Thursday, 2 April 2015

Through the Looking Glass

I can feel the scritch and scratch of pencil on paper vibrating through the long wooden table as it sit, my own pencil poised motionless, staring into space. Sora sits to my right with her biology homework spread before her on the kitchen table, while Canaan studies his english grammar at the end of the table facing me. The rhythm of the vibration changes suddenly from a complex harmony to a solo performance, and slowly I realize that Canaan has stopped writing and is staring me in the face. 

"Yes?" He asks expectantly.

"Sorry, son." I respond, "I wasn't really looking at you, you just happened to be in my line of sight. I was actually looking at that essay over there on the future horizon, trying to work out what it says."

"Ah, yes." He nods sagely, with all the wisdom of his fifteen years, "Common phenomenon, I do it all the time." 

Writing is a way of sharing our thoughts on why we do what we do. Whether it is writing for a blog or for magazines, or just a letter to a friend or loved one, it can help us to understand each other better, and even to understand ourselves. It is not necessarily easy, though, to find the right words, even if you know what it is that you want to say. It is also quite difficult to be objective about our own words, because we are so close to them, and sometimes we need the help and advice if others to help us communicate clearly.

Over the years I have published articles and essays in a dozen magazines, not only in Australia and Japan, but in the US, UK, Holland and Germany. One of the most enjoyable parts of that has always been the dialogue with the various editors and the process that brought those thoughts to print. 

The idea of ever being an editor myself had not really occurred to me until Jack Doherty, my potter friend from the UK, contacted me as "Guest Editor" of Ceramic Review last year. He requested an article from me about my experiences as a traditional Japanese deshi with Shimaoka sensei for a special feature on training to be a professional potter. Corresponding with Jack and the staff editor was so much fun, I began to wonder what it might be like on the other side of the looking glass.

While writing an article last year for Vicki Grima, the editor of the Journal of Australian Ceramics, I noticed on the website that they were also looking for a guest editor. When I visited Sydney in May and did a lecture and demonstration at the National School of Art, I mentioned it to her.

"I suppose it would be impossible for somebody in Japan to be guest editor?" I said in jest.

"No!" She said. "I don't see any problem with that."

And so it was that a few weeks later I received an email from her asking me to propose a few themes for a special feature in the magazine. Of them, "The Function of Art; The Art of Function" seemed to strike the right chord and I found myself, passing through the looking glass, the guest editor of the Journal of Australian Ceramics, April 2015.

I have not been involved in the Australian ceramic scene for 25 years, except for a few rare visits and snippets of news from potter friends, so it seemed a great opportunity to discover what was happening. We sought out professional potters from each state of Australia, trying to get a representative cross section.A few Australian potters working overseas, and potters born overseas but working in Australia as well, to give perspective. Some were potters whose work and ideas I had always admired and wanted to know more about. Some I have known for many years, others were new to me and there was a great sense of discovery in finding the right mix. Although it was important to work within the theme, it was also vital that the feature had variety and "texture" (a great piece of advice from the editor of Ceramic Review!). We sent out requests for submissions by email, I managed to speak to a few contributors in person at the European wood fire conference in Denmark, and gradually the crew came on board.  

The articles started coming in. By the deadline at the start of February we had them all and editing began. Some were too long, needing to be whittled down to fit the page count. Others were hard to follow at first, though I knew what the author was trying to say, and needed to be rearranged so the message was clearer. None of them were what I had expected, but all of them were written with sincerity and passion. It was a daunting task, trying to help these ideas reach the reader as clearly as possible within the space available and keeping the integrity of the original words. I would make adjustments, alterations, suggestions, and send them back to the authors for their approval, adjustment or rejection.  All of this while the Hamada Noborigama project was in full swing! It was not easy, and I made mistakes. With Vicki's advice and help, dozens of emails, several Skype conferences, and the cooperation and effort of all the authors, we finally had the articles together. 

All of the articles were then sent to a professional proof reader, and once again they were corrected and tweaked, going back and forth across the ether between Japan and Sydney. Eventually, when all the T's were crossed and I's were dotted, the final texts were sent to Vicki to start the layout.

The next challenge was finding the right images, from the many that were sent by the authors, to tell the story visually. We occasionally asked for different photos, or higher resolution images, to illustrate the ideas which the authors were trying to convey and to highlight them. Using dropbox and online photo sharing sites we were able to view and select high resolution images from opposite sides of the globe, and the graphic designer put them together in Sydney. We could then look at the layout, suggest changes and different cuts, until each article came into clear focus and all of them pulled together into a complex whole.

And last of all, the cover. We needed an image that would either wrap around the whole cover, or two images which worked together as a composition front and back. Despite asking for extra images from contributors and sifting through the images we hadn't already used, we couldn't find an image with a high enough resolution, or with the right composition or content to represent the feature issue. The deadline was upon us. 

As I polished the shell marks on the feet of the Chawan tea bowls from the Hamada kiln, readying them for use in the tea ceremony, I thought about the cover. A book, a magazine, isn't just about the front cover. Or the back cover. Or the words. Or the images. It is a whole, which ultimately finds completion in the hands and through the eyes of the reader. Just like a tea bowl, where the foot is as important as the face, and where the vessel finds completion in the making and drinking of the tea. And yet we rarely see the underside of vessels in magazines, or see them in use. What if...

I chose the best of the tea bowls from the Hamada kiln, marked with rope which was hand braided for me from a single strand of silk by the son of the rope maker who made Shimaoka sensei's ropes. I boiled a cast iron kettle on the charcoal brazier in the studio and prepared green tea, using a tea caddy I had made to fit an antique ivory and gold lid which Miyake san at Ebiya Gallery in Tokyo had given me. By the natural light from the windows beside the wheel deck I photographed the bowl. From above, as one see's it when making tea, in context, and then inverted, for the foot is always inspected during the tea ceremony, and sent the images to Vicki. 

We had a Skype conference the following day and, as we discussed the options, the graphic designer tried the tea bowl images out, trying to get them as close to actual size as possible. It seemed to work, but we needed an extra note in the editorial to explain the cover photo. 

Now, I wait to see the finished magazine. It has gone to print, Vicki and friends "bagged the mag" yesterday, and it is on the way to the readers now. I hope you enjoy it! I will not see it myself until the mail gets here from Australia next week. It has been a wonderful experience, and I understand so much more about writing, writers, editing and publishing than I ever did before, though I know this has been just a glimpse. Thank you for the opportunity, thank you to all the contributors, and thank you to Vicki, Suzanne and Astrid. 

Somewhere between the scratching of pencils at the top of the page and now, paper gave way to iPad, the kids have finished their homework and gone to bed, and I have discovered what that essay in the distance says. And so, apparently, have you. 

Friday, 20 March 2015

Mashiko Mingei

The sun rises golden over the horizon as I open the shutters at 6:00am this morning. Today is the vernal equinox and the seasons have finally begun to turn here in Minakami. Fukinoto are pushing their green buds out of the leaf mulch below the mulberry trees and the peaches and plums are threatening to blossom. We get the children up and share breakfast together before sending them off to their various schools. I load up the truck and head off to Mashiko.

As I descend from the mountains the signs of spring become clearer, and by the time I reach Shibukawa the plums are in full blossom. Fields are being ploughed and crops sewn. The sun is bringing new life back to the land.

My main task today is to deliver twenty pieces of my work from the Hamada Noborigama to the Tsukamoto Gallery for the Members Exhibition of the Japan Mingei Association Tochigi Chapter. The exhibition starts tomorrow, March 21st, and goes until April 1st. There is another exhibition happening simultaneously at the Kyouhan 6 gallery of the work of most of the other Mashiko participants in the firing, but I have chosen not to split my work this time.

It means a great deal to me to be a member of the Mingei association, for it was Mingei and the life and work of Shoji Hamada which inspired me to come to Japan. It continues to give great focus to my own life. Though Shoji Hamada had passed away before I came to Mashiko, I was fortunate to be able to apprentice to his disciple, Tatsuzou Shimaoka, a national living treasure in his own right. 

The time I spent at Shimaoka's was precious, working in the thatched studio with it's earth floor, paper screens and wooden shutters for windows. I learned to throw on the kick wheel, to foot wedge and decorate with silk ropes in the Jomon style. I was taught so many things about tradition, but also about combining that with the skills and modern science and reinterpreting them in a way which is relevant to the modern world. 

It was a great period of growth for me, striving to master the Japanese language as well as a whole range of shapes and techniques. Making everything from Yunomi green tea cups, Guinomi sake cups and Tokuri sake bottles, through coffee sets and tea sets to dinner plates, all to Sensei's exacting standards, all marked with his personal stamp. Perhaps the greatest lesson was humility, for a deshi is no more than an extension of the masters hands.

I treasured most those times I spent alone with Sensei in his private studio, talking about mingei, about art and life, about his experiences as a foot soldier in Burma and a prisoner of war, and his time as a deshi with Hamada after the war. He told me about Hamada coming to his firings after he had graduated and saying, "Shimaoka, you must find your own style!"


After I graduated, I took a "meoto" pair of yunomi from my first firing as a gift to Sensei. "Hmm," he said, "They're alright." He would sometimes come to my exhibitions or my display at the Mashiko pottery festival and even buy a piece or two. It was always encouraging, but I suspected that encouragement may have been his intention and wondered whether he really liked my work or not.

A few days ago my friend and "younger brother" deshi, Lee Love, sent me a photograph from America. He had been sorting through photos which he had taken in 1993 when he first visited Shimaoka sensei's studio, long before Lee knew me or my work. Among the photos was one of the shelf in front of the shoji screen window in sensei's studio. There is a portrait photo, leaning against the shoji, of Shimaoka as a young man. In front of it is a row of pots; one of his own early Jomon Zougan inlayed rope decorated vases, a salt glazed bottle and a jug which I don't recognise, and one of the guinomi Sake cups which I made while I was a deshi...alongside my two Yunomi. His face in the photograph seems to be gazing intently at my yunomi, and I realise that he really did think that my work was "alright". 

I deliver my work to the gallery, 20 of the best selected from the 140 which I had the privilege of firing in the Hamada kiln. Mashiko was my home for over twenty years, and though I am still a part of that extended community, I am not sure that I can continue to be called a Mashiko potter for long. There is no doubt, however, that I am a mingei potter, and I am proud to be a member of this association.

The sun is setting as I arrive home with a half tonne of clay in the back of the truck. Today is the equinox, tomorrow ther will be less darkness in the world as it turns inexorably onward, and on Monday I begin a new making cycle. 

Shoji Hamada Noborigama Revival Firing Project 

Japani Mingei Association Tochigi Members Exhibition

Exhibiting Artists; Tomoo Hamada, Ken Matsuzaki, Euan Craig, Masakazu Ishikawa, Kazuhiro Ohtsuka, Seiichi Ohtsuka, Mazatoshi Ohtsuka, Okada , Yoshiko Kasahara, Fujiya Sakuma, Kei Shimaoka, Yoshinori Hagiwara, Rei Matsuzaki, Ryuuji Miyata, Masato Akutsu, Touru Murasawa

March 21st~April 1st

Tsukamoto Gallery

4264 Mashiko, Mashiko-machi, Haga-gun, Tochigi

Tel. 0285-72-3223

Sunday, 15 March 2015

The Ides of March

The frost carves geometric landscapes in the surface of the puddles in our driveway as we slide once more under the edge of the eternal sunrise. There is such beauty in the world, from the minute to the magnificent. We are blessed with a fresh new start everyday, an opportunity to write a new chapter in our lives. These moments must be treasured, for they soon turn into weeks and years before we realize they are gone.

It is four years ago today that we trekked across the mountains before the cloud of nuclear fallout from Fukushima. Each year we cannot help but relive those desperate days in our hearts and minds as we remember the earthquake and the fear, the relief at finding our loved once safe. The daunting task of building a new life, the kindness of so many friends and strangers, and even the cruelty of a few. I have seen such bravery in Mika and the children, I have watched them start from scratch and rise to the challenge. Their frustration and their patience, their sadness and their joy. The children have grown so much, not just physically, but as people finding their place in the world, searching for meaning in their lives. I witness their successes and their failures, too, and am filled with pride and love for them, whatever the outcome, for it is their striving that defines them. 

I, for my part, go from day to day, task to task, working to build a safe and wholesome environment for them. It is impossible to separate my work from my home life, and probably useless to try. Whether it is making pots or cooking dinner, dining with my family or doing the dishes, pruning fruit trees or stoking the bath furnace, every facet of my day is part of a single endeavour. To live a good life. I constantly question the rightness of my actions, of my words, and strive to live each day to the full and go to rest each night without regret. Each day is busy, from dawn till dreams come, and I cannot always achieve all that is expected of me, or that I expect of myself. 

Today I spend quietly with my family. I make green tea for Mika in one of the Machawan tea bowl that was fired last month in the Hamada Noborigama in Mashiko. Built by Shoji Hamada in 1943, and fired up to four times a year until his death in 1978, it was severely damaged in the great earthquake four years ago. It has been restored with the assistance of many donors and volunteers, and Tomoo Hamada invited the potters of Mashiko to join in a collaboration to fire it for the first time in forty years. I was honoured to be included in the project, and was allocated one of the thirty spaces in the kiln. I prepared about 140 pieces, thrown on the kick wheel from the Hamada pottery which Tomoo gave me after the earthquake. Vases, machawan, guinomi sake cups and platters, made in the pale winter light while the snow whirled outside in the bitter north wind. Some of the guinomi were made on the kick wheel as I demonstrated at my exhibition at the Japanese Traditional Craft Exhibition in Nagoya in January. Some of the pots were chattered as I often do, but some were decorated with Jomon rope marks, as Shimaoka sensei taught me, with a hand braided silk rope made for me by the son of sensei's rope maker. I carried the pots in the back of my little truck the 200 km to Mashiko without a single breakage, and unpacked them onto Shoji Hamada's throwing deck in the original workshop at the museum. It was important to me to be as honest to the process as possible, and prepared my pots as I would for my own kiln, raw, wrapped in Igusa straw from Tatami mats and stacked on Akagai sea shells. It turned out that I had more than I needed, and Tomoo used my extras to fill spaces in other chambers. 

The kiln took five days to stack, and another five to fire. 15 tonnes of red pine was brought from Nagano where there is no radiation contamination on the wood, and it was split and stacked by a team of volunteers. I was teaching a workshop in Mashiko for the Singapore American School during the day, but took my turn on the stoking team for the third chamber, the reduction flames blasting in scorching tongues from the spy holes on one side, the freezing dark on the other, as crowds of spectators hovered around the fringes of the fire light like moths.

When we opened the kiln four days later, we discovered that the back wall of the first chamber had collapsed forward onto my pots. Miraculously they all survived! It was fascinating to compare the results on my pots from the first three chamber, seeing the differences between them with ash and flame colour in varying parts of the kiln.

I am trying the machawan from the Hamada kiln, one by one, for a vessel finds completion in use. I must know that these bowls function well in the tea ceremony, are easy to use and beautiful in harmony with the green tea. It is some years since I studied the tea ceremony in the Urasenke school, but I make tea regularly at home, boiling the iron kettle in the irori charcoal brazier in the studio. Last October I was invited to attend a formal tea ceremony in Nihombashi, where the tea master used my bowl along side Shimaoka sensei's. It was a great honour. Then in November, during my exhibition at Ebiya, a tea master of the Chinshinryuu school used my new machawan, mizusashi water jars and chaire tea caddies, in the Kian tea house at the rear of the gallery, to serve tea to our guests over three days. It continues to be great study for me, and I use the experience to constantly improve my work, to bring the beauty of nature into the lives of others through my vessels.

It is the simple things, the sharing of tea, a delicious meal, having my loved ones close and safe, that make my life rich and full. Each and every vessel which I make is an expression of that.

It has been difficult for me to write and I have started so many times, but each time it has been left unfinished as other tasks have demanded my attention. So much has happened.
Autumn vanished like leaves on the wind and the long snowy winter still clings with its icy tail. Spring is so close I can taste it. Today, these last few days, remind me once again how blessed I am. 

Tomorrow, March 16th, 2015, at 8:30 ~8:58 Japan time, NHK World will be rebroadcasting the "Begin Japanology" documentary of our first firing in the new kiln in Minakami, 2012. I hope you can enjoy it.


Thursday, 28 August 2014

A Long Journey

The air is cool as I rise into the dark morning. At 4 am the children still sleep soundly, albeit sideways in their respective futon, and the sound of their breathing is countered by the calls of cicadas and crickets from beyond the screen door. 
I put the kettle on for coffee, weigh 45 grams of coffee grounds into the coffee filter and place the dripper on top of the coffee pot. While the water heats I prepare one of yesterdays scones with home made yoghurt and blueberry jam for breakfast. 

Mika comes out to the kitchen and we kiss good morning. The kettle boils, I pour 750 ml of water over the coffee grounds and listen as it drips into the pot. The coffee and tea pots from the last firing came out of the kiln looking beautiful, but the rain and humidity this year caused surface cracking when I raw glazed them because the moisture could not evaporate into the air. The inside of the pot expands because of the added moisture and the outside cracks to release the expansion stress. Only 10% of the pots survived. After the weeks of work making them, it was a bit of a disappointment. The cracks are only surface deep, but the vessels are unsalable. Ah, well, at least the coffee is good!

I load my suitcases into the car as the eastern sky lightens into a grey dawn. Mika drives me to the railway station at Gokan for me to catch the 5:17 train to Takasaki. We chat quietly as we drive through the drizzling rain, making sure there is nothing I have forgotten to do, nothing we have forgotten to say....
We kiss goodbye at the station, I drag my suitcases to the ticket gate and  the guard stamps my ticket. I pass through the gate and wave to Mika from the other side. I drag my suitcase towards the stairs, I lose sight of her. As I climb the stairs to the footbridge across the tracks I can see her car driving away from the station. She is gone. No, that's not quite right, even though that's how it feels. I am gone.

Standing alone on the platform, I look out across the rice fields to the misty wooded hills rising up into the low clouds. Yes, even in the drizzling rain, it is still a beautiful world, if only you take notice. The two carriage train arrives, I board the empty carriage. My journey has begun.

The landscape slides past the windows, the mountains and hills fall further and further into the grey distance. At each station commuters board the train with yawns and bleary eyes. Salary men, high school students, office workers. Numata, Shibukawa, station by station the train slowly fills. Some of the passengers read books as the travel, just as it was when I first arrived in Japan 25 years ago. Most of them now have mobiles in their hand, texting, gaming, reading the news. A few of the high school students are doing their maths homework. When we arrive at Takasaki, the whole swarm stampedes out the door, leaving me to drag my luggage out onto an emptying platform. 
There is a half hour wait at Takasaki, but at least I don't need to change platforms. I carefully read the signs on the platform to make sure I am near a door when the train arrives, and settle down to wait. Gradually other passengers flocculate onto the platform, they seem to drift to the yellow line like dish suds pulled towards a swirling plug hole. And there we stand, balanced on the edge of the drain....
The 6:27 to Ueno on the Takasaki line arrives at the station, the ten carriages slowing down until a door stops right in front of me. A momentary flash of smug self satisfaction vanishes as I realize the car is for reservation passengers only, and I dash down the platform to a non reserved car as fast as my luggage will let me.
There is an empty seat in the corner near the door, priority for elderly, disabled, nursing or pregnant mothers. For the moment I deem my luggage a handicap, and take a seat. I can always stand up again if someone with greater need appears.
The train pulls away from the platform, moving through a vista of dirty factories and back streets ofshopping  districts, before giving way to an urban sprawl punctuated with small vegetable gardens. As I leave takasaki behind, the horizon widens, with rice paddies and market gardens stretching to the grey distance. Occasional splashes of habitation and industry interrupt the landscape likes yoghurt on a patchwork quilt, and web of power lines links them all like the circulatory system of some great transparent beast. They get thicker and denser as I travel across the kanto plain towards it's great throbbing heart. Houses, apartments, factories become more concentrated, like penicillin on a petri dish, the space between them getting narrower, the building getting taller. Every now and then a spore of green trees  and gardens relieves the beige crush, with a temple or shrine resting calmly at its centre. 
Sora bought a five journey "seishun 18" train ticket for going to university open days over the school holidays, and there were two left when school started yesterday. Each ticket offers unlimited travel on the standard JR trains for one day, so it is very economical. The catch is that they must be used by a specific deadline. Waste not want not, or so they say, so I am taking the standard train on my journey today. Who knows what adventures I may encounter on the way to my destination? 
A salary man takes the seat beside and is asleep by the time we get to Kumagaya, occasionally sliding over and leaning against me. A stretch of my shoulders gently puts him back on his point of balance and he can continue to slumber in preparation for a hard day at the office. I'm sure that he, along with most of the people on this train, enjoy the splendour and excitement of this journey every single day. I look down the train at the growing crowd. 80% are in various stages of sleep, some nodding, some resting their head in their hands, some with their heads leant back against the wall and their mouth hanging open pumping z's of various magnitudes into the increasingly musty air. A pungent mixture of perfumes, aftershaves and antiperspirants mingled with the fragrance of cleaning products, body odour and, yes, just a hint of halitosis. A veritable feast for the olfactory system. At each station the view becomes more restricted down the carriage, clogged with a collage of fashion statements, exclamations and questions. The hum of the electric motors is counterpointed by a myriad of squeaks, groans and rattles as the train rocks on it's tracks and pulls in and out of the station, with sniffs, coughs and even a subdued snore from the gentleman beside me to ad to the urbane symphony. Occasionally a soprano diva performs a solo in an electronic voice from the speakers overhead introducing the stations as they come on stage and telling us from which side to exit and the connections we can make from here....
Looking out the window gives me a bifurcated view of the world, the shopping malls and factories, high rise apartments and scrap yards as we pass by, and the semi silhouetted figures of the commuters packed tightly in the reflection of the carriage behind me. A train zips past the window going the other way on the parallel track so close that I could touch it, save for the barrier of reflected people on the glass between me and the outside. 
By the time I get to Omiya the seat beneath me seems to be growing harder, my gluteus maximus becoming painfully aware in some parts and numb in others. It is difficult to move or stretch in the space between the wall, the suitcase and the slumbering salary man. I wriggle and fidget but to no avail, there is nowhere left to run. The train stops at Omiya Station and exhales a gust of passengers through its automatic doors onto the platform before inhaling the innocent people who were waiting politely beside the doors and didn't have the sense to run. The carriage is now clogged with passengers, pressed together in one clump of humanity, like a vacuum sealed plastic pack of shimeji mushrooms. The air is thick with a myriad of aromas, from the rich smell of leather hand bags to the crisp fragrance of newspaper and ink.  There is more space for me beyond the window now, as there are more parallel tracks between me and the buildings rising beside the wire fence. At Urawa the train breathes once more, and just when you thought you couldn't fit any more people in this carriage, surprise! Individual activities like reading a book or a newspaper can now only be performed in the dead space over the heads of seated passengers. I can feel the  pressure of that dead space filled with paper and print hanging over my head and wonder how long it will be till I reach the final exhalation in Ueno? At Akabane station a platform attendant helps the train to ingest the last occupants of the platform in a gluttonous waist stretching gulp. I marvel, once again, in my bubble of vicarious space, at the flexibility of the human form to adapt to such constriction, and the tenacity of human spirit that drives all of these constricted heroes to brave this commute every single day.
"Oku," sings the diva, "Next stop Ueno." Such sweet music!
At Ueno the train disgorges it's surprisingly undigested passengers, as this is the terminal, a description I have often thought is rather grim. I wait until all the other passengers have disembarked, and drag my luggage into....a mob of reformed passenger now being sucked inexorably into the mouth of a ravenous escalator. I wait, my luggage stoically defending my personal space, and let the mob flow around me. Before long the jostling crowd is gone and the satiated escalator waits patiently to carry me and my luggage down to the ground floor and the central exit. Occasionally wading across the flow of commuter streams, I make my way through the ticket gate, across the lobby and out into the relatively fresh air of the Hirokoji exit. 
Stopping on the pavement for a moment to put my ticket away, I take in my surroundings. Across the intersection is the Okanoeisen cake shop that makes the best Mame daifuku in Japan. The bean paste is not too sweet nor too smooth, and the outside mochi pastry with the firm beans blended through it has just the perfect touch of salt to make it a delight! Unfortunately the shop is still closed at 8:30 am, so I grab my bags and head off to the right under the railway overpass. Beside the railway lines across the road is the Ameyoko market, a bazaar where you can by almost everything. Smells of cooking food, fresh fish and rotten cabbage drift on the breeze and dance gaily with the diesel and traffic fumes before they reach my waiting nostrils. Aah...Tokyo! Under the railway there is a congregation of homeless men with various bundles and bottles amidst their squatting forms. They seem to accrete here, though they don't seem to interact with each other, as if they are mutually invisible. One of them reads a comic, another picks his scabrous swollen right leg, another pours a clear liquid which may or may not be water from one pet bottle to another. I pass them, feeling as invisible to them as they are to the other passers by. Across the pedestrian crossing and past the stair the the park, I enter the Keisei train station. 
An elevator takes me down to the ticket counter where I purchase a ticket on the 8:43 Keisei Skyliner express to Narita airport. Through the ticket gate and down another elevator to platform 1, onto carriage 4, reserved seat 13A. I put my luggage in the racks provided, sit down in my reclining chair, and relax for the trip to the airport. Bamboo groves, copses of trees and rice paddies flash by at incredible speed. I have barely caught my breath when we arrive at Narita terminal 2. I am going to terminal 1, the last stop. A dozen passengers disembark form my carriage here, leaving me and perhaps half a dozen to go to the last stop. It is 9:30.
The Japanese lady at the Aeroflot ticket counter is very polite. She checks my passport, makes sure that I have my residency card for returning to Japan, and weighs my suitcase. 18.4 kg, no problem. She gives me two boarding passes, one from Narita to Moscow, one for the second leg of my journey. I can collect my luggage from the final destination. "Enjoy your trip." She says politely, returning me my passport. The planes boards at 11:15.
I find a phone and let Mika know I'm safely this far. 
" How was the train trip?" She asks.
"You can read about it on my blog!" I say to her cheekily.  We chat for a moment then say our goodbyes, again. 
The staff at the security check at Narita are freindly, laughing at me and sending me back through the metal detector when my steel capped work boots set of the alarm. I go through again in socks and joke with them about my big feet. 
Immigration is crowded. The immigration officer apoligises for the delay, but I point out to her that all the best restaurants have long queues. We laugh, and I pass through to the concourse. 
Because of security restrictions I am only able to buy three 100ml bottles of sake to take with me. Not quite enough to fill a "tokkuri" sake bottle, but it will have to do. I have a sake set in my hand luggage, a gourd shaped tokkuri and five guinomi sake cups, the bottle holds 2"go", the traditional measure of liquids in Japan, which is 360ml, enough for two serves in each cup.
The flight to Moscow is crowded. I find myself in the centre seat, a russian gentleman who speaks no english on my right and on my left a japanese cameraman. He is part of a film crew doing a television documentary about crossing siberia and visiting the World Heritage sites along the way. The plane taxis out onto the runway, with the dour cabin staff making sure our luggage is stowed and belts buckled. The plane accelerates up the runway and amid shuddering chasis and roaring jet engines we take to the sky. 
 There are two meals during the flight, and at each we are given a choice of beef or fish. I choose beef for the first reminds me of the first time I ate barbequed black excercise in, well, jaw excercise. I wash it down with the token paper cup of wine they offer. Four movies later I decide to try the fish...I suspect that it, and the spaghetti it was served on, came from the same bear. After another bum-numbing journey we come screaming in to land, the braking so hard all the passangers are thrown forward in their seats. Welcome to Moscow! 
The stonefaced immigration officer wordlessly checks my passport and waves me through to security. When the security guard has finished texting on his cell phone, he stamps my boarding pass and waves me through to the metal detector. Having learnt my lesson in Tokyo, I remove my belt and shoes and slide them through the xray, and the metal detector stays satisfactorily silent as I pass through. Once I have belted up and rebooted I am ready to go insearch of the ticket gate. 
It is a very long walk, from one side of the horse shoe shaped terminal building to "terminal E" at the other end, past a couple who are trying to wake up the shop attendant at a cafe so that they can buy some water, and when I get there I am greeted with an unexpected sight..."Foster's Bar"! As an Australian, I cannot resist the patriotic call, and as I still have three hours before my next flight, I go in and ask for a fosters!

They look at me strangely, and find the only staff member who speaks english, who cannot understand what I am asking for...he finds an english menu, and shows me the beer selection. There is no Foster's. They seem to have never heard of Foster's. I don't, therefore, have a Foster's. Instead I select a local beer with a cyrillic label and hope for the best. It is cold and hoppy. They are redeemed.
I leave the bar and take up vigil outside Gate 41, just as my boarding pass says I should. An hour passes. Two. I am sitting alone still, and begin to feel insecure. I check the overhead screen, Flight Su2496 to Copenhagen is now checking in at Gate 40. Strange, Gate 40 is right beside me, and there is nobody there either, and the screen above it says Amsterdam. It is 8:00 pm in Moscow, still tuesday the 26th. Home in Japan it is 1:00 am tomorrow now. It is turning out to be a very long day. I am about to go searching for the transfer counter when an announcement comes over the PA, "There has been a boarding gate change for flight SU2496 to Copenhagen which is now leaving from Gate 33." Of course, it is back at the other end of the horse shoe. 
I find gate 33. The screen above the gate says, "SU3200 Warsaw". I check my boarding pass again, check the screen above the gate, check the schedule screen, and go in search of information. Upon discovering the information counter, I also discover that there is nobody there. I now go systematically to every boarding gate; Amsterdam; Riga; Paris; Brusselles...Gate 40 now reads Copenhagen! Yet there is stil nobody there! I take consolation in the beautiful sunset over the airport runways, and take a deep breath.

After another ten minutes a lady in uniform arrives at the boarding Gate 40 counter, though there are no other passengers waiting nearby, and I go and ask her. 
"Yes, of course this is it." She says with a withering sneer. Perhaps I have lived in Japan too is 9:00 in Moscow and the sky is darkening. I sit and quietly wait. A smattering of passengers gather near the gate. A lady with a face like a lemon juicer joins the one with the sneer, and they open the gate for boarding. I let a pleasant faced old lady in line in front of me and the queue edges toward the gate. A man in the line ahead asks if there are spare seats so that he can stretch his legs. 
"No." Says lemon squeezer, "No spare seats."
My turn in line comes, she takes my pass, tears the perforation and gives me back the stub with a perfunctory command of "Downstairs."
There are stairs to the right and an elevator to the left, and the lady in front of me has pressed the elevator button, so I wait and go down with her. As we step out onto the landing we see a tape barrier across the bottom of the staircase, secured to a movable metal post, which has stopped all the other passengers in an awkward queue behind us on the stairs. The old lady and I wait on the landing. Other passengers come out of the elevator with the same puzzled expression on there faces, and the landing starts to fill. Finally, lemon squeezer steps out of the elevator and begins to admonish us for not boarding the plane yet, then realises that the tape is across the staircase. She marches over and drags the metal post across the floor with an echoing, tooth rattling, metallic screech, and waves everyone through to the plane. As I walk down the ramp to the plane I begin to laugh. So does the old lady. Infectiously it spreads through the passengers until we are all laughing as we board the plane. The are, perhaps, twenty of us. We all go to our reserved seats, squeezed together in three or four rows in the middle of the plane, while the rest of the seats remain empty. A conversation ensues in Russian between some of the passengers and the two young flight attendants, and most of the passengers stand up and spread out to the other empty seats. Leaving me in a window seat in a row alone. When we have settled, the attendant gives a safety demonstration with a ragged yellow life jacket, torn at every seam.  We eventually take off and, just as I feel myself drifting to sleep the attendant wakes for a meal. Cold mixed vegetables with mayonaisse and two rock hard buns (which prpbably came from the same bear), stale cake with butter cream and a glass of water. Yes, it tasted as good as it sounds. Sleep seems to have left me for the moment, it is still an hour or two to Copenhagen. I close my eyes optimistically.
Copenhagen airport is beautiful, with parquettry floors and modern art on the walls. I breeze tyrough immigration and baggage claim, there is virtually no customs check, and I am out of the airport loke magic. I find the train station ticket counter, the young man is polite and helpful, and within minutes I am on platform 2, with its beautiful granite floor, waiting for a train to Copenhagen Central.
The train is perfectly on time, I change at Copenhagen and take the connection from platform 6 to Slagelse and arrive just after midnight local time. Unfortunately, the last bus has gone. It is too late to phone my friends. The first bus will be at 6:00 am. The 7/11 at the bus station is closed, it will open at 5:35...I.settle myself on a bench at the bus stop with my hand luggage as a pillow and lie down to wait.
It is cold in the wee small hours, I find that a cannot really sleep. Digging through my luggage I put on several more layers of clothes and wrapp my towell around my head like a cowl. Dozing in fits and starts, woken by passing freight trains, I look at the stars, trying to work out which way is east. Eventually one portion of the sky begins to pale, and one bright star hangs in the cobalt of bourgeoning dawn beyond the red brick buildings with their teracotta tiled rooves. People start to move around the station, eventually the 7/11 opens and I get a warm bagel and a hot coffee. The bus for Skaelskor arrives and I ask this bus driver how to pay my fare? He explains to me politely, takes my fare and as we drive through the undulating countryside he points out sites of interest for me, the bridge from Zealand to the next Island, the wind turbines across the water.
There is a low mist across the surface of the water and it lies in the valleys. We descend into it and rise out af it at every dip in the road, and the light of the rising sun turns the surface of the mist into a rainbow feild. 

I bid farewell to the bus dricer at Skaeskor, and drag my luggage the final distance to the International Ceramic Centre at Guldagergaard. Today begins the final preparations for this weekends "2 nd European Woodfire Conference". On Saturday morning I will be addressing 140 delegates an the library auditorium. 
It is 7:00 am. I have been travelling for 36 hours. It has been a very long journey to the other side of the world, but I am here, and there is much to do.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Make or Break

There is a golden ring around the moon tonight, the thin whisps of cloud washing eastwards on the skirt tails of Typhoon number 8, while the full moon moves inexorable westward across the southern sky. Mika and the children have all gone inside now. I am alone with the moon, the fire flies and the creaking frogs in the rice paddies that step down into the valley. No, not alone, for I have Shimaoka sensei with me in the shape of a sake cup, and a 12 year old Macallan to share with him. We potters, you see, are like trees. Each vessel we make is like a leaf, it is an expression of our selves, we must create it in order to grow, but we leave it behind to nourish others when we are gone. 

This morning, as the predawn light filtered through the shoji screen, I lay on my futon on the tatami floor listening to my family breath. I do not know what woke me, but as I lay there I heard the house creak and the floor beneath me move sickeningly. Leaping out of bed I flung the Shoji screens open on the engawa and opened the glass doors as the house began to shake and shudder. 

"Jishin!" I called to the family, ready to evaquate them outside if the tremors got any worse. The house swayed, the 140 year old pine logs of it's frame groaning against each other, the joints flexing to absorb the  movement of the earth. A minute, two, the movement gradually subsided, the house settled still. I closed the glass doors and tuck the children back into their beds, then go to check the earthquake details on the web. Magnitude 6.8 off the coast of Fukushima, danger of a small tsunami, 20 cm to a metre. The magnitude measures the amount of energy released at the epicentre, on a scale that peaks at 9....2011 was a 9. The amount of movement caused at any particular point is then measured on the "shindo" scale, based on the acceleration of the earths surface at a particular point in metres per second squared. Today was only a 4 on a scale of 7. 2011 was a 6+ at our home. Today was just a wake up call, at 4:22 precisely.

I prepare "Obentou" lunch boxes for the kids. Sora has an exam today, Rohan and Canaan are off to a basketball practice tournament in Niigata. Opening up the house to let the cool morning air flow through, I make breakfast as well and by the time the alarms start ringing at 6:00am I have lunch and dinner prepared as well. It will just be Sean and I during the day, Mika has a meeting at the senior high school during the morning, so I should be able to concentrate on getting some work done. Work has been a bit slow the last few days, as we had to prepare for the typhoon.

We are always ready for emergencies these days, risk management is what they they call it I suppose. Emergency food and water, we are prepared to be off the grid for days. The cars are never less than half a tank full in case we need to evaquate. Before the typhoon we cleared anything that could be blown away by strong winds from around the house and battened down the hatches. I climbed upstairs and removed the steel chimney stacks before closing the storm shutters. I closed the last one and darkness engulfed me. Closing my eyes, I stood still for a minute to allow my sight to adjust. When I opened them gain the light from the gaps and cracks shone beams through the fine motes of dust, dimly illuminating my way back to the stairs, and reminding me how many more repairs are left to be completed on the old roof. One day....

The schools finished early on Thursday so the kids could get home before the worst of the storm, and they started two hours later than normal yesterday as the typhoon passed through during the night. The town PA system announced that we would have 150mm of rain overnight, and to stay clear of rivers and water channels, being wary of land slides. Our home is well clear of dangerous slopes and on high ground, so once we were locked down we were ready to weather the storm. The wind buffeted the shutters and the rain pounded the roof, helping us find all those leaks we had somehow misplaced, but we came through without major event and by the morning the typhoon had passed, the worst of it going out to sea and then further north. 

It has been a "tradition" in our home, since the children were small, to have drop scones for breakfast in a typhoon. Somehow that touch of normalcy removes the fear from these events, for there will always be typhoons in Japan, though they seem to be stronger and more frequent every year, and it is important to be prepared. Yesterday, I took some of the new 7 sun (21cm) plates from the most recent firing and served breakfast on those. Home made yoghurt in the tenmoku rice bowls with a sprig of mint from the garden for colour, and blue berry jam in the hidasuki bowls. The celadon chattering forms a frame around the meal, and even the simplest of foods becomes cuisine.

I am often asked why I am a potter. I sit down at the table with my loved ones and share this food that we have prepared, on vessels that I have made with my own hands, with the help of nature and good fortune. There is a wholesome beauty which enriches our lives, and as we eat and talk and laugh, I know that I am happy, here, now. It is more than that, though, and as I watch my children I know that they will carry these memories with them all of their lives.

Sean is 9 now, he sits at my right and I watch him enjoy the meal, giving him pointers on manners when necessary. Much as I was when I was a child, slight of build, he doesn't have a big appetite. Often he will be unable to finish what is on his plate. I understand that, but make sure that he always has enough. He was only 6 when the great earthquake hit. 

Memories flood back from when I was small, unable to finish my meal, and my father standing over me, bellowing. Too afraid to ever tell him I was afraid. My mother trying to calm him down. He was from Liverpool, a child during the depression, and leaving food on the plate was unforgivable. He had gone to sea at 15 years of age, during the war when his father had been killed after a german torpedo attack on a convoy of merchant ships. He had known hardship and poverty, and had fought his way through youth and manhood to a home and family in Australia. Anger, yes, and violence, were his first and best answers. He worked hard to put food on the table and pay the bills, and his word was law. His forearms were massive from shovelling coal, with a blue tattoo of a swallow rippling on the skin. His huge hand struck me so hard on the back of the head that my forehead smashed the dinner plate in two. I know my father loved me. I also know that I will never be like him.

I reach out and touch Sean's wavy hair. He looks at me and smiles, then asks me what is wrong? I wipe the tears away and tell him that sometimes I get so happy that it leaks out of my eyes. I tell him I love him, and turn to the rest my children and tell them one by one. Lastly I tell Mika, who has walked this path with me, and thank her. It has not been easy for any of them these last few years. They have grown, we have built a new life here, and we can sit together in beauty and love, and even the simplest of meals is a great feast of joy. It is a much more difficult task to make plates than it is to break them, but it is far more fulfilling. This is just one reason why I am a potter.

Yes, it has been a tiring few days. Months. Years. As I have written the moon has traversed haif the sky. The children have come outside to kiss me goodnight, each in turn, telling me they love me, each asking me if I an OK? I reassure them, hug them, and send them off to bed. 

I tilt my head to the right, further, further yet, until the shadows on the moon become the face which I remember seeing when I was young, in Australia, and the moon traversed the northern sky. Fortunately it is dark and there is no one to see me looking at the sky from such an acute angle. It has been a long couple of days. Oddly, the bottle of Macallan is still almost full. I drain the last few drops from Shimaoka sensei's cup and go inside to my family. 

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Out of the fire

I remove the bricks from the kiln door two at a time, the fire clay that sealed the gaps on the outside flaking off and scattering on the kiln shed floor. Stacking the bricks according to size beside the chimney so that they will be in the right order for the next firing, layer by layer, the space at the top of the kiln begins to open. A glimpse of the top pots, tantalizing, just the rims, then the body. The colour seems good, they seem to have good ash and flashing.....

It has been two days since the firing. Patience is a potters greatest strength. Now that the kiln has dropped from over 1300 degrees celcius to under 70, I can remove the pots with my bare hands. There is no longer the fear of thermal shock. Now there is just the excitement, the anticipation, the discovery of what results I have been blessed with, what losses there may have been. There are nearly 500 vessels in this firing, a months work, and my family is depending on it's success. 

It is now two years since the new kiln was built, and it is firing well. This firing was a perfect 14 hours, the orton cone ten was well bent, meaning the working heat was up to 1325C, and we only used 380kg of fire wood. My production is still not up to my old level, but I'm doing my best. I should be firing again before the end of the month!

Once the door is clear I can see the whole kiln, and it seems to be a good firing. I remove the pots one at a time, checking for flaws, placing them on boards to carry back to the studio if they are good, setting them aside if they are not. Work which is not exhibition quality is set aside to be resorted later, those peices which are of usable standard will be sent to the Tohoku area for the people still living in temporary shelters after the earthquake and tsunami...yes, there are still many, and I hope my pots can help them find a sense of normalcy, a touch of beauty, a moment of joy. 

I line the boards up in the studio, sorted by type; kumidashi chawan (汲み出し茶碗) cups for green tea, gohan chawan (ご飯茶碗) rice bowls, plates, sake cups and bottles...
The afternoon light illuminates them with its soft glow. Jade like celadons and tenmoku with the deep black of laquer ware contrast with the golden hues of the lustrous hidasuki. The vessels have gone beyond me, the forces of nature have made them something new and vibrant. It is a good firing.

The series of tests which I spread throughout the kiln have come out well. They are not exactly the colour which I was pursuing, an oribe style green, but they are close. There are historic examples of oribe this colour, but I am looking for a deeper green. These are a touch pale, a bit thin, poor things! I will beef the next batch up a bit, and each firing I get closer. The most satisfying thing about this batch is the stability of the glaze throughout the kiln, top to bottom, fire face to door. There are subtle variations, but not so much as to prevent them working as a set, interacting with the cuisine served on them. Another step in the journey.

I will finish the feet off tomorrow, grinding back any roughness and polishing them to a smooth finish. At this stage there is only 2% lost out of this kiln load, a very gratifying success rate! My next challenge will be to find homes for these vessels, and then I can begin the cycle again. It is important to take joy in ones achievements, no matter how small, for they are part of the journey, and it is the journey which is most important, not the destination.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

To every thing there is a season

And a time to every purpose...June was called "Minazuki" (水無月) in the old Japanese calendar, the "month without water", not because it did not rain, but because it never stopped. It is the month of "tsuyu" (梅雨),  the wet season, and during this period it was not necessary for the farmers to irrigate the rice paddies, so perhaps "month of no watering" would be a better interpretation? The last few weeks, since I returned from Sydney, it has rained almost incessantly. From fine misty drizzle to torrential thunderstorms, the chequerboard of days and nights has been a study in grey. I have watched the clouds each morning and evening, while ferrying children to and from various schools, from diaphanous whisps which hang low while they embrace the mountains to steel blue thunderheads teetering on the ridgeline ready to crash down into the valley. 

The sultry weather is, however, ideal for making pots that require joining, as the slow drying prevents parts from shrinking at different rates and causing cracking at the join. I have used the time to make teapots, coffee pots and "kyusu" (急須), the side handled pot for green tea. Each pot is constructed from four components; body, spout, handle and lid. So, for 50 pots one must make 200 pieces. They must then be assembled into a functional and aesthetically pleasing form. Patience and concentration are imperative, but timing is the key as all of the parts must be of similar hardness in order to join properly. They will dry slowly over the next few weeks, and we shall see how they emerge from the fire. For now I am happy to have come this far.

These are the first tea and coffee pots that I have made since the earthquake. Many of you have been waiting for them for some time, I know, but it is difficult to do good work in adverse circumstances. While the rain has been keeping the air moist for me, I have worked quietly and steadily. Everything is beautiful in its time, and we cannot force results, we can only wait and rejoice in the things we have today. Who knows what tomorrow may bring?