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!

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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?

Stalking the wild Kanna

I came to Japan with a few projects in mind and as my stay here develops some of my plans have fallen into place, while it has become apparent that others will not be achievable on this trip. But there will always be the possibility of another time?

One of the little side projects that I had in mind was to buy some ‘kanna’. Kanna is the Japanese word for sharp edged tool, so it can be applied to razors, knives, wood working planes as well as potters turning tools. In particular, I’m here to find the source of the very special and quite rare, tungsten carbide tipped turning tools that the porcelain potters here use.

I have tracked down and visited 4 potters supply shops now, I find something of interest in each one. Today I followed a lead up into the hills to find a small workshop where I’m told that there is a man who actually makes the tools from scratch. I’ve been lucky enough to meet someone, who knows someone who can take me there

My guides took me to visit this special tool maker in his workshop right up in the hills, into the next provence. In a small shed in the bush, down a little lane, in a gully, under the huge concrete pylons of the freeway, that passes straight over the valley. Finally I have found the unremarkable workshop of the humble tungsten carbide turning tool maker. It’s a small unprepossessing shed. You wouldn’t look at it twice, and it’s ever so small to boot. No signage, no identification. You just have to know!
We go in and straight away I can see that this is a real metal workers workshop. It has the taste and flavour of metal all about it. The types of machines, the black metal dust on the floor. The smell of burnt resin binder on the carbide cutting disks. It all seems, looks and smells  so familiar. Parts of it could be my metal working shed. So I finally get to track the shy and elusive, wild Kanna to its source. So this is it’s natural and unspoilt habitat. Don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. Something corporate, larger and more commercial/industrial. It all seems so humble and small scale and it is!
This is Japanese artisanal work. The sort of thing that is slowly dying out here. At least it has lasted this long. I am a very lucky man to get here now. In this place and this time. I am grateful. This lovely man is quietly spoken and very humble, as far as I can tell with no language to communicate with at a deep level. But you can sense a person’s character from their demeanour, even without words. I only have greetings and platitudes. I’m so glad that I have my friends and guides here to translate for me. Because I want to know more about the process and how he works.
Apparently this workshop is only open in the mornings. After that he has other things to do?? Maybe a second job? or out on the road selling his wares, because not too many people will find him here in the this unmarked shed on an unsign-posted lane, out of the way from a small town. Although people in the know do find him here. While we are there a young girl drove up with two tools she bought a while ago. She wants them re-sharpened.
I looked through his boxes of stock and find two tools that will be of use to me. it’s a bit difficult for me, because firstly, I’m left handed and secondly I work in the reverse rotation to the Japanese style. So not all tools will be suitable for me. I can commission some to be custom-made, but this won’t be necessary. I can find everything that I need in symmetrically shaped Kanna. I buy two of his tools from him. That just about completes my set.
Then to my surprise, I’m told that he also makes wooden tools as well. A real renaissance man! So I can’t resist buying a hand carved ‘nobebera’, or ‘nijiki’ throwing profile from him as well. He has boxes of these in stock too. Different shapes for different pots. Funnily enough I want one for throwing small bowls! I don’t know which one to choose from his stock, as I am so inexperienced and naive the these matters, so I buy the one recommended by my friend. I get a quick lesson along the way about what to look for in an ideal nobebera.
I had no idea that this guy we were going visit was a complete all-rounder.  He also makes these special wooden throwing tools himself. It’s a very long process, 12 months in the making. Sometimes longer, it all depends on the cross-section of the wood, that has to be seasoned properly. Some of the thicker sections need  to be seasoned for up to three years in water, before starting the process. He uses ancient, thick cross-section, Azalea wood, called ‘nijiki’ here. 125mm in dia. that is up to 50 years old. He roughs out the shape and then soaks the wooden proto-form in water for several months, then slowly dries it for another few more, before shaping it to almost-right. It has to be cut from the branch in such a way that the eye of the grain is centrally located in the tip of the curve. He then lets it warp as it dries completely. As it finishes its drying and settles into shape it needs a bit more re-shaping. Finally, a few months later, when it has stabilised, comes his final shaping and it’s now ready to sell. 12 to 24 months to the day after it was cut.
My friend is at pains to point out that this is only the beginning of my mutual contract with the maker and this tool. It will warp to suit my methods and the humidity in Australia, when I get it home, so don’t expect that this is it. You have to use it and then re-shape it a little yourself, to get it just right for your purpose. It will probably need a little thinning out as well when you get tit home, to get it just thin enough to be flexible, but not so thin that it breaks under pressure. It is starting to sound like the making of a good cello, all the intricacies of the living wood and how it is never really stable, constantly responding to its circumstances and environment.
I buy the one that my friend has selected for me out of a box of about 50. He knows what to look for, He has some of these tools that are 40 years old in use in his studio.
Its a beautiful thing. I am proud to own it, and consider myself especially fortunate, to have met the maker in his native environment and seen where it is made. In-situ as it were.  It is such a privilege!

Best wishes from Steve at home in the natural habitat of the hand made Kanna and nobebera.

Taking Time to Take Tea

I have an interest in tea, only minor in the scheme of things, but it’s been consistent in my life. I love the old tea houses, especially when the thatch gets that mossy look of age, that special wabi, sabi  look. There are some especially intuitive, gifted and sensitive people out there to be sure. I’m not one of them, but in my better moments, I can see and appreciate the profoundly beautiful things that they have left behind for me to experience. It’s a joy that highlights my day.


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One one of my walks I come across a temple where you can take tea. So I do. I take the time. I sit and I ponder. It isn’t in my vague plan for today, but it is very much welcome and appreciated. This is time unplanned and well spent. The caffeine really enlivens my step afterwards too.


I did my washing today. What more could you want?

Much ado about Nothing

I’m finding on this visit to Kyoto that so many of the temples are being re-constructed, but not in a Post Modern way. Rather it’s in a Post Ancient, or using ancient posts kind of way. Most of the work seems to involve renewing the roofs. I was here more or less this time last year and we were able to walk through some of the Higashi-Honganji temple, even though the tradesmen were in doing the work. It was amazing to see them build such a big scaffolding structure over the end of the temple, all set up on tracks, so that as the work progresses, they can winch the covering building along over the next bit, until it’s finished. It will apparently take some years to complete.

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The Largest-Cast-Bronze-Buddha-in-the-world-Temple, Todai-Ji, at Nara is now the Largest-Cast-Bronze-Buddha-Under-a-Temporary-Tin-Roof-Buddha-Temple-in-the-world. Everybody has to have something that defines us as special, even buddhists. It’s all about nothingness, but the biggest building in which to find nothingness seems to be important. Even the Kiyomizu-dera Temple is under reconstructive surgey at the moment.


I’ve been visiting quite a few temples while I’m here. There are temples featuring wood, moss, stone, raked gavel, water, gold and silver(not), Apparently it’s important to be about something while your contemplating nothing. If zen is a sense of cohesion and tranquility found in emptiness, then I’m on the right track. I have come to terms with some sort of concept of emptiness while I’ve been visiting the temples here. Firstly, my wallet is a lot emptier, that’s for sure, I’m pretty certain about that. But one can never tell. Maybe it’s only an illusion?

My tummy is a lot emptier, as I’m on the 2nd day of fasting now and as I search for emptiness and nothingness. Emptiness sure feels like something to me right now. I’m finding it hard to tell, when or if I’ve found it. Nothing is a hard concept to achieve and inhabit while still being able to tell the difference. So I can safely claim that I have successfully found nothing so far. However, I’ll keep looking, just in case I don’t find more of it.


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I start the day very early to beat the heat. The sun is casting oblique shadows across the land. The Golden Temple is beautiful. It too was under reconstruction on one of my previous visits. Now it’s all out of its wrappers and showing off in its splendid, glittering, blingy sort of way. So quiet, peaceful and unassuming. Hard to notice that it is even there sort of attitude, while screaming, “Look at me”!

Money, wealth and worldly achievements don’t matter apparently. I suppose that this includes gold? Just the sort of place to look for nothing. The guy who built it was really ripped off. When the builders covered it with gold at the end, they covered all the windows too. So he couldn’t even see out to look on the quiet lake at its foot or feet, I’m not too sure if temples have one or many? I think that he could have saved a lot of money and put in double glazing instead of gold leaf. The insulation value would be heaps better than gold and the view improved out of sight, well, actually into sight.


Still, he did better that the guy who built the Silver Pavilion Temple. He didn’t even get any silver on it. The builders shot through before the silver was applied and all that they left was a big pile of white builders sand on the site. I did eventually find some silver there. It was all dropped into the wishing well pond. I wonder if it works – wishing I mean. As I’m looking for nothing, I didn’t bother throwing anything in, I don’t want my wish to come true. I might get something, while what I’m really after is nothing.




The weather changes while I am here and there is a storm, it’s been coming for a while now. I can sense it in the air and in me. I’m out on the path around the garden and it’s teeming down.

I stand and watch the not-quite Silver Temple melt away in the rain.

The storm has resulted in every one leaving. They scurry for the security of the visitors centre.

I’m here alone.

The path is empty.

The world disolves.

There is only the rain.

I walk across town to Ryoan-ji. Here the path is straight and true, but also strangely empty. It’s mid day now and the sun is almost directly overhead. The storm clouds are gone and the sun is beating down. It’s hot, muggy and humid.

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Finally at Ryoan-ji I start to come to grips with the the paradox inherent in Zen. At Ryoan-ji, you don’t have to pay to walk around the lake and grounds like you do at all the other temples. Here you only pay to go in and see the raked gravel and the 15 stones. Here’s the paradox. When you go in, you can’t see the 15 stones, You pay for 15, but only ever see 14. If you walk to the other side you can now see the missing stone, but one of the original stones is now obscured. There are only ever 14 stones. Even though there are 15! Deep stuff! I paid money for this.



It’s hard to take it all in. Even for my little camera. I sit and think about this for quite a while. But nothing comes.

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Janine and I were recently reminded of the Zen concept of non-aquisitiveness when she spent a bit of time with the Tibetan Buddhist Monks. As a fund raiser, they sold her a Tibetan, hand-woven, woollen, mobile phone cover. There’s an example of encouraging non-acquisitiveness for you.

Best wishes from Steve in Kyoto, on the empty path, and not doing much about nothing,

Toji Markets

As it is the 21st of the month, and I’m in Kyoto, that means it is the day of the Toji Markets. They are held on the 21st of the month, regardless of the day. Today it is a Friday. So off I go. The markets are held in the grounds of the Toji Temple, hence the name, not too far from the main Kyoto station. It’s usually a very busy market and very full of all sorts of stalls. Today, however, it is only half full, as it  has rained pretty heavily over night and is still pissing down this morning. I guess a lot of the stall holders just stayed home. The rain cleared about 10 am. and then it was fine, getting very hot in the early afternoon. I eventually needed a hat, but only brought an umbrella.


Everything that you could want is here, even on a slow day like today. There are fruit, veggies, clothes, pots, pickles, fabric, beads, furniture and hot food. You name it and it is probably here. I’m particularly looking for and old pot with character. perhaps a tea bowl? I missed one last time I was here. I could kick myself. I passed it up because it was Y45,000. Way above my budget, but I could have afforded it if I’d changed my other plans and rearranged my budget. It scarred me off. I should have extended my self. But travelling on a strict budget has its limits, and that was past mine, and now it’s past tense.


I’m still looking for something exotic, quirky, interesting, unusual, with just a touch of the sabi/wabi’s about it, but today, no luck. I can’t see anything in the way of an old pot that speaks to me. There are plenty of them here, but not one with my name on it today. I eventually settle for an old, not very old, maybe 80 to 100 years old, Soba noodle cup. The straight down the line white porcelain with washed out small blue brushwork, chipped foot ring and a bit of age staining. Delicate and light and speaking lots about old Japanese porcelain. I love the things. They are still fairly cheap and reasonably easy to find, but I notice that they are creeping up in price each year that I come here, and the best ones cost the most – of course!


To get it to the market, you have to pass through the temple gates. They are massive wooden installations and quite old, recently repaired and restored and beautifully done too. Just inside the gates there is an old lady with a stall selling old, used, indigo cotton fabric. I’m very fond of this stuff, both plain and patterned. I use it to patch my own worn out work clothes. I don’t really know what it is worth, so I don’t buy the first samples that I see. I make sure that I do the whole circuit of the site, looking at every stall first. Eventually I go back and buy some of the early bits that I saw, as they turn out to be the cheapest bits that are in reasonably good condition with still some wear left in them. The plain stuff is the best, as once it has been dyed in Indigo, it is toxic to bugs or something, so nothing will eat it. I find that the patterned fabric has some of the white bits eaten out, or just rotted away and become fragile somehow. Maybe it’s the ultra-violet in the sunlight? I don’t know.

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There is so much good food here. I want to try it all, but I hold out for the okonomiyaki. It’s my favourite. I can’t think of anything more delicious and ever so fresh as this. Cooked in front of your eyes in a few minutes. I could describe it as chopped cabbage cooked in a light pancake batter, with bacon and egg and other bits of dressings and herbs and spices like red pickled ginger. Ever so yummy. Oishii Desu!

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I see a few old wooden stools that are nice, but totally out of the question for me. I also see some of the freshest and plumpest ginger that I have ever seen. If only I had a kitchen!

A day spent wandering the Toji markets is a full days entertainment with almost free entrance, only a coin donation to the temple at the door.

Desperately Seeking Tungsten

I’m freewheeling in Kyoto for a while. It’s one of my favourite cities to visit. Its small enough to be walkable to most places. A long walk sometimes, admittedly, but then there is an excellent bus and train service that can get you to most places that are a little bit out-of-the-way. It’s quite central to my other interests, as Nara, Osaka and Shigaraki are just short train rides away and good for a day trip. There are more temples and shrines than you can poke a (chop)stick at. I have a few favourites.

But Kiyomizu has to be one of them, as it is easy walking distance from the centre of town or the main station and the roads that lead up to it are a very interesting days entertainment. No matter which way you approach it, there is always something of interest. Because it’s so close to town, it is alway very busy and crowded. A minor drawback.



On this visit to Kyoto, I’m searching for some tungsten carbide tipped pottery turning tools for working with porcelain. They are very specialised tools and a bit hard to find. Actually a lot hard to find! It seems that they are only made in 3 places in the world. Nevada in the US, but the style of those tools are not really what I’m after. Plus his web site isn’t working at the moment and the guy is moving shop currently. Then there is a place somewhere in China, but I haven’t been able to locate just where. Whenever I came across some of these tools during my resent research trip, I was told that the tools were from ‘somewhere else’, then when I got to the  ‘somewhere else’ they told me that it wasn’t there, but where I’d just come from? Now I’m in Kyoto and tipped off by my friend Alistair back in Australia, who trained here some time ago, actually many years ago. I hope to track them down here. Alistair doesn’t know the address, but knows someone, who knows someone, who apparently might know.

I’m onto it, nothing like a false start and a dud lead to peak my interest. I like a challenge. When these tools do turn up in Australia, they are terribly expensive when they do, exceeding $100 each. A lot for a small, simple pottery tool. They shatter easily if you drop them, and chip if you hit them against something hard by accident. But they are unbelievably hard-wearing and long-lasting, as long as you look after them. I only own one of them.

So, I set off on my long march. Firstly, I tried to find the ‘Iwasaki’ pottery supply shop that Alistair’s potter friend mentioned. But nothing came up in google maps for that address.
So I asked the very helpful lady here at the guest house, where I’m renting a room. She rang them and got a detailed description of where it was. I walked there. I found it pretty quickly, but it was only a small supply shop with not much choice and no carbide tipped turning tools at all in stock.
However, I bought 2 small brushes and standard carbon steel turning tool. The guy behind the counter didn’t speak much English, but managed to understand what I was looking for after a while. ‘Tungsten carbide’ isn’t a word that I know in Japanese, it takes a lot of charades to get that one across.
He wrote out the name and address for another place, but only in Japanese ‘Kanji” characters. I was starting to feel like this might be going to be a bit like hard work. This might not even be a place-name or address? I’d have to go back to the Inn and get it translated and the place on the map pointed out to me. If indeed it is one. He can’t read my map of Kyoto, as it is in English. He just waves me down the road. “a long way!”
But just at this time, another guy who apparently works in the shop turns up and he can point out on my map, more or less, the area where I need to go. Unfortunately, it’s off the detailed part of my tourist-guide map and into the grey. There be dragons! Yep. That part of the map. I’ve never been to this part of town, so have no mental guideposts for it, but it can’t be that difficult. Can it?
It’s a long walk and it’s a hot steamy, humid late summers day. I manage to work up quite a sweat by the time that I get to where I think that it ought to be. Only to find that it isn’t there. I can’t find it, after all No one that I ask, seems to know. I think that it ought to be up this hill on this road somewhere. I’m only half way up this hill and I’m already feeling a bit ‘over the hill’. So I ask a passing bloke. He doesn’t understand me at all, and he can’t read my map. This is an isolated part of town with few passers-by. So I sort of give up and begin walking back down to find someone who can help me. This is when I come across a couple taking their groceries into their house from the car. I ask again, show him the name and he seems to know what it is and where it is. This special place that I’m after. He goes into the house and comes back with a ‘Gregorys’ type street map book. Lots of detail. He shows me where it is, and I was very close, about 300 metres away but in the wrong street. It turned out to be down and around a lot of small lanes off the main street. He draws me a map of the local lanes, and off I go into the back lanes, left, right, second left, then right again, just where he said. I take careful note of all the turns and corners so as to be able to find my way back OK.
The people in there, didn’t have much English either, but the lady managed a bit, especially when I showed her the tool that I just bought. It all ‘clicked’ into place and out she came with 3 trays of carbide tipped turning tools. Kan-na.
I bought 5 different shapes from around Y2,500 to 3,800 yen each. That’s somewhere around Au$30 to 50 dollars.
I then had to walk all the way back. Somehow, the return journey is a lot easier. It’s not just because it’s all down hill, and matches my career. No, it’s because I succeeded in doing it, more or less, on my own, even though I had a lot of help. Thanks Alistair, Aki, Yusushi and Kahori San.

My home-made ground bai tunze porcelain stone body is just like throwing with fine sand and water mixture. It is very tough on the fine razor edge of my turning tools. Especially because this kind of ceramic paste ‘clay’ body. and I use the word ‘clay’ here not as a description of anything plastic and workable, but as a generic term to describe what a potter works with on the wheel. My own particular native porcelain stone is a hard igneous rock. I collect it in chunks from a very small hill, or a big mound, where it has pushed up through the ground in some sort of volcanic activity. Too small to be called a hill, and larger than a mound. I decided to call it a knoll. That sounds just about right. Because it is mostly composed of felspar, which melts in the potters kiln at high temperatures to be a tough glass, I decided to call it the glassy knoll.

Now, because it hasn’t been ‘weathered’ or degraded by the elements as yet, it is very dense and hard. It needs to be broken down in two stages in a couple of different rock crushers, first into gravel size, then into small sand sized fragments. It is then ground for hours in a ball mill before it is fine enough to work with. It does not have very much clay mineral in its make-up, so I add a small amount, 1%, of bentonite to my mix. Bentonite is a very fine sticky clay material that I get from Queensland. It is quite a rare material, and one of the few ‘exotic’ minerals that I buy. In the US, they seem to call bentonite ‘V’ gum. I don’t know why, but it’s an interesting name. This ceramic ‘gum’ helps to bind it all together, a bit like a glue, so as to make it a little more responsive on the wheel.

How it all works, such that it makes a native rock, that I can pick up off the ground , into a translucent, hard porcelain, is amazing to me. There is probably a conspiracy theory about it somewhere on the web? So I have decided to explain it by calling it “The single gum theory from the glassy knoll”. That should quash any hint of conspiracy!

fond regards from Steve in Kyoto

Make Clay While the Sun Shines

Warning! This post could be very boring if you are not a potter – and maybe even if you are?
Contains technical terms and traces of nuts.
Making clay while the sun shines is a very good idea and ought to be possible in summer, but not this summer.
This has been the most amazing summer that we have had for many, many years. It’s hot, just like every year, but this year it has rained more than we can remember for a long time. We are having a great time. The rain combined with the warmth has made everything grow its head off. We have plenty of water in the dams and drinking water tanks, plus lots of food coming from the garden. We only have to water the garden every few days, as it usually rains in between at some point. Sometimes it rains hard enough to wet the soil sufficiently that we don’t need to water for a few days.
Earlier in the summer it was raining very hard and very often, but now that pattern has changed to occasional showers. So it is now dry enough under cover to get my milled porcelain stone slip to dry on the drying beds and in plaster basins. I’m aware that it is not wet like this everywhere. There are bush fires raging down south, while I’m clearing ditches to guide the excess water away from the pottery. When it is this wet, the humidity is so high that it is very hard to dry liquid clay slip. It just tends to sit there and go mouldy while rotting the fabric membrane underneath that separates the clay from the brick bed.
After 40 years of pursuing my project of self-reliance, I have decided to modify slightly my fundamentalist, hard-line approach of ‘total commitment to maximum achievable’ self reliance, to a more relaxed and flexible approach of ‘substantially committed to’ self-reliance.
In this regard I have recently decided to allow myself some slack and buy in more processed product to allow for an easier life as I age. For example, When I returned from my studies in Japan, late last spring, it was getting a bit late to put in seeds and start a summer garden from scratch, so I decided to compromise and buy some punnets of vegetable seedlings to get the garden up and growing, while I planted my seeds and waited for this second planting to come along as a second, follow-up crop. This worked well and I’m very pleased with the serried plantings and how they are growing and providing a steady flow of tomatoes, sweet corn and zucchini etc.
It’s a small compromise, but once compromised, why not go with it?


Blanched French beans served with fresh, home-made basil pesto.

Blanched French beans served with fresh, home-made basil pesto.

I have decided now to addapt this freer approach to my ceramic materials and my creative work. I have previously only used the rocks, shales and clays of my own local shire and I am still completely committed to this ‘local’ concept. I had found during this long extended period of research that although I tried very hard to locate everything that I needed to make my ceramics from only the materials that I discovered around me. I could not find any pale plastic throwable clay in a quantity that was useable. However, what I did find, was plenty of hard igneous rocks to make glazes and in the end I managed to make two really special, unique and very interesting stoneware clay bodies from self-processed, local rock dusts. To achieve this, I realised that I would need to add some bentonite (a very sticky clay) to bind and slightly plasticise these powdered rock bodies to make them useable. These rocks are so hard, that they need to be crushed first in a large jaw crusher, then a small laboratory jaw crusher and following that I put the grit through a disc mill and finally in the ball mill for 16 hours to get it really fine. Using this rather slow, convoluted and old-fashioned technology, that I obtained as industrial cast-off, from auctions and junk yards, I can process my finds from large rocks down to 200# powder in about 24 hours. It’s the drying out of the liquid clay slip from the ball mill that is taking the longest time and slowing the process down. Not helped by the continuing wet weather.
I never thought that I’d find myself complaining about rain!
Warning, there are traces of nuts showing in this image!
I pass the thin liquid slip through 100# sieve before settling out the solids.
So, bentonite was my first compromise. It may not be local, but it is Australian. I have bought 3 x 25 kg bags of bentonite during my career. I also found that I needed to buy in alumina powder to use as shelf wash. This wasn’t absolutely essential, it was just very much better than all the alternatives, so another compromise. I’m still using this original 25 kg. bag of Al203. I use it sparingly, so It will last a very long time.
Recently, I decided to get some kaolin to add some slight increase in plasticity to my ground up local native porcelain stone bodies. This is not a local material either, as it comes from 300 kms away, but it’s closer than the bentonite. There must be something closer, I just haven’t found it yet. Proceeding on from my initial tests. I have decided to add 15% of this plastic kaolin to my ground porcelain stone body, it makes an enormous difference to it’s workability very quickly. I completed the first small batch tests of 5 kg each last year, before I went to Japan. So now I am making the larger 100 kg batches to see how they work on a larger scale. The tests were very promising, so I am eager to see them perform and feel them on the wheel. I was encouraged to follow on with this blending idea when I saw them making their porcelain body in Arita in Japan recently, using imported New Zealand kaolin. But I’m not prepared to go that far for some kaolin.
I have been told that the most famous porcelain body in Australia, which is exported all over the world, is made from Chinese kaolin, Indian felspar and American bentonite. At least the water is Australian!
To aid the drying process of my ball milled (bai tunze) porcelain stone slip, to a stiff plastic, usable porcelain body, I make two batches. One of 30 kg in the big ball mill as a liquid slip. This slip has to be thin enough to allow the grinding down of the very hard rock granules from the crushers. After milling I allow the thin liquid to sit and settle for a day or so, to allow the very fine ceramic fragments to flocculate. I drain off the free water from the top of the settled clay material. At the same time I make a second 5 kg. batch in the smaller ball mill which is dry milled. I then add this dry material to the wet batch and mix them together. This significantly stiffens up the slip. I can then put it out on the drying bed or plaster tubs to firm up.
I drag my finger through the stiff slip to make it dry into usable square plastic blocks that are easier to pick up and store for pugging.
However, because of the very wet summer continuing on like it has, I’m finding that the clay just won’t dry as usual. The humidity is just too high. I’m having to lift the very soft plastic mass off the sodden brick drying beds and place it in the open air to get a little air movement over it to finish it off to a stiff plastic condition. Perhaps the extra 15% of kaolin content is slowing the drying a little as well?
I have been using my new ‘VENCO’ stainless steel mini pug mill to pug the small batches of clay. It’s fantastic, quiet, fast for it’s size and ideal for small batches of porcelain body like the stuff that I’m making. And so much easier on my wrists than hand wedging.
As part of this sudden loss of intellectual rigour and convenient relaxation of my philosophical standards, I hope to make my life a little easier in my latter years. However, I can’t help somehow feeling a bit like the philosopher Bertie Russell reneging on his death-bed. I am fully aware that this is where the similarity ends. I am no philosopher, and hopefully I am not on my death-bed either – just yet. I just feel like I need to extend my range and have the ability to work with an extended palette of interesting materials for my creative work. 15% of non-local kaolin isn’t going to change the fabric of my work in any noticeable way, but it will make the act of throwing a lot more pleasurable for me and extend what I can make.
So I have decided to start using materials that I have discovered that are outside of my shire and my previous 50 km radius of interest. Over the last 20 years I have experimented with my immediately available local materials, non of which are mentioned in McMeekin’ s book. I have worked on them to the point that I couldn’t think of any more variations that I could make to gain any further insight into these materials. Only extreme ageing could improve their plasticity, I’m too old to wait for that solution to work for me. I’d taken these materials as far as I could imagine. Another potter would certainly find new things to do with these materials, but I feel that I have lived and worked on this restricted palette for long enough. I want to experiment with some ‘new’, and therefore interesting materials that I don’t know anything about.
To this end, I just went to collect some felspar from a site that I came across a few years ago, near my friend’s house, it’s 150 kms away. I only sampled it at that time, because it wasn’t within my target area, but it looked very interesting all the same and I can’t pass an interesting bit of soil by without at least looking at it and taking a preliminary sample. The initial testing proved that it was felspar and although quite weathered, it still has quite a bit of alkali, so it might turn out be very useful. I’m extending my range, making more flexible choices and hopefully making my life a little more interesting and a little easier.
I have a few different projects in mind for the future.
Best wishes
from the potter making many a slip twixt the mill and the lip

More, not less, from Japan

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