Friday 24 December 2010

Merry Christmas

'Tis the night before Christmas, and all through the house,
Not a creature is stirring......

The children have had their stir of the Christmas pudding, made their wish and gone off to bed, and now the pudding sits steaming on the wood stove, two hours gone, two more to go. While they sleep and dream of Father Christmas the tree lights up the lounge room. We bought this tree as a seedling when we moved to this house, and we bring it inside every Christmas. Before long it will reach the ceiling, and then we shall take it out of its pot and plant it into the ground, and we shall buy a new tree. It has grown with the children, and we all take great pleasure in decorating it every year.

The star atop out tree is not gold, but it is precious to us. I made it when the kids were small, and one day they will tell their children, "You're Da made that!" I am in no hurry for that day to come, because each year my children hunt through the decorations for "Daddy's Star", and the tree is only finished when I put the star in place.

Christmas is not complete without Mika's wreath hanging beside the door. She uses the prunings from our cypress trees, and holly from the local community hall garden (Yes, she even asked permission!).

In the morning, if the children have been good of course, their stockings will be full of presents, the last job for Father Christmas before he goes to bed.

So, whither so ever scattered over the earths broad surface you may be, I wish you a peaceful and blessed Christmas.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Monday 22 November 2010

Just My Cup of Tea

I was sitting with Miyake san in the tea room, enjoying macha from some of my new bowls. This is where my tea ware is really tested, and we have done so every year. Tomorrow we will be having a tea ceremony here with fifteen Japanese guests and we are selecting the bowls today from those which I have in the exhibition. Some are better for summer than this cold autumn day, and some might be better on the lawn under the cherry blossoms in spring, but the choice of bowl is an expression of the tea masters sense, and there are plenty to choose from. As we talk I remember other days in this room, other bowls and conversations. A couple of seasons ago I wrote an essay about such a day, and I share it again with you here, with some photos of this years exhibition.

Just My Cup Of Tea

Sitting in the tea room at the back of the gallery, I listen to the whisper of the water as it simmers in its iron kettle on the charcoal brazier. Its lid is slightly askew, leaving a gap at the edge which stops the water from boiling over. The mid morning light filters through the paper of the shoji screens to softly illuminate the tatami floor.

In the Tokonoma alcove is a bottle shaped vase with a single blossom. “Hidasuki” straw marks circle its neck and drape down the side where the wood flame has hit the porcelain surface. Beside it on the wall is a “kakejiku” scroll. It is a painting from the Edo period of the view of Nihombashi from the street outside. The merchants bustle about between what has now become the Mitsukoshi department store on the left and the Mitsui bank on the right, with the road between them leading up to Edo Castle, now the imperial palace, and Mount Fuji in the background. Usually the kakejiku would be calligraphy, a poem or phrase in Kanji characters, but Miyake san has chosen this painting because it is of where we are, an echo of the past which lives on in the tradition of the tea ceremony. Among the characters bustling in the street scape is a merchant carrying a large chest wrapped in a furoshiki cloth on his back. I joke with Miyake san that this is his great grandfather moving to Nihombashi from Kyoto with the Meiji emperor in 1868.

The writing was on the wall. It said;

“By Appointment to the Imperial Household

Ebiya Art Gallery

Dealers in Tea Ceremony Wares and Antiquities

Since 1672”

On the mat in front of me, on one of my small square plates, is an exquisite “Mame Daifuku”, a cake of sweet bean encased in rice paste. These are from the same shop in Ueno where I first tasted them, and though I have had them from other makers since, none compare with these.

Miyake san enters the room with a tray, his soft white footware brushing gently across the tatami. On the tray are arranged tea bowl (Machawan), tea caddy (Natsume), whisk (Chasen) and bamboo spoon (Chashaku). He bows deeply and then carries them to the space in front of the brazier.

In the back of my mind I can hear my mothers voice, “Take the pot to the kettle, dear, not the kettle to the pot.”

The tea room at Ebiya is unusual in that the brazier is in the back left corner, meaning that many of the actions must be done in mirror image of a normal tea ceremony. “Ki An” is the title of the tea room. It is difficult to translate, as the “Ki” means to return home, and the “An” means tea house. This is especially significant for me. When I came to Japan I had to choose kanji characters for my own name, as stamps, not signatures, were necessary for all legal documents. It meant giving new meaning to my self. The kanji I chose were “Yu” which is glaze, and “An”, the same kanji as the tea room, to which I have returned every year since 1993. This tea room, at the back of the gallery in the centre of Tokyo, is where I sleep during the exhibition, and I prepare my breakfast over the brazier and welcome guests into my home here. This tea room is a home to which I can return.

Removing a cloth from the “Obi” sash of his kimono, unfolding and refolding it, he begins to meticulously clean the tools on the tray. First the natsume, then the chashaku are wiped and replaced on the tray, each movement economical and elegant. The chasen and “chakin” (tea cloth) are removed from the bowl, and he begins to wash it. Setting the lid straight on the kettle he lifts it and pours some hot water into the bowl. After replacing the kettle he lifts the Chasen, examines it, whisks the water, turns the chasen to examine it again, and replaces it on the tray. He then empties the water from the tea bowl into a “Kensui” bowl that he had prepared behind him. The Kensui is taller and wider than a chawan, flared at the top to accept the discarded water. Using the chakin he wipes the bowl dry, four strokes which cover the base of the bowl and spell the word “Iri”, to “put care” into an action.

“Always warm the pot with hot water first, dear, before you make the tea,” says mums melodious voice.

As he lifts the Chashaku, he turns to me with a smile. “Okashi o douzo,” he says, please enjoy your cake. I lift the plate from the floor, cut a piece of the “Daifuku” with my cake blade and place it in my mouth. These are one of my favourite cakes, the soft sweetness of the coarsely ground bean inside playing against the slight springy resistance of the rice paste casing, with just a hint of salt.

Mum used to serve the best scones with lemon curd and cream for morning tea, the savoury flavour of the fresh baked scone, the tartness of the lemon, the saltiness of the butter, the smoothness of the cream…….

As I eat, Miyake san removes the lid from the natsume and spoons out some bright green powdered tea into the bowl with the chashaku, striking it gently but sharply against the edge of the bowl to shake off any clinging powder. Each year he has a special delivery of macha made from the first leaves of the new crop, the “Shincha”. The colour is more vivid than most tea, the fragrance lighter, the flavour sweeter.

There was one brand of tea that Mum insisted on. “All the others taste like the sweepings from the teahouse floor!” she’d say, “Now, one spoon for each person and one for the pot….”

Pouring the water once more into the bowl and replacing the kettle on the brazier, he lifts the chasen and begins to whisk the tea. Making a bridge from rim to rim with the thumb and middle finger of his left hand he vigorously whisks the tea into a foam, finally slowing to a stop and gently lifting the chasen from the bowl. After putting the chasen back on the tray he lifts the bowl with his right hand onto the palm of his left, turns it twice, perhaps a quarter turn each time, until the front of the tea bowl faces me. He reaches out and places it wordlessly on the tatami in front of me.

“Always turn the pot three times in a clockwise direction,” says mum….

“Chodai itashimasu,” (I gratefully receive this) I say as I reach out with my right hand and slide my fingers under the hip of the bowl till I touch the foot, place my thumb on the lip and lift it to the palm of my left hand. The foot fits comfortably between the first and third joints of my fingers, smooth against my skin. I also turn it twice, till the face of the bowl is now towards him and then move the fingers of my right hand to the side of the bowl. After a slight bow, I lift it to my lips. The colour of the green tea against the orange flashing on the wood fired surface lift each other, and the warm fragrant fumes waft across my face. The lingering sweetness in my mouth from the daifuku mingles with the spicy flavour of the tea. There is no other flavour to which it can be likened. It is macha.

I finish the tea and smile in satisfaction as I lower the bowl. The last skerrick of tea runs down into the throwing rings in the centre of the bowl, making a green spiral against the flashed porcelain, like the ying and yang. I wipe the lip and turn the bowl once more so that I can see the face, where the “hidasuki” marks of the tatami straw mingle with the wood ash where the flame has licked the surface and begun to form runnels. I invert the bowl to examine the foot, the turned surface distinct from the thrown, with shell marks on the foot ring from where it was set in the kiln. I turn the bowl once more and pass it back to Miyake san, who has been waiting, watching, patiently.

He takes the bowl once more, washes it as before and says to me, “Moh ippuku ikaga desu ka?” (Would you care for another cup?) I waver for a moment, then reply, “Iie, oshimai kudasai.” (No, please feel free to finish.)

He bows. “Oshimai itashimasu.” (I will draw to a close.) He pours hot water in the bowl once more, this time to wash the chasen, which he examines carefully to make sure it is clean and undamaged. After disposing of the water in the kensui once more he wipes the bowl and places it on the tray. He wipes and replaces the chashaku and natsume into their correct position on the tray, refolds his cloth and tucks it back into his obi. Rising to a crouch, he lifts the tray, stands, and shuffles quietly from the room, kneeling to bow deeply at the door.

I wait quietly for his return, savouring the calm, alone for a moment once more with the kettles song. It is easy to forget that the bustle of central Tokyo is only metres away. Just on the other side of the shoji screens, beyond the display windows, crowds throng and traffic oozes along the “Chuo Doori”(central road) to and fro across Nihombashi, the bridge of Japan. The river which runs below it is named after the bridge. The centre of the bridge marks the geographical centre of Japan, and the imperial palace is just a short stroll away.

He returns with the bowl and places it in front me.

“Doh?” (How was it?) I ask.

He smiles. “Hijouni tsukaiyasui!” (Very comfortable to use!) he says enthusiastically. “The shape and surface make it very easy to foam the tea, and the size fits the hand exactly. Did you see how the colours worked together?” I smile and nod. We sit and examine the bowl again, dissecting it, holding it and turning it. Discussing how it fits in the hand, how stable it was to whisk the tea, how beautifully it enhanced the tea. We have done this every year, and I have learned about tea. It isn’t just the bowl. It’s the entirety of the ceremony that is art, art in process. I would never pretend to be a tea master, for to become a tea master is a life long dedication. No, I am just a potter who is a student of tea at best.

The tea ceremony isn’t an arcane mystery, it is an exploration of the beauty of simplicity. It touches all your senses, gently, with no embellishment. How simply, beautifully and most of all deliciously can you make a cup of tea? For that is the essence of a tea bowl, not a rigid structure of size or form or colour, not a regurgitation of how other tea bowls are, but a foray into the pleasure of a nice cup of tea.

It is the morning of my fourteenth annual exhibition here at Ebiya Gallery, and the doors will soon be open for business. But for this little time Miyake san and I have it to ourselves. We step from the tea room into the main gallery space, with my pots displayed on its antique furnishings. Later I will wrap the teabowls in saffron cloth and sign boxes for them, sealing them with my Japanese stamp. And hopefully they will come to life in someone elses hands and give them joy in using them, just as I have taken joy in their making.

And somewhere in the back of my mind, “There’s nothing like a nice hot cup of tea.” Say’s mum…

Sunday 21 November 2010

Opening Day

The customers have gone; I am alone. Midnight has just passed and the five antique clocks which hang on the walls of Ebiya Gallery just struck sixty o'clock. It was a quiet opening, partly due to the fact that the advertising didn't start till Thursday, but also because that is what I wanted this time.

I had prepared half the exhibition two months ago, but there were always those other vessels that I wanted to make....and so the Mashiko Pottery festival came and went, and the shelves were full of pots waiting to be fired. I selected the best 400, and stacked the kiln. After over 200 wood firings I know where the flame will flow, where the ash will fall, where the clouds of vapour will caress the surface of the vessels. Using sea shells and Igusa straw I stacked the pots, and when the kiln was full I sealed it up and prayed. My skill is only a fraction of the finished pot, for at every stage I am borrowing the forces of nature and adding to them a purpose. It is the nature of matter, of amorphous clay, to find a shape which will bring balance, peace and harmony within the parameters of the natural forces at work upon it. It is the nature of humanity to be nature self aware, to recognise the beauty of nature and express it with our own unique voice. But we cannot control nature, we can only guide it, and it is only by surrendering control to the greater power of the universe that our endeavours can find true beauty in form. And so I fire my kiln, knowing about how carbon and oxygen and hydrogen and sodium will all play their parts, but understanding that the kiln, the flame, will tell me when it needs more wood, or  less draft, or more air.

Sean, with all the wisdom of a five year old, asked if he could help. "Of course", I said, though the kiln was seething at volcanic temperatures. "Can you count to 5?" I asked.
"Yes." said a confident small voice.
"Then please pass me five pieces of wood."
And so he did, and he arranged them in rows, and passed them to me when I needed them, and the firing belonged to him as well. When the pots emerged from the kiln they were his pots also, and they were the most beautiful pots I have ever made.

Beauty is not a noisy thing. It is quiet and strong and gentle.

I sit in the gallery alone, but not lonely at all, for these pots are born of my love of life, and each is a voice singing softly to my soul. All of my experience, those I have loved and who are gone, those who love me and give me strength, those who wait for my return, are part of these quiet pots, and I will sleep in peace tonight.

Friday 19 November 2010

Tokyo Exhibition

I would like to invite you all to my 17th annual exhibition at Ebiya Bijutsuten (Ebiya Gallery) in Nihombashi,Tokyo. I am honoured to be able to exhibit here once again, and Miyake san was kind enough to write the following introduction;

Concerning Euan Craig

“My vessels first become complete the moment they are used by the hands of my guests.” These are the words which always spring from Euan’s mouth and they express his passion as a potter. For over 17 years, since I first met Euan till this very day, this has been an unchanging quality imbued in his work.

Always full of smiles to greet you, under any circumstances, Euan is a potter with a truly gentle heart. I cannot help but believe that it is because of this that every single vessel which is born of his hands returns a heart warming message from everyone who uses them.

Together with Euan, we have accumulated these annual exhibitions one by one. I am blessed to have shared such wonderful times with him, and I am a truly happy man.

It is simply my heartfelt hope that in times to come, 10 years, 20 years…and even 100 years hence, Euan’s vessels will continue at everyones side, to be loved and find treasured use, forever and always.

Masahiro Miyake
9th Generation Master of Ebiya Art Gallery,
Nihombashi, Tokyo
Purveyors in Antiquities since 1672







海老屋美術店 9代目店主 三宅正洋


2010.11.20.Sat.-28.Sun. 11:00am-7:00pm (Open everyday)

Opening Party; November 20th from 5:00pm, with cuisine provided by Kappo Toyoda.

3-2-18 Muro-machi, Nihonbashi,Chuoh-ku, Tokyo 103-0022
TEL. 03-3241-6543
FAX. 03-3241-1914

I'll be at the gallery every day. If you are in the area, please visit and enjoy my new work.

I look forward to seeing you there.

Euan Craig

Friday 1 October 2010

The Book of Pots

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,

Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,

Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

If I were to name just one book which has inspired me most in both my approach to pottery and to the way I live my life, it would be the "Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam". Written by a Persian poet in the twelfth century and rendered into English by Edward Fitzgerald in the nineteenth, it teaches about life and the miracle of the ordinary.

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A flask of Wine, a Book of Verse - and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness -
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

Probably not what one might expect, but more than any other work it has inspired me to live in the moment. I know as much as anyone the ephemerallity of life, yet the Rubaiyat puts it into sharp focus.

Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust, to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and - sans End!

It has taught me to recognise that I am a part of nature and that, though I cannot control the challenges which fate puts before me, my actions and choices are completely my own.

For in the Market-place, one Dusk of Day,
I watch'd the Potter thumping his wet Clay:
And with its all obliterated Tongue
It murmur'd - "Gently, Brother, gently, pray!"

Perhaps my favourite section is the "Kuza Nama" or the "Book of Pots". One day I shall have an exhibition with that title, for it has taught me that the making of pots is a process of self development, and that a potter is defined by his works, just as a human is defined by their actions.

Listen again. One Evening at the Close
Of Ramazan, ere the better Moon arose,
In that old Potter's Shop I stood alone
With the clay Population round in Rows.

And, strange to tell, among that Earthen Lot
Some could articulate, while others not:
And suddenly one more impatient cried -

"Who is the Potter, pray, and who the Pot?"

When I was a boy trying to deal with the difficulties and injustices of life, struggling to find some self esteem, watching helplessly as fate stripped away the possibilities of those I loved and searching for hope and a path forward; my Aunty Thora introduced me to Omar.

None answer'd this; but after Silence spake
A Vessel of more ungainly Make:
"They sneer at me for leaning all awry;
What! did the Hand then of the Potter shake?"

She was a philosopher, and eventually gained a University Degree in Philosophy at the age of 72. Sitting in the light of the oil lamps in the kitchen at the farm, surrounded by cascading mountains of books, She and Omar taught me to accept the world as it is; for the world, as it is, is a beautiful and wondrous place. No nonsense, no facade, they taught me to face myself. Many of the things which society teaches us are "Important", politics and power, fame and fortune, are illusions that will blow away with the sands of time, and that true happiness can be found in the simple things of life.

Waste not your Hour, nor in the vain pursuit

Of This and That endeavour and dispute;
Better be merry with the fruitful Grape
Than sadden after none, or bitter, Fruit.

And so I chose to become a potter, not because of what I wanted to do, but rather who I wanted to become. I do not have the things which most people associate with success; but I love my wife and my children and they love me, and I sleep with a clear conscience. As I write I hold one of my goblets and sip plum wine that a friend made. It is sweet and has a subtle almond fragrance which goes nicely with the cheese toasted on our home baked bread. I have today and it is good. I cannot heal the world, nor can I always take away the anguish from the hearts of those I love, though I wish with all my heart that I could. But I can give form to my passion, and through these vessels perhaps give joy to others and help them find succour in simply living. And perhaps in a hundred or eight hundred years this clay that my fingers have touched will touch the lips of another and give them hope. Just as Omar's words reached over eight hundred years and all the barriers of language and culture to touch my heart, and these words I write tonight may reach some anonymous reader elsewhere on the globe.

Ah, my Beloved, fill the Cup that clears
To-day of past Regrets and future Fears:

To-morrow! - Why, To-morrow I may be
Myself with Yesterday's Sev'n thousand Years.



Wednesday 29 September 2010

Making Tea Bowls

Yesterdays rain is gone, and a cool breeze brushes my face as I rake the chestnuts and their prickly pods from the front lawn. I have seen the older children off to school, but Sean insists on helping with his own small rake before he leaves. When we are done, and I have swept the drive, we stand back and survey our handiwork. Satisfied, we shake hands, his tiny five year old hand enveloped in my gentle grip, and he merrily goes off to pre-school with Mika. As I put the tools away I notice a blush of red among the foliage of the woods.

It is not the autumn leaves that one might expect, but the berries of the Sansho, the native Japanese pepper. I collect them in a bowl and wash them before putting them out in a woven bamboo tray to dry. As they dry they will split, revealing the black seed inside. We will remove the husks, separating them from the seeds and stems, and it is these red husks that we will grind into the fragrant sansho pepper. The seasons march on.

The light is soft through the studio doors as I spiral wedge the ten kilograms of clay, one hundred times anticlockwise, reverse the piece of clay, one hundred times more, then finish in a cone. I place the clay on the wheel head and top up the water in my throwing bowl. The throwing bench is clean, and I place my favourite ware board beside the wheel. (Yes, I have a favourite ware board, but that's another story.) Beside the water bowl I place my one ended throwing string and my sponge, as these are the only tools I will use today. I am ready to begin.

I throw a little slower than I would perhaps for other forms, letting the clay find it's centre beneath my fingers, letting the marks of the process remain on the clay. I do not measure, at least not with a ruler. I feel the amount of clay that I can hold comfortably in my hand, I lift it and belly it into a form which will be good for whisking the tea. The curve of the bowl must fit the hand, the lip must be comfortable to drink from, the inside must have somewhere for the tea to settle. There are names for all the parts of a tea bowl, just as there are names for all the parts of a tree. A tree however is not constructed from parts, it grows as a whole, and it cares not for the words we use to describe it. To make a tea bowl according to a formula of parts is to make a bowl which is about "tea bowls", not to make a bowl for tea. And so each bowl I make is different, an exploration of form, surface and space. The kiln will finish them for me, but for now I seek only to embrace this moment and release it into the clay, giving form to the forces of nature.

The making of tea bowls is not a simple thing of measurements and rules. There are a plethora of books about tea bowls, with photographs and measurements of classic examples, and these are useful as a guide. But they are useful in the same way as a wine guide. It gives an intellectual framework perhaps, but understanding only comes through the drinking of the wine. How much greater must the understanding, the knowledge and the skill base then be in order to make a fine wine? It was for this reason that I became a student of the tea ceremony some years ago, as I had been asked by many Japanese friends to make tea bowls yet lacked an understanding of their use and the philosophy of tea.

By studying the art of tea I began to understand that the tea bowl is part of a greater art work, an installation if you like, in which both the server and the drinker of the tea actively participate. The bowl is the focal point, the conduit through which all of these aspects interact, but it is dependent on the rest of the whole. The tea ceremony is a celebration of experiencing the simple sensual beauty of the moment. Thus the season, the weather, the ambiance all become vital players. I received these licences to practice the tea ceremony from the Urasenke school of tea on October 10th, 1998. I will be learning for the rest of my life.

The making of tea bowls is, for me, a quiet and gentle thing. Just as a tree cannot be forced to grow, just as a child must be nurtured, the clay must be allowed to take form. It is my task to stay still and wait for the bowl to find a shape that fits my hand, and to know when to release it. It is about being aware of the changes happening before your eyes and recognising the moment, and it is like holding a child's hand firm enough to guide it, but never too tight.

Wednesday 22 September 2010

Tokyo Workshop

EUAN CRAIG Master Class

at International School of the Sacred Heart, Tokyo

Saturday October 16th

(Suitable for clay minded people of all abilities)



Getting a handle on knobs, spouts, stems and attachments.

A practical workshop on the design and techniques for constructing functional pottery from thrown components, with special focus on pulled handles.

Cost ¥12,000 ( this includes lunch and ¥1,000 donation to SEEDS Nepal I.S.S.H. Charity Project )

(The three one day ISSH Master Classes have been awarded 1 credit from Univeristy of San Diego)


With a career spanning over thirty years, Euan Craig is internationally renowned for his elegant wood fired functional ceramics. He began his pottery career at the age of fourteen in the historic pottery town of Bendigo, Australia and after gaining a degree in Ceramic Design from Latrobe University, he established the Castle Donnington Pottery in Swan Hill, Victoria. Strongly influenced by the philosophy of the Mingei Art movement and, in particular, the work of Japanese National Living Treasure Shoji Hamada, Euan left his native Australia to pursue his career in the traditional pottery village of Mashiko, Japan. Euan apprenticed to Hamada’s successor as Mashiko’s preeminent master potter, Tatsuzou Shimaoka, who was also designated a Japanese National Living Treasure, and after graduating established his own studio in the neighbouring town of Ichikai. He is Shimaoka’s only foreign “Deshi” apprentice to have remained in the Mashiko area, where he has worked for over twenty years.

Euan has had numerous exhibitions of his ceramics at galleries throughout Japan, including the prestigious Mitsukoshi and Takashimaya Department Stores and the Ebiya Art Gallery in Nihombashi, Tokyo, as well as exhibiting internationally in Australia, North America and Europe. He has taught workshops and summer schools in Japan, Australia and the UK, and his “Eco” fast fire wood kiln design is being used by many potters in Japan and the rest of the world. Essays and articles by and about Euan have appeared in publications in Japan and internationally, and he has made several appearances on Japanese radio and television. His signature dinners and collaborations with leading Japanese and French chefs have gained him an international reputation, leading the field in hand crafted wood fired functional ceramics.

What people have said about Euan;

“His stance in pursuit of the beauty of function 
which is useful to people in their everyday lives is superb.”

Tatsuzou Shimaoka
 : Japanese National Living Treasure

“When one thinks of “Mingei” in global terms, it can be said that his stance is pointing a way forward for the inheritance of “mingei” in the modern age.”

Ikuzo Fujiwara :Director Kyohan 6 Gallery, Mashiko, Japan

For information about other master Classes:

Masakazu Kusakabe -“The Japanese Tea Bowl” April 9th

David and Margaret Frith "THROWN, PADDLED AND BEATEN" 2 Day workshop March 4/5

Swanica Ligtenberg “Horse Hair Fuming and altered thrown forms” May 14th

Please contact:

Thursday 9 September 2010

Nature by design

Generally speaking, nature is beautiful as a matter of course. It doesn't set out to be beautiful or spontaneous, it just goes about the business of arranging matter in accordance with the laws of physics and as a collateral effect creates patterns and forms that we find beautiful. I would contend that we find them beautiful because we are part of the same universe, made of the same material according to the same laws. Effectively the universe made self conscious, looking at itself and applying abstract meaning to its perceptions, and thereby defining it itself.

The shape and structure of minerals is determined by the way in which the atoms of which they are formed fit together as a matrix. The substructures of cleavage planes and angles thus formed determine the colour, hardness, diaphaneity and crystalline shape of the minerals, in short all of its physical properties which we find beautiful. It is a consequence on the large scale of a process which happens at the atomic level, according to the laws of physics.

When all the conditions were right the universal laws dictated that life should enter the scene, creating new and more complex structures. The shape of cells and the imprint of genetic coding has created a rich and diverse myriad of life forms on this little wet rock which spins around the sun. Within all these life forms, plant or animal, is a drive to survive, to flourish and to procreate. Whether it is a single strand of hair from an arctic bear designed to insulate against the cold or the hexagonal matrix of a beehive, nature creates structures that are efficient and ingenious and incidentally beautiful on every level.

The synchronised aerial acrobatics of a flock of birds, the aquatic ballet of a school of fish. The colour, shape and fragrance of a flower designed to attract insects to pollinate and bear fruit, the plumage and dance of a bird of paradise to attract a mate. There is a purpose in nature, in every aspect, and nature creates infinitely varied and structured patterns and forms incidentally to that purpose. We humans also have evolved in the same world according to the same principles, and somewhere along the line we have started to understand some of these principles and manipulate them to our advantage. That the hair of these animals is warm, and if we spin its fibres and weave the threads together we can create garments which allow us to increase our area of activity in environments that we could not have survived in naked. If we breed these animals or propagate these crops we can guarantee our food supply throughout the year. If we fire this clay we can make vessels to store, cook and serve these foods.

And so, incidental to our own struggle for survival and procreation, we created patterns and forms which were based on practical and efficient principles, and they were beautiful. Beautiful in the same sublime way that nature makes the scales of a fish or the fronds of a fern or the rising and setting of the sun. We have flourished. Our ancestors took nature to wife and husbanded it well, nurturing it and caring for it so that we in turn could enjoy the bounty of its embrace. Useful, beautiful, healthy and sustainable. Each generation passed it's knowledge to the next, adding their own experience and discoveries. Knowledge alone, however, is not enough, and a system of training and practice became established and this became tradition. Through training, practice and repetition we master the skills until they become natural to us, like language, allowing us to express our thoughts and feelings through the medium of our craft.

Our ancestors learned that cooking some foods made them more palatable, and that by combining them with other foods their flavour, fragrance and food value could be increased. As the range and variety of foods increased, so too did the need for vessels appropriate for the serving of that food. Hot liquids, for example, required shapes to keep them hot, handles so that we could hold them without burning our fingers, saucers to catch the liquid if it spilt, plates to serve fairy cakes on. As each individuals perspective and perception is unique, so too are our solutions to those design challenges and our artistic expressions.

These skills are not hard wired into our genetic code, however. Heredity does not imbue us with the skill to sit down and make a cup and saucer. One cannot stand up one day and spontaneously make or pull handle which springs from the vessel in organic curves, twisting in tendrils round the chattered hip of the vessel. These are skills we must learn, and we all start from the same point. No accident of birth gives us the ability to automatically be a potter, though circumstance may place us in an environment that nourishes our creative spirit so that we may grow to be one. It is only after we have trained and practiced and made a hundred or two hundred or a thousand, that those skills become natural to us, allowing us free and spontaneous expression.

Traditional society is all but gone, and the healthy beauty that existed as a consequence of it is going with it. It is, therefore, the task of our generation to be aware of our place as nature self aware and to consciously choose to be a part of the real world. Not the disposable industrial construct that we have built around us to separate us from nature, not the virtual escape and the veneration of the useless. This world that we have taken to spouse is not disposable, and the health and welfare of our children depends on how well we husband it. We are part of this beautiful world, and we have the ability to create art which is useful, beautiful, healthy and sustainable by design.

The matter which makes our universe, the space in which it exists and the principles by which they interact are part of a grand design, though who you believe that designer to be is not for me to say. Never the less, the universe is beautiful as a matter of course, and we are part of that.

Wednesday 1 September 2010

What's for Dinner?

They tell me that Autumn has come, but the cicadas don't seem to be convinced. The children are back to school today after six weeks of holidays, (though with the volumes of homework they had I'm not sure that's the right word!). The days are still long and hot, not as humid as they have been, and the garden is green and lush.

Each morning Mika goes out to the vegetable plot and harvests the days produce. No chemicals or pesticides have been used on this land for at least twenty five years, so our vegetables are organically grown and ripened on the vine. During this time of year we get by with mostly our own produce. With four growing children we need all the help we can get!

Many of the vegetables that we grow here are the same as I had in Australia, but often there are subtle differences. The cucumbers that we grow here are much more slender with very thin skins.

The same applies to the aubergines ("nasu" in Japanese), although in recent years larger varieties have become popular, generally marketed as "American Nasu".

Nasu have been popular in Japanese cuisine for hundreds of years, but of course my first introduction to Egg Plant was in Greek and Lebanese cuisine in Melbourne in my youth.

There are, however, a variety of foods and vegetables here in Japan which I had never known before, and which are part of our daily diet. Many of these I know only by their Japanese names, and am often at a loss when asked what they are in English! One such vegetable is the "Gohya", or "Niga Uri". "Uri" is any of the squash, gourd or pumpkin family, and "Nigai" means "Bitter". This strange looking vegetable, which is very popular in Okinawa, is quite bitter when eaten raw. I slice it down the middle and remove the seeds and pith, then slice it cross ways and blanch it in salted water for a few minutes before using it.

One of our favourite dishes made with Gohya is "Kakiage", a kind of vegetable fritter. I mix the blanched Gohya with sliced aubergine and "Sakura Ebi" (literally "cherry blossom shrimp"), and then add one egg, two tablespoons of plain flour and some water. This mixture is then shallow fried in dollops till golden on both sides.

"Agedashi Dohfu" (Fried tofu) goes exceptionally well with the kakiage. I cut the tofu into 5 cm cubes, then zap it in the microwave for a few minutes to make it release the excess water. After draining off the water and patting them dry with a clean cloth, I dredge them in corn flour and fry them lightly. The garnish is sliced "Myouga", a relation of ginger, and "Ohba", a large leafed native herb related to basil. I make a sauce of 6 parts "Dashi" fish stock, 1 part soy sauce and 1 part "Mirin" sweet cooking sake. Bring this to the boil to evaporate the alcohol, then pour over the tofu to serve. This same "Tsuyu" sauce is used for dipping the Kakiage.

It is nice to serve "Sunomono", a vinegared side dish, with fried foods. In this case, sliced cucumber, sprinkled with salt and left to sit for ten minutes, then rinsed. Mixed with a hand full of roughly chopped "Wakame" sea weed, served with a dressing of equal parts sugar and vinegar.

Of course no Japanese meal is complete without a bowl of steamed rice. A sprinkling of sesame seeds adds fragrance.

Today we may dine in Japanese style, tomorrow might be something from my mothers cookbook, who knows? There is a world of possibilities. In this world where we can access the whole globe at the touch of a finger there are always new discoveries to be made. Sometimes those discoveries are simple pleasures that are common to all of us, familiar things that have brought joy to humans for generations past and will continue to do so for generations to come. After the kids get home from school and have been out adventuring out in the back yard, making discoveries under every leaf, they'll come rushing in with choruses of "What's for Dinner?"

With one thing and another, we have a very full life.

Sunday 4 July 2010

Sake Cups

As western culture often speaks of "Daily Bread", here in Japan the staple diet of rice is so ubiquitous that the word for rice and meal are the same..."Gohan" (御飯), or more informally "Meshi" (飯). Rice is used for making a huge variety of other foods, one of the best known of which is, of course, "Sake" (酒), or "Nihonshu" (日本酒) the Japanese rice wine. Our local Sake is Souhomare (惣誉), one of the best in the prefecture. There are makers of Sake, called "Sake Gura" (酒蔵), in just about every town in Japan, and there are a huge variety of types and styles. Some are clear, some cloudy, some should be drunk warm, others chilled. Thus, because there are so many styles of Sake, there have developed a wide variety of cups from which to drink it. Probably as many as there are potters in Japan, so here are just a few!

Probably the best known style of drinking sake is the warm Sake called "Atsukan" (熱燗) . Strictly speaking, Atsukan should be 50 degrees centigrade, and often it is heated to disguise poor quality sake, but there are types of sake that are designed for this temperature. Any warmed Sake is called "Kan" (燗), but each temperature has a different name. 33C is called "HinataKan" (日向燗, Sun Warmed) , 37C is "HitohadaKan" (人肌燗, Skin Warmth), 40C would be "Nurukan" (ぬる燗, Luke Warm), 45C is "JoKan" (上燗 High Warmth) and, for those who like it really hot, "TobikiriKan" (飛び切り燗, Over the top!) at 55C. Atsukan is usually a winter drink, so to make sure that it doesn't cool too quickly it is poured in small quantities into Sake cups called "Choko" (猪口, Boars Snout), which has a high foot shaped like a boars snout and a small, deep bowl. They can be lacquer ware or ceramic.

There is, however, another style of "Choko" for cold Sake. It is basically cylindrical in shape, so that the whole cup is shaped like a boars snout. These two cups were made by Masumi Narita, another Mashiko potter and Sake lover, and one of the important points about these cups is the fineness of the lip. Sake cups do not need to be identical to be a set, they merely need to share a common theme. There are some people who believe that the "Choko" name refers to the small quantity consumed with each cupful ("Chokotto", means "in small increments"), and I wouldn't be surprised if the Japanese traditional love of puns hadn't influenced the original naming.

It is usual for sake cups to be sold as pairs or sets of five. Four is an unlucky number, as it is a homonym for "Death". These two "Choko" of mine came out of last weeks firing. (They are available from my Gallery here.) "Cold" Sake is called "Hiya" (冷や), and is drunk at room temperature like wine. Colder Sake would be "Suzubie" (涼冷え) at 15C, "Hanabie" (花冷え, Blossom chilled) at 10C and "Yukibie" (雪冷え, Snow chilled) at 5C.

Everyday general purpose Sake cups are called "Guinomi" (ぐい呑, Gulping Cups), which are named for the sound one makes when one swallows. The small Guinomi would generally be sold as a set of five, to be enjoyed at a gathering or with a meal. The two front Guinomi are by my Sensei, Tatsuzo Shimaoka, National Treasure, and were shapes which I was trained to make during my studies with him. The one at the back is one of a limited edition which I made to commemorate my exhibition at Ebiya in 2000.

The larger Guinomi would be sold individually, and a serious Sake lover would have a wide variety of them to select from depending on the style of Sake, the season or their mood. A sake cup like these, again by Shimaoka sensei and myself, might be used for "Nigorizake" (濁り酒, cloudy sake), which us unfiltered and milky white.

For more formal situations it is traditional to use a shallow bowl shaped cup called a "Sakazuki" (盃). This would only be used with the best Sake, crystal clear and usually cool. This is a silver sakazuki from the Imperial household, as can been seen by the imperial crest in the centre of the cup. A pattern is often made in the centre of the cup so as to emphasize the clarity of the Sake. It is very nice with a "Yukibie" on a hot, steamy summers day, just like today.

Monday 21 June 2010

Full of Beans

The sunrise on the Summer Solstice is grey and damp. "Tsuyu", the Japanese rainy season, in full swing. After the breakfast rush and getting the kids off to school with "Obento" lunch boxes, we set about our own tasks for the day.

I am packing my kiln at the moment, but the weather is affecting my work cycle. Because I do not bisque fire my pottery, and apply the glazes raw, the pots must be bone dry. A difficult task when it is humid one moment, drizzling the next! (The leak in the studio roof doesn't help much either!) There are sometimes breaks of sun for just a few hours though, so last week I managed to get the pots outside to dry properly.

The kiln shelves are cleaned and coated with a fresh layer of kiln wash. I lay them out to dry on bamboo poles that I harvested in winter with the boys. I lash bamboo poles to the old pipes, from the gas kiln I had in Nanai many years ago, to span across to the edge of the garden terrace. The boys use the pipes for a soccer goal, so I dismantled the structure at the end of the day. Raising the pots up into the air away from the damp grass helps them dry faster, but that is not the main reason for this contraption.

The last thing that I need is pussy foot prints in broken pottery shards. The four kittens we currently have cavorting about the garden are full of beans, but not yet big enough to venture up to the terrace. Most of the time they spend occupying my shoes.

Mid afternoon the rain began, big fat drops sent to reconnoitre at first, then an onslaught of cats and dogs, followed by a persistent skirmish of drizzle. If one drop of rain lands on the raw glaze it will lift away from the clay leaving a crawling scar in the finished glaze surface. There is twenty metres of open ground between the studio and the kiln shed.... Packing the kiln will have to wait until tomorrow.

After cleaning up and taking a coffee break with Mika, the kids start arriving home from school. Homework and dinner preparations begin in earnest. We have the first batch of string beans from the garden to add to the main course, but today I have a special treat in store...because last Sunday was Fathers Day! The family surprised me with an Ice Cream Maker!

I am using it for the first time, so I decided to stick with basics; Vanilla. I just happen to have some Vanilla pods in the cupboard (as one does!), so here it goes.


200 ml Milk
200 ml Cream
Half a Vanilla Bean
1 Whole Egg
2 Egg Yolks
80 grams Sugar

Split the Vanilla Bean down the centre and scrape out the seeds with the point of a knife. Mix the cream, milk and Vanilla pods and seeds together in a saucepan and simmer gently for 20 minutes. Blend the remaining ingredients in a separate bowl till ivory coloured and creamy. Pour half the simmered mixture into the bowl and continue blending, then return the whole mixture to the saucepan and heat gently till thickened like custard. Chill this mixture in the fridge and remove the bean pods before placing in the Ice Cream Maker.

Serve with a sprig of fresh mint.

Without a doubt, this is the best Ice Cream I have ever had. The family, especially the kids, agree, and now, like the kittens, the coffee, the ice cream and the garden, we're all full of beans.