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 meal...it reminds me of the first time I ate barbequed black bear...an 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 long...it 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?

Saturday, 22 February 2014

A Visit to Oz in May


THE LIFE OF CLAY: The lessons of 25 years in Japan A Demonstration and Talk by Euan Craig

Thursday 29 May 2014; 10am – 1pm

Ceramics Department @ National Art School Forbes St, Darlinghurst Sydney NSW 2010

Euan Craig has spent a lifetime as a potter and the last 25 years in Japan as part of the Hamada Mingei tradition. He will demonstrate the wheel techniques he has learned and developed as a master potter in Japan, and share the experiences and lessons of his life before and since the Great East Japan Earthquake; http://euancraig.com; http://euancraig.blogspot.com.au

Cost: $30 per person ($25 TACA members)

Please note: Full payment is required to ensure a place.

Minimum number: 10; Maximum number: 25

Please arrive by 9.45am to enable a prompt start.

There is no parking on campus, however metered street parking is available in the local streets. Tea and biscuits will be available. Coffee is better from the local cafés.

Payment for workshop:

Saturday, 8 February 2014

The Heart of Mingei


My breath steams as I light the fire in the studio this morning. Icicles hang in a crystal fringe along the eaves as I brave the predawn cold and go outside to open the storm shutters on the house. Snow has made the world a study in black and white, and it creaks beneath my boots as I cross the driveway to the kiln shed for a bundle of firewood for the living room stove as well. I carry the wood back to the house, stamping the clinging snow from my boots on the earth floor of the studio before removing them, and climb the step onto the wooden gallery floor. Sliding the paper shoji screen open, I carry the wood across the tatami mat floor to the slow combustion stove by the window and stoke the fire. This is our third winter in this house in Minakami, our new home.  It still feels strange when I drive to Mashiko, for clay or an exhibition, that a mere 200 km away, two and a half hours on the freeway,  it is a good ten degrees warmer during these winter months. However, here inside the house, and to a lesser degree the studio, we are warm and comfortable. 
Alarms start to buzz and chime as various clocks in the next room join cacophonically with the town sirens. Despite all this noise, which gradually dwindles as each snooze alarm is hit, it still requires the Daddy alarm to finally get the tribe moving. Nothing is as effective in getting a child out of a nice warm futon on a cold morning as someone removing the futon, folding it up and putting it away neatly in the next room. 
Amid the bustle of morning ablutions , Mika and I prepare obento lunches for those who need them and breakfast for all. Savoury ommelette, some stir fried vegetables, "natto" fermented soy beans with some chopped leeks, mustard and soy sauce, white rice, "umeboshi" honey pickled plums and, of course, miso soup with tofu and wakame. It is a classic Japanese breakfast today and, though we have a wide variety of western style breakfasts as well, the food is always served on hand crafted vessels, usually my own but often those made by my friends and colleagues. We always sit down together and chorus "Itadakima~su!"  sharing our meal with those we love. Even the simplest of meals, prepared with love, served on hand made vessels with care for colour and balance, can turn the everyday into art. It can make the difference between living and merely existing.
  The morning sun is a pale thumb smudge in the leaden sky as I drive the children to school through flurries of snow. I washed the rime of ice off the windscreen with a bucket of water from the bath, and the children watch in wonder as frost crystals grow before their eyes along the edges where the wipers do not reach. Nature shows us sublime beauty in the most unexpected places, if only we have eyes to see.  The understanding of this beauty is common to us all, regardless of various cultural biases. It is this common beauty that forms the heart of mingei, and the call of that beauty is what brought me to Japan.

As I enter my twenty-fifth year in Japan I am honoured to be included in the Tochigi Prefecture Mingei Association Members Exhibition. I remember the young potter who arrived at Narita with all his worldy possesions in two carrier bags and a two year plan. A new life, a new culture, a new language. I could never have imagined the journey that has brought me here.
I was once told that I should strive to live the ordinary life in  an extraordinary way.  Not success in the conventional measure, and never easy, but a simple, honest life. Full of love and laughter, beauty and hope. If, through my work, I can bring this simple beauty to the lives of others, then that is a life worth living. 
I return home through the thickening snow. Perhaps I will be able to make some pots today, or perhaps the winter tasks will keep me away from clay. It is what it is, and I am happy to be who and where I am. Yes, it has been a long and difficult journey, but I would not change a single day.
A Message from the Mingei Association

 The Tochigi Prefecture Mingei Association presents this exhibition of works by its members who are involved in the making of objects.
Our ancestors nurtured a "Culture of Handcraft" in their everyday lives, a cultural heritage which it is the mission of our association is to pass on to the next generation. As makers, those exhibiting here shoulder their part of that responsibility, however,  the hand of the user exists in the "Culture of Handcraft", and it is there that a point of completion is first achieved. We hope that many people can receive an understanding of the pleasure of selecting a handcrafted "object", along with the joy of using it. 
That is the reason why this exhibition is titled "The Craftsman's Proposal for Life".
The meeting with a handcrafted "object" gives birth to a moment of resonance between the feelings of the maker and the user. At that moment the "object's" brilliance grows and fills the life of the user with colour.
This exhibition also invites you to love and cherish these "objects" 
and to "live beautifully".  It is our hope that it will give rise to many such encounters.

" A Sensibility Cultivated by Mashiko; The Craftsman's Proposal for Life."
The exhibition is of recent work, about thirty per craftsperson, by the 21 craftsman members of the Tochigi Mingei Association; Akashi Shousaku, Ishikawa Masakazu, Ohtsuka Kazuhiro, Ohtsuka Seiich, Ohtsuka Masayoshi, Okada Takahito, Ogawa Hirohisa, Kasahara Yoshiko, Sakuma Fujiya, Shimaoka Kei, Tokoi Takaichi, Hamada Shinsaku, Hamada Tomoo, Hamada Hidemine, Hagiwara Yoshinori, Higeta Masashi, Fukushima Haruo, Matsuzaki Ken, Matsuzaki Touru, Matsuzaki Osamu, and, of course, Euan Craig.

By popular demand, the exhibition has been extended till the 16th of February

Friday, 29 November 2013

20 years...


 
The charcoal brazier glows red in the shadows of the gallery. The air is fragrant with charcoal and grilled chicken; this evening I dined at home. Some fresh bread from the Mitsukoshi bakery, an avocado, half price because it was perfectly ripe, a sachet of tartare sauce. One of my guests at the opening brought a bottle of red which needs to be drunk...perhaps I do, too, but one bottle of red does not a summer make. All that is lacking is a book of verse and thou...and some wilderness...in order to be paradise enow. For the middle of Tokyo, however, this is close enough.




It is twenty years since my first exhibition in Tokyo, here at the Ebiya Bijutsuten. A lifetime, well, thinking of my children, maybe four lifetimes ago. The eleventh of November, 1993, representing "Australian Ceramics" as part of the Australian embassy "Celebrate Australia" campaign. On the 1st of January, 1994 I married Mika in Sydney and have been working very hard at happily ever aftering ever since. It has been a long journey, and, barring earthquakes and nuclear disasters, it has been annually punctuated by a nine day sojourn here at Ebiya. This years opening was blessed with the performance of my good friends Bill and Eric. The children sang and it was a joyous celebration.




Each morning I rise and light the brazier, and after breakfast I prepare the gallery for the coming day; clearing away my futon and chattels, rearranging the display, polishing each vessel with a soft cloth. Miyake san comes down from his home on the tenth floor, replaces the water on the "kamidana" (god shelf), pays homage to the god above the door, opens the "Butsudan" (family shrine) containing his father, the eighth in the Miyake dynasty and with whom I share the tea room, and lights incense for his ancestors. After he vacuums the floors and waters the plants, the kettle has boiled and we often sit and chat over a bowl of tea in my most recent tea bowls. The bustle of Tokyo shuffles past outside, we can hear the commuters chatting to each other beyond the shoji, admiring the window display, making a verbal note to come back at lunch time....




The Gallery opens at 11:00am, and I don the official ebiya "Hanten", a light smock of sorts, open at the front, which bears the insignia of the Ebiya Bijutsuten, purveyors to the imperial household for nine generations. Miyake san makes me wear his, the "ten shuu" (shop master) hanten, for he says that while my exhibition is on, I am the master. I'm not sure that that is true, but it is a sign of his humility that he should make such a gesture. He is a very kind and generous soul, and I am proud to count him as one of my very best friends. 




Visitors arrive, one after another, many of them old friends, some of them visiting for the first time. The gallery stands on the corner of Chuo dori, the main street of Tokyo, not five hundred metres from the Nihombashi Bridge, the geographical centre of Japan. All roads lead to Nihombashi, the Bridge of Japan, and even the river which flows beneath it is called the "Bridge of Japan River", a temporal conundrum in and of itself! 




Ebiya is a dealer in antiquities, and has been since 1673. My work is displayed on furniture from the Edo, Meiji, Taisho and Showa periods. In the "Tokonoma" display shelf, Miyake san has hung a Kakejiku scroll from the mid edo period, a painting of a shrimp, its back bent, a sign of longevity, a "Tai" (Schnapper) which is a play on words implying "Omedetai" which is a great celebration, and "Tako" (Octopus) which, when written in different Kanji as a pun, means "great good fortune". What better symbols could be imagined for a dealer in antiquities, the name of which translates as "Prawn shop", its Master and an expatriate Australian who form the core of the "Oyajigag Fukyuurenmei" (Society for the revival of old bloke puns).



"Okyakusan" in Japanese encompasses both customers and guests, and we greet each guest as we would a friend. We explain the work to them, share tea with them in my cups, laugh with them...many of them have been using my vessels for years and come to add to their collection; not to display but to use. So many of them tell me how my pots have become a part of their everyday lives, and that they find solace and peace in them which is a relief from the stress of modern life.



Sometimes we sit around the charcoal brazier and talk about life, the susurration of the kettle hanging on its "Jizaikagi" hook above the embers weaving subtly through the conversation, the wall clocks striking the approximate hours, one after another.

The vessels sit comfortably on the furniture of ages past. They belong here. There is a beauty which can be found in the natural functionality of life, which is not swayed by fashion and transcends language and culture. A beauty which is humanistic and common to us all, and which is relevant regardless of era. It is this universal beauty for which I strive, and there is no better place to test it than in the hands and on the tables of my customers and guests, in the hands and on the tables of professional chefs, and in the peace and harmony of the classic furnishings of this gallery. 




Ever since the first opening party here, the food has been provided by Chef Hashimoto Touru of Kappo Toyoda, a fifth generation Japanese chef and one of the finest Kaiseki restaurants in Tokyo. Much to my chagrin I was unable to provide enough vessels for a course menu at his restaurant this time. But we have great plans!

This week I have dined at several restaurants in Nihombashi which are using my vessels, and it is of immeasurable value to learn the role these vessels play in the meal, the harmonies that they make with the food and the orchestration that the chef creates with the total meal. I will take these lessons home and strive to add to that great song. 




In the end, it is those who use my vessels, who find joy in them, that bring my vessels to completion. I offer them here, in the best way that I can, so that others may see them and feel the spirit with which they were made. I wait here for those who have used my vessels to tell me how they fare. I bide here waiting to return to my loved ones and share my life with them. I will be here a few more days, and then I can go home to where I truly belong. Till then, I await you here, at Ebiya in Nihombashi, as I have for twenty years, and I hope for many years to come.