work. Just like making the Arita style porcelain that goes inside them.

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Although the shed is a bit ordinary looking from the outside. Everything inside is modern, and up-to-date, hand-fed, but electrically driven woodworking machinery. Its a pleasure to see the modern workings of someone’s workshop, involved in such modern, yet ancient craft skill. The boxes are just the same as they once were, but now, most of the processes are mechanised to reduce the labour cost. It’s an honour and a privilege to be allowed in here to see and watch the process first-hand. Hand made boxes like these are a bit expensive. You need to know that you will be able to sell quite a few of the pots packed in them, before engaging in ordering a full set for the all the work in a show. There is no way out. It is expected that a decent pot will come in a decent box here. It’s all part of the social contract.

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In Australia, unlike Japan. Pots generally sell so cheaply, even in exhibitions these days in Oz, that it just isn’t possible to fund a good, hand-made box, from exotic timbers for each pot. But even here the pressure is on and the box maker now has to compete against cheap Chinese imported boxes. These of course are not custom-made for each pot, but imported in container loads of the most common sizes, for fast-moving items. What can he do. His only option is to aim higher for the high-end art market and hope that he can keep finding enough work to keep himself employed until he retires.

Globalisation is everywhere, affecting everyone. Even the box-maker.

The Soba Noodle Potter

I decide that today is my only chance to go and visit Mr Norito, or Noritou, or Noritow. I’ve seen it written in different ways. In Romanji it’s written as Norito, His web site is ,  but on his card, the hiragana ends in a ‘u’. So I think that Noritou is the best approximation that I can make.

I first met Noritou san when I was taken to his workshop for a brief  mid-week visit. He is in his late 80’s I think, although he doesn’t look it. He’d pass for 60’s any time, but I’m told that he was selected as a very young kamikaze pilot at the end of the war. Not unlike my former teacher Shiga Shigeo, they only survived, because the military ran out of planes.

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Noritou san is a very gentle character. I can tell from his manner and tone of voice.

He is also a very interesting potter. He is the only person that I have been introduced to so far that makes his own single stone porcelain body for his pots here in Arita. Regrettably I can’t speak Japanese well enough to understand any of the technical information that he is offering directly from him. However, I have Miyuri san with me on my first visit and she is a very competent translator. It was she who brought me here and told me that I really ought to meet this guy. “He’s a bit like you. he makes his own clay from stone”. So of course I had to come. He has no machinery, it’s all very hands on and time-consuming, as all clay making is, but he selects the softest, kaolin/sericite material that he can still find – I didn’t ask where, directly, but I got the impression from Miyuri san that it is from the old Izumiyama quarry. Even though it is now a preserved Historical site, apparently, there is a group of potters who want to preserve the old traditional ways, and Noritou san is one of them. They appear to have privileged access to collect small quantities of porcelain stone from the site. The archaeologist at the Historical Museum on site, maintains that there is still plenty of material in the quarry. This fits with my understanding of the nature of hydro-thermal weathering. it creates an inverted cone shape of ore body. So it should go down a long way, like an inverted image of the mountain that was formally there, now all mined away

Noritou san simply slakes his collected material in water and ashes for a year. Yes, that’s right ashes! He is telling me through Miyuri san that the ash-water, lye perhaps? is necessary to break down the clayey particles and remove the iron staining from the various contaminants? It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me  – but!

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That is what I was told, or what I think that I heard, but there could be some loss in translation, Ne! He shows me his slaking tubs. I dip my hand into the water. It is certainly slippery, just like lye. This is exactly the opposite of my understanding of clay making. I know from my own experiments, that when I grind the porcelain stone down to powder, it breaks some the chemical bonds of the alkali in the felspars, releasing some soluble alkali. This makes the resulting clay rather ‘floppy’ to use. Sort of thixotropic in nature, becoming softer and more fluid as it is worked, making it difficult to hold its form on the potters wheel. The counter to this is to add some acidic material into the mix to counter the release of alkalis and neutralise them. I choose to use the roof water from my water tank connected to the pottery roof, which has loads of eucalyptus leaves in the gutters, and makes the water naturally acidic. I also add vinegar. As I understand it, clay develops its plasticity better under slightly acid conditions as it ages. The low pH encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria that increases the workability of the mix. Maybe Noritou san knows this too, but is talking about something else entirely. And all this through an interpreter. Imagine what is happening now that I’m here alone this time?

Actually, I don’t always need a lot of words. I’ve spent close to 50 years as a potter, so I have a fair understanding of what is happening in the pottery just through observation. It’s mostly all I need. My limited Japanese is only just greetings and platitudes, in-depth, technical discussion is beyond me, but I manage.

The other very interesting thing about Noritou san, is that he does many things, just like me. We don’t just share a love of fossicking and clay making. He also teaches pottery to visitors on one or two days during the week to bolster his income, because you can imagine, his income from making ceramics by his chosen, slow, hands-on method is very low. That part of the conversation we both agree on! So, a little bit of teaching from home, just like me. The really interesting bit is that he opens his home on Friday, Saturday and Sunday for lunch and early dinner, something like 11am to 7 pm. He operates a hand-made soba noodle shop and is very famous locally. I’m warned to go early as he is usually booked out, so I do. Naughtily, I arrive 15 mins before he is due to open. I’m first in.

He and his wife make all the buckwheat noodles themselves by hand in the old-fashioned traditional manner, allowing them to sit over-night before cooking them, in the time-honoured way. This ageing maximises the buckwheat flavour. I can’t wait to get back there again. It’s Sunday today, so you can guess where I’m going. It’s my last chance, as I’m leaving next Sunday and am booked with other things planned on the other two days.

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The meal comes in 3 servings, an amuse of tea and room temperature, crisp, fried buckwheat noodles, with just a hint of salt. Then the main course of cold, handmade noodles with an adjunct of warm soup to follow. There are some condiments of grated daikon radish, finely chopped green onions and wasabi, with a small separate dish of pink salt. Finally, there is a desert of sweetened buckwheat paste. It’s all terribly yummy. All this for Y800. That’s less than $10.

We exchange gifts, I have brought him a jar of Australian honey and he gives me one of his pots.

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His advertising says that you can eat your handmade soba noodle lunch from his hand-made porcelain-stone, soba cup/bowl and them buy the cup. I do just that. It’s a warm autumn day and just right for cold soba.

from Steve in Arita, enjoying the food, porcelain-stone cold soba

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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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!

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IMG_0449First pot finished, 89 to go.

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

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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.

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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

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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

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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?