Friday 23 December 2011

Home for Christmas

We are home. The snow has covered the world in a white blanket, the wind wuthers around the eaves, but we are home at last, warm and safe. The children sleep soundly in the washitsu, and Mika wraps presents at the kitchen table, as I write while I wait for the christmas pudding to steam on the wood stove.
This last month has been a whirlwind, and I am eternally grateful to all my friends who rallied together to get us into this house before winter. The first task was to clean the house free of dust and mold, remove the piles of accumulated trash and give ourselves a clean and healthy start. My friends travelled from all points and gathered for a working bee, working at fever pitch. Steve, who organised the event, made a video which is here on youtube. The upstairs floor was a single layer of boards with gaps between, warped with age a loosened by rusty nails. Any dust from upstairs would sift down to the rooms below, and any attempt at heating would leak up through the gaps and vanish into the rafters. Gennevieve, Debbie, Julie, Bill; Thank You.

Separating into four main groups, we tackled each challenge. One group was dedicated to the continuing clean up operation, cutting up the scrap timber from upstairs and stacking it around the old shed for winter. It is their efforts that are warming the house now. Giichi, Laura, Heather; Thank you.

Another group cleaned the mold, dust and soot from the downstairs walls and ceilings, and the children sleep soundly in that room right now. Jane, Jo; Thank you.

A third group tackled the kitchen, ripping up the old floor, laying damp proof sheeting, relaying the floor, putting in new studs and insulation, then laying a new floor on top of that. This evening the children helped me mix the christmas pudding, each making a wish as they stirred. We sat at the kitchen table for dinner and laughed and joked...Thank you.

The fourth group screwed down the ricketty floor/ceiling boards upstairs, layed new studs and insulation, then a new floor on top of that. With funds from donations from friends around the world we managed to buy enough materials to repair and insulate three rooms downstairs and the studio work space. With the cieling insulated and sealed, I can now keep the living and working space warm...Steve, Brendan, Takashi, Aja; Thank you.

We shared the work, and went where the help was needed. At breaks we would drink starbucks coffee essence (Thank you Startbucks!) while Bill played his guitar and sang...the children all helped, I gave them each a hammer, and in years to come they will be able to point and say,"That is where we fixed the floor" or " This is where I bent a nail...". This is their home, they have helped to make it real, it belongs to them.

Since then our young friend Raku has been helping, finishing the floor, filling gaps, sticking bubble wrap to windows...As I walked home from seeing the children off the school the other morning, the sound of his cello hummed across the snow, and as I entered the house it's music thrummed through the new floor, the whole house becoming a sound board.

I have made a door above the stairwell from an old sliding door, and it keeps the warm air downstairs where we need it. I hope that the upstairs will become a gallery in the future, but not this winter. It will take a lot more work to achieve that goal, this year I have more important things to do...

We moved in on the 15th of December, nine months to the day since we evacuated from Ichikai. A good time to start a new life. I bought a small fir tree that day, and this morning we set it in one of my large bowls in the washitsu and decorated it. The christmas tree from Ichikai I planted in the garden there when I returned to pack our bellongings, it belongs there. This is our new christmas tree, and I hope that it will grow along with the children. We sang carols as we strung the tinsil on the tree, hung baubles on the boughs and as I set the star on the top most point of the tree. Our home is already full of love and music and laughter, friends become family, a house becomes a home.

The work is far from finished, but that's OK. Tomorrow is christmas eve, and we will move the last of our belongings here in the morning. Because of you, who have sent us help when we needed it, we are home. Now we are truly safe, and I have what I have wished for...a home for christmas. Thank you.

God Bless, and Merry Christmas to you all.

Friday 11 November 2011

Close to home

The typhoons of last month seem to have washed the colour from the mountains, revealing the sepia study beneath. The first snow has streaked the tip of Tanigawa Dake with white, three weeks earlier than usual. Summer has gone, Autumn has come and Winter is close upon her heels.

Much has happened since last we spoke, and plans never quite work out the way we expect. The time spent at Laura's pottery in Nagano was very productive, and I am eternally grateful to her and Giichi for their support. It did, however put a great deal of pressure on Mika and the children, fending for themselves in this new environment. My role, first and foremost, is to protect my family, and it became increasingly clear that I could not do so from a distance. We have come through so much this year, but there are other dangers much closer to home. I need to be here, with my family.

After seeing the children off to school I set off on foot up the hill towards Takumi no Sato. Our plans to build a new studio on the edge of the craft village there were put on hold while I was away. It seems that fate had a hand in this as well, for in mid Summer one of Mika's distant relatives came to offer us another option. The house and land where Mika's grandmother was born was vacant and derelict, and the inheritor who lives an hour away had no interest in it, would we like to buy it? By instalments of course, no hurry, we're family....

And so we went to see this house. It stands 3.6 kilometers from Mika's parents house, in the west precincts of Takumi no Sato. I approach it now, walking past the mulberry orchard and onto the cobbled driveway. The mulberry leaves were used to feed silk worms back in the days when the family bred them commercially, and the upper floor of the farmhouse was dedicated to the business of raising the caterpillars till they spun cocoons, then trading them to the silk mills in other parts of Gunma. Here, it seems, was the start of the silk road.

To the left of the driveway is a stone walled channel, and beside it a rice paddy farmed by another relative. To the right, behind the mulberries, are vegetable patches, untended and overgrown, and a persimmon tree laden with fruit and bare of leaves. The drive breaks through the hedge, bracketted by cedar trees, and there is the house. Built in the fifth year of the Meiji era, 1873, the year Japan adopted the gregorian calendar, it is a traditional farmhouse of pillar and post construction, with plastered wattle and daub on a bamboo framework for the walls. In many ways it reminds me of Tudor architecture, strange how different cultures find common solutions.

The cats come running towards me from the old shed to the left in the front yard, mewling for attention and, more importantly, food. Stomach love. I ruffle their heads and give them a feed in their new home. In the shed are old barrels and, yes, even a saddle. We brought our four cats from Mashiko after the earthquake, and now we have is a precious thing.

Around the house are logs and beams and miscellaneous odds and sods. The old man who lived here last, Mika's great uncle, had been a bit of a hoarder. Not a bad thing in moderation. He had also paved around the house with concrete slabs and rocks and old roof tiles and roofing iron a result the drainage around the house wasn't all that good.

Entering the "Genkan" entry hall there is the fragrance of damp earth. I call out "Tadaima!" to the empty house, the customary Japanese "I'm home!", and slide the door closed behind me. To the right is the wood furnace for the bath, then the bathroom and pit toilet beyond. To the left is the kitchen and living space. In front of me is the new studio, half earth floor, half wooden deck. This was the work space for the farm. In the back corner are the old stables, partly filled with rotting firewood. Shimaoka sensei's studio smelt like this, a musty aroma, the fragrance of a freshly opened bag of clay. This room smells like a pottery. A dirt floor maintains an even humidity, allowing pots to dry evenly, and prevents dust from gathering thus averting the danger of silicosis. It is also easier to stand on for long working periods than a concrete floor.

The wooden deck was rotten, as were the floors throughout the rest of the house. But I could see the potential. I also needed to make pots, to make a living for my family. At first I repaired a bare minimum, I needed a wedging table and a throwing space. In one of the old stables I built a wedging table, using stone from the ruins of our old house and wood from repairs to the floor of this house. It seems to fit.

One corner of the decking was badly broken, so I rebuilt that first, making room for two wheels. I had brought my old electric wheel from Mashiko, but I also had Hamada sensei's wheel to restore. The bearings were rusty and the wood dry and cracking from thirty years of dissuse. With the help of the local garage we removed the bearings and derusted them. So many people told me to just get new bearings....blasphemy! We restored it with the original bearings and nails, oiled the wood and it shone like new.

With this basic work space I was able to get the order of cups finished, fired in Nagano and delivered to Utsunomiya by the skin of my teeth.

The rest of the house, however is still unlivable...yet. Debi and Julie came up to help me rip up the studio floor and restump the foundations. Since then I have reframed it and built a raised throwing bench to accomodate the Hamada wheel. I suppose my legs must be longer than his were, it will take some adjustment!

The loft is full of "stuff", timber, bamboo, old silk worm equipment. There were also frames from old "Kotatsu" tables which made perfect frames for the wheel wells. The covers from the storage boxes, number coded with kanji calligraphy made ideal covers, and the one to cover Hamada's wheel even says "六ろ" (Roku Ro or "6R"), a phonetic pun for the japanese word for potters wheel, "Rokuro". It is as if it was waiting for me. Or perhaps my whole life has been preparing me for this...

It has, however, become imperative that we move out of our temporary residence and into this house as soon as can be. Mika and ,more importantly, the children need a safe and stable environment. My task now is to get this house livable, just the minimum will do, before the winter comes. I have put a temporary wood stove into the living room, replaced the sink in the kitchen, got the bath furnace in working order. There is a room which we can use for sleeping, but we must clean out the loft and relay the floor/ceiling so that ancient dust and mold doesn't filter through the gaps in the single layer of boards onto the sleeping children. We need to insulate and stop up gaps to keep out the bitter cold of the mountain winter. We need to heat the studio and living space.

My task today to finish the deck so that it is safe to climb the stairs, and to lay the stones into the "irori" charcoal brazier to maintain the studio temperature. I have saved as many of the original flooring boards as I can, jigsawing them together to keep the spirit of the original architecture. The stones for the irori are from the shed in Ichikai, the one that was supposed to be the studio there, which burnt down the day the lease became valid in December 1999. They are Ashinuma stone, from which Mashiko "Kaki" glaze is made. I carefully chisel them into shape and fit them into the frame I have left in the floor.

It is time to go and get the children. Sean from the preschool, Rohan and Canaan have walked back to Mika's brothers house from primary school. I go to get Sora from basketball practice. She is allowed to practice again now, though the crack in her spinal column will never mend, a constant reminder of how I failed to protect her from an over zealous basketball coach. If only I had been here, if only I my request for more off days had been listened to...fatigue fracture it's called, apparently, but hard to diagnose and once the bone has started to set it cannot be cured. The muscle and sinew supports it now, so she must maintain her muscle tone for the rest of her life. She smiles at me cheerfully as she gets in the car. I drive back to our farmhouse, and the children do their homework as I cook curry on the wood stove.

Mika brings "Bachan" (Grandma) to have dinner with us here. Tomorrow "Jichan" "Grand dad" returns from hospital after his stroke. That will be a celebration! We enjoy our meal in the warmth of the wood stove, and then I light the bath fire and also the charcoal in the irori for the first time. Bachan sits beside the fire and tells a few stories about the family history of this house.

The boys and I have a bath, but then we must return to Mikas brothers house to sleep. Soon we will not be living patchwork lives. My friends are gathering over thanksgiving for one last push before the snow, and we hope to be in the house by then. I hope to have the kiln built by Christmas and I have great hope for the new year. We could not have come this far save for the help and support of all our friends throughout the world, all of you. I thank you from the bottom of my heart. We are are not quite there yet, but we are getting very close to home.

If you are coming our way, you are welcome. Our new address is;

121 Higashimine, Minakami-machi,
Tone-gun, Gunma-ken,
Japan 379-1418

T/F 0278-25-3982

Tuesday 5 July 2011


I have been living out of a suitcase for nearly four months now. So much luckier than the twelve thousand evacuees still living in cardboard cubicles in gymnasiums and public halls in the north east, but stressful nonetheless. I recently heard stress described as "responsibility without control". The only solution seems to be to live in the moment, and so I do, seeking to find the beauty, the joy, the fulfillment of each moment, each and very day.

May 29th:

The "Tombi" is a bird of prey (a kite, or so I am told) which is rare in the air above Mashiko, but thrives here in Minakami. I watch it circle in the grey sky above the rice fields as I drive to Ichikai on Saturday morning, the sound of it's shuddering cry just audible above the roar and clatter of the light "kei" truck. It pauses in mid air, then swoops lower and glides level with the car window as I rise onto the freeway ramp at Tsukiyono. There is a busy weekend ahead...

The Solstice has passed, but the days are still long. The sun greets me merrily as I rise and pack my bag once more. I leave for Komoro again today, and will not return till the weekend. I wake the older three children from their bunk beds and call them down for breakfast. I rebuilt their bunks here in their uncles house a few weeks ago, it gives them a sense of stability, continuity, home. I cook them omelettes for breakfast, and make coffee for Mika and me. Mika's sister, Emi, sent us some nice Italian roast from Tokyo. Sean would normally help me grind it, but we are leaving him to sleep today. He has had some chest infections recently, but seems to be OK now. Rest is best. I grind the coffee, standing at my stone work bench, so out of place in this borrowed kitchen, and watch as the children prepare for school. Folding a filter paper into one of my coffee drippers, I fill it with the freshly ground coffee and pour hot water into it in a spiral. We sit down together, "Itadakimasu", and chat as we enjoy the morning.

The boys are first to leave, and they pull on their "Landsell" leather school ruck sacks, jangling as they go. There have been bears around recently, so all the children have "Bear Bells" strung from their bags.

"How are those dinosaur bells working?" I ask them.

They look at me askance, "There are no dinosaurs around here, Daddy." says Rohan matter of factly.

"Gee," I say, "they must be working then!"

"No, Dad," says Sora, in exasperation, "Dinosaurs have been extinct for 65 million years!"

"WOW!" I say, "They really DO work!"

Canaan starts laughing first, and we all join in. I kiss them and hug them goodbye, and tell them to look after their mother for me till I get home. I watch them out of the garden, hear them greet their new friends on the road, and listen to their dinosaur bells jangling into the distance.

...The two and a half hour drive to Mashiko has become familiar now, and, between whistling and singing because the radio doesn't work, it gives me a great deal of time to think. After weeks of spinning my wheels in every way but the pottery sense, I am finally able to take some positive action. I list in my head the vessels I will make for the first firing, the materials and tools that I will need, doing sums in my head of the weight of clay, the minimum tools, the maximum load that the truck can carry. By the time I get to Mashiko I have already packed the truck in my head. Some time in the past two months since we evacuated, a large tree, weakend by the earthquake, has come down in a storm and smashed across the rooves of the tool shed and kiln shed. It hangs suspended horizontally between the two buildings. The grass and weeds are reaching up towards it now. How quickly nature asserts itself. Reversing up to the studio door I begin to load the ware boards first across the bed of the truck. On top of this I load the quarter tonne of clay I will need for the first kiln load, then remove eighty kilos and place it in the passenger seat. Wheel, glazes, sieve, basic throwing and trimming tools...within half an hour the truck is loaded. I strap the tarp down and tie it with truckies knots like Uncle Laurie showed me back on the farm in Redesdale thirty years ago. The truck wallows low on it's springs as I drive away. The next stage of the trip will be slower...

Mika and I clean up the kitchen. I take my bag out to the car, then come back inside and climb upstairs. I kiss Sean gently as he sleeps. Back downstairs, I kiss my farewell to Mika. It is difficult driving away. The blessing when the earthquake struck was that I could reach the children on foot. Now I drive off to a studio hundreds of kilometers and hours away, and leave them to fend for themselves. Responsibility without control. I drive on.

...Back on the freeway, heading west again, a misty rain starts to grease the roads. The rainy season has begun. I know that there is a typhoon coming tomorrow as well. Oh, what fun. I drive on through the drizzle, the poor little truck labouring under the load. I take the turn to Nagano and climb into the mountains. As the peaks become more dramatic, mist and rain turn the scenery into a sumie painting, with dark turrets of rock thrusting upwards against the pale ashen paper of the sky. I peer myopically into the mist ahead, my left hand groping with the knot in the saffron coloured cloth that Mika has wrapped around my lunch of rice balls. Through the nine tunnels and finally the off ramp to Komoro. I stop at a convenience store to phone my friend Giichi, to let him know I'm almost there. It has been a three hour drive from Ichikai...

I am afraid to add up the hours of driving I have done this past month or so. Our friends Debi and Julie came up with two trucks from Kamakura last week and we did three round trips to move the seven tonnes of bricks for the kiln to Minakami, fifteen hours driving in two days. With loading and unloading, it was a marathon effort. Our friends Lee and Jean sent me a Warren Mackenzie yunomi to replace the ones we lost in the earthquake. I don't know how we can ever repay every ones kindness. We are not alone in this world, and we must support each other, from those according to their ability, to those according to their need.

...We unload the truck, putting the wheel and the clay as close to the studio as we can. The ware boards and tools are stored under the eaves, I will sort the studio out on Tuesday. Laura, Giichi's wife, is in the UK with her daughters, she will be a grandmother again on Tuesday, Tuesday is turning out to be a big day. The truck is unloaded, we sit down and have a cup of tea and a biscuit. He gives me the spare key, shows me the futons and pantry, and we shake hands before I leave. I met him at Seth Cardews in the UK back in September 2001. I was in St Ives doing a workshop and exhibition when the planes hit the towers in New York, and, in the few weeks that followed, travelled around the potteries with my good mates Michael and David till the planes were flying again. Giichi and Laura visited me in Ichikai the following summer, and we have been close friends since...

Gallery Ciel in Utsunomiya has rescheduled my exhibition to the 25th of August...I have seven weeks. I arrive in Komoro, and Laura makes tea while I sort out the work from the week before last. After moving the kiln I was occupied with several other ongoing projects. Potters from Mashiko are donating pots to be sent to the northern prefecture disaster areas. The pots will be distributed to the evacuees so that they can enjoy their meals on real vessels, instead of paper plates and plastic cups, and help restore some quality to their lives. In a nation where hand crafted pottery is an integral part of the food culture, months of emergency food becomes a strain. I have given them rice bowls, yunomi and mugs to begin with, and will send more in weeks to come. There is also a project to create a new Internet site (working title "Mashiko Dori") to create a virtual Mashiko, so that visitors from around he globe can virtually partake in Mashiko's reconstruction, the pottery community and the tradition and art work of Mashiko. We plan to integrate a 4G system into Mashiko, with web cams and interactive sites, to take Mashiko to the world. We hope that this will help to sustain Mashiko despite the difficulties faced within Japan. It will take some time.

It is difficult working in a borrowed space, travelling large distances, and I have not been able to control the drying very well. I have had many losses, but I have learnt a great deal. I recycle and remake the pots that are cracked, and begin the next run of vessels for the exhibition. I have some which were prepared before the earthquake and survived, but the main body of the exhibition is still to be made. Laura sits at her wheel beside mine, and I offer her advice and, I suppose, mentorship in return for her studio space. She is very kind.

As we sit and enjoy a lunch of fresh baked bread and cheese, served on plates made by friends and potters we respect, a "Tanuki" (raccoon) walks through the garden just beyond the windows, foraging through the herbs. "Not the sage!" says Laura under her breath, "Please, not the sage!" It moves on, snuffling around the Shiso and Italian Parsley, then vanishes into the underbrush beneath the pines.

Laura and Giichi have been working on a project to provide a reprieve for Mothers with small children from the radiation affected areas in Fukushima and neighbouring prefectures, and have organised home stays in Komoro over the summer. These mothers are struggling to protect their children in an environment with uncertain levels of radiation, the long term effects of which cannot be measured, and yet they are responsible for the health and welfare of their children and have no control over their environment nor the information needed to make good decisions. I sympathise with the stress they are suffering, it is something which all residents of Japan must deal with for many years to come.

...The truck is lighter now, and I struggle up the steep gravel driveway. The rain is heavier as I head for home. Now that the clay is delivered and the studio awaits I am eager to get back to the wheel. But first there is one more task; tomorrows broadcast. Now, as I drive through the rising wind, my mind turns over the questions they might ask, things I might say, the things I wish to share. The director heard my broadcast on TBS radio last year and had contacted me before the earthquake about doing a live broadcast for NHK "Chikyu" radio. He came to Minakami last week to do some background research, the rough draft of the interview questions should be waiting on my email when I get home. The truck is harder to control, with out a load, in the blustering wind, and I find myself leaning forward tensely as I drive. The wind shield wipers are working overtime through the driving rain, and the storm seems to take a breath as I drive through the tunnels, only to renew the onslaught with greater fervour on the other side. It is two and a half hours to Minakami. That makes...eight hours driving today. Mika is putting dinner on the table as I walk in the door. Sora tells me about her basketball games today, the boys have finished their homework, everyone is excited about going to Tokyo tomorrow. After dinner I have a bath and I am asleep as my head hits the pillow...

I have brought my copy of Omar Khayyam to Komoro, and after dinner Laura sits in the drawing room and reads it while I work at the computer. I have been struggling for weeks, trying to move forward, but I find myself overwhelmed sometimes. So I must trust that my family is safe, amid these uncertain times; I must help those I can, though I feel helpless myself; I must gratefully accept the help of others, though I know not how I can repay them; and I must strive to live each day the best I can, grateful for the blessings I have, in hope of a bright tomorrow. If I do not write so often these days, it is because I am striving to fulfill my responsibilities, sometimes in circumstances over which I have no control. I thank you all for your help and support, and have faith that all will be well.

Friday 27 May 2011

The Art of Living

The golden light of morning pours slowly through the window, spilling over the window ledge and down the wall. It washes gently across our futons which spread across the tatami floor, and softly begins to soak into the new day. The fragrance of Mika's dark, wavy hair is sweet as it splashes with the sunlight across her pillow. I listen to the sound of her breathing, of Sora's breathing beyond her near the door, the regular ebb and flow rippling softly through the cool morning air. I lay still, floating in this gentle pool of light, the sound of my own heartbeat whispering in my ears. A new day begins.

The last few it six weeks since my last entry?...have slid past me like the trees beside the freeway. I try to make plans, but end up dealing with circumstances. Where do I begin?

April 16th; As the cherry blossom flutters to the ground like swirling snowflakes, Tokyo is amazingly normal, virtually unaffected by the earthquake except for the occasional blackout and beer shortage, or so I am told. The crowds bustle through the streets, and I feel like a spectator, isolated from the crowds. Today I will teach a workshop at the Sacred Heart International School. It was to be a three day workshop in Mashiko, but it has been condensed into one day in Tokyo; we have a lot to get through today. Now, more than ever, I want the students to understand how important the simple things are in life, the things we take for granted, the things that make life real. The joy of preparing simple food, served on hand crafted vessels, enjoyed with friends and loved ones....

I have always known that, left to it's own devices, the world is a beautiful place. This has become more and more clear to me as my career as a potter has proceeded. When I was a young potter I would try to force the clay to my will, and inevitably would achieve a result that was forced. As the years passed, however, I learned that it was most important for the potter to stay still and allow the clay to find its own form. One must surrender control and allow nature to be beautiful; In this moment, in this place, for every day of our lives.

...we bake scones in the electric kiln, serve them with cream and blueberry jam on some plates of mine which survived the earthquake. Margaret dips some strawberries in chocolate, we make salad and casserole. This is why we make pots, and it is this moment that they become a part of our lives. In order, therefore, to make good vessels we must understand this first...

At the same time, one must be aware that there will be times when nature is harsh. There will be earthquakes and tsunami, there will be typhoons and floods, and we must learn to be prepared for those events. We must learn from the past to build a safe future. I was not prepared for the earthquake. I will not repeat the mistake. the students throw bowls and plates on the wheels, the building shudders. The shaking gains intensity and Steve materialises a sack of yellow safety helmets that the students don as they dive beneath the tables. The earthquake subsides, it was probably only a three, the students return to their wheels, helmets still on...

I rise quietly and pull on my clothes before going downstairs. I fill the kettle with fresh water and put it on the stove. Taking one of my coffee pots and large coffee drippers from the cupboard, I warm them under the tap before setting them on the stone bench. Beside them I place the coffee grinder, and fill its hopper with dark roasted beans from the freezer. Turning the handle while the kettle heats, I look out the window at the peaks of the Mikuni mountains in the distance, silhouetted against the sky, their jagged outline dark, patches of snow still clinging to their slopes. Closer and closer they march, greener and softer with each rank, mist still skulking between them, till they become the richly forested hills across the valley. Splashes of mauve wisteria and paulonia flowers mingle with the green. The town spreads below us on either side of the Akaya River and Route 17 that runs beside it. Mika's parents rice paddies fill the river flats, and a bamboo grove mingled with trees climbs up the steep slope to the kitchen window. Spring is turning into Summer, and ferns and grasses fill the gaps between the trees while vines climb up their trunks and branches toward the light. Edible "Cogomi" fern fronds, bamboo shoots and young "Sansho" leaves supplement our larder. A leaf quivers in the gentle breeze and dew rolls down its veins to hang like a jewel for a moment before dropping to the violet grass flowers below.

April 17th; A carpet of cherry petals stretches across the cobbled path as I walk to Gallery St Ives. The streets are quiet on this Sunday morning in the back streets of Setagaya. The houses are rich, some of them are embassies, the gardens clipped and precise. I turn the corner and there is the gallery with its red facade, the "Chocolate Factory" pottery studio next door. I cross the road and open the door, the bell attached to it tingling merrily as I step inside. Ken Matsuzaki is there already. We have spoken on the phone since the earthquake, corresponded by email to organize the relief fund for Mashiko, but this is the first time we have been face to face since the crisis. He rises from his chair and we hug, tears welling in our eyes...

The kettle sings out to me that it has boiled and I switch it off. I fold an unbleached filter paper into the dripper, fill it with the fresh ground coffee and pour the hot water into it in a thin, spiralling stream. Froth rises on the surface of the coffee, and gradually the dripper fills. I stop pouring as the foam reaches the edge of the paper and domes across the space between, and let the coffee seep through to the pot below. I choose two coffee mugs, a curved one for Mika, a straight one for me, the handles springing from the rim and swirling down the side of the mug like hair across a pillow case. I warm some milk from Sarobetsu, on the northern tip of Hokkaido, and pour it into the mugs. The water in the dripper has filtered through so I remove it from the pot, replacing it with the lid, and pour coffee into the warm milk. The clock strikes 6am, and I carry the coffee upstairs to Mika. We wake the children and get them organised for breakfast. Back downstairs I make a muesli of cashew nuts and raisins, ground sesame, rolled oats and corn flakes. I serve it in the black glazed rice bowls and we sit down together for breakfast, joking, teasing, laughing.

...there are customers all day, we greet them as friends, for that is what they have become. Our vessels are part of their lives, every day, bringing them joy and relief from the artificiality of the modern world. We are part of our vessels, too, and they are extensions of us, and so our visitors know us through the vessels, and care about our lives as well. I tell the story of the earthquake to them each, and listen to their tales. An exhibition is not about selling pots, it is about sharing, making contact. Sometimes it is the touch of a hand, touching a vessel, laughing and, yes, occasionally crying. At the end of day Kens daughters come to the gallery, and we talk about when they were small, playing the drums in the "Dashi" at the Mashiko summer Matsuri, while I pushed it with the other men up and down the hills through the summer heat...

The kids go off to school, and Mika and I get our paper work together. My full resume, a list of the galleries with whom we deal, the plans and quotes for the new studio, our tax returns. We have a meeting with the Chamber of Commerce this morning. We have spoken to several lending institutions already; some do not lend to foreigners, others do not lends to self employed, others do not lend for business ventures. I seem to be a risk, we need some good advice.

Mashiko Pottery Festival, April 29~May 5; We set up the tents as always, though our stocks were low. Many faces that we usually see, other potters who have participated in the pottery fair for many years, are absent. Some have returned to there native land; America, New Zealand...we do not know if the customers will come, but we will put up our displays, and we will be there for those who do. If they come, despite the earthquake, the nuclear disaster, or because of it, they come for us, and we must be there to greet them. And they come. They come in their thousands. They ask us how we fared in the disaster, we tell them the truth. Many of them have fared as badly in their own homes as us, but still they have come. Over the week we have perhaps 60~70% of an average year in both visitors and sales, and we are grateful as we expected nothing and no-one. We have been blessed...

The gentleman at the Chamber of Commerce is kind and helpful, advising us on the paperwork we still need, contacting the "right" people. There is still the possibility of financial help as victims of the disaster, but need to have different forms...

..One of the younger potters in Mashiko is making a data base of potters, but he does not come to me. Another friend is working on a project to make a "Virtual Mashiko" and take Mashiko to the world. One of the other potters asks me if it is the same project, I say I do not know. I catch the young potter with the data base and ask him. He says, "Your not in Mashiko anymore, this is none of your business." He is matter of fact, and I am lost for words. My Virtual Mashiko friend needs me to translate, to act as an intermediary for Mashiko. I go to speak to the people who lead Mashiko. They are eager to work on the project...I tell them about the data base and ask them whether they feel I am still a part of Mashiko...They tell me not to worry about him, that I am one of them...

My plans for the studio are not extravagant. A simple, square building, 7.2 metres per side. One quarter will be the kiln room. I will use second hand window and doors, but I have learnt from the earthquake that a tiled roof is a bad idea, and we shall go with corrugated iron. I am redesigning the kiln to earthquake proof it, at least up to the level of the last earthquake! And I will not use electricity. Natural light, kick wheels, wood kiln, rain water. As potters did for ten thousand years.

...I visit Tomoo Hamada, and take him some hand made Camembert cheese from Minakami. He shows me his kilns, reduced to rubble. They are already rebuilding. If I stayed in Mashiko there would be help, financial and physical, I know. I tell him of my plan.
"Isaka san tells me you are looking for a second hand kick wheel?" he says.

"Yes, I know that my position will make no difference to the nuclear situation, but if we all chose to not use what we do not need, perhaps there would be no need for nuclear power." I say. "It is a small thing, but all I have ever wanted is just to live quietly, in peace, and make beautiful and useful things for the people I love."

He leads me round the back of the workshop, to the storehouse. "We haven't used this wheel for years, it might need some work on the bearings. It's a present for you." he says.

The wheel is wooden, made from "Keyaki", and in perfect condition. I am dumbfounded. " Really?!" I ask.

"It's from the original Hamada pottery, it hasn't been used since we moved into the new workshop. I'd like you to have it. Gambatte kudasai."....

We return home, we have a meeting on Monday with an advisor from the prefectural office. I check my mail. There is an order from a restaurant in Sydney, Australia. They don't know about my kiln, my studio. It's a project we've been working on since last year. I have other orders, too. But no kiln. No studio. Many friends have sent us help, have offered to come and help, and we are trying to put our plan into action, but I can't get it together yet, and I need to get back to work soon. There have been offers of other jobs, English teaching or translating; real jobs, they say. But I have a real job, in fact it's about as real a job as you can get.

My friend from Komoro, in Nagano offered to lend me her kiln and studio. I built her a Fast Fire like mine in 2007 , so I contact her to ask if the offer is still open. She says yes. I contact the restaurant, I let them know the situation, I can start making their order on Tuesday. Tomorrow I will drive to Mashiko and get clay and tools, take them to Komoro and return home. On Sunday I will take Mika and the children to Shibuya in Tokyo. On Sunday evening, somewhere between six and seven pm, I will be doing a ten minute live interview on NHK 1, international radio. So, if you speak Japanese, tune in to "Chikyu Radio" on Sunday night, or listen to the podcast for the next week.

From Tuesday of next week, I will be a potter again. It will be in a borrowed studio, with a borrowed kiln, but it's a start. There are many people who have faith in me, who encourage and support me, and there is always hope.

From the movements of the stars and planets to the falling of a drop of dew, nature is beautiful as a matter of course. It is not contrived or artificial, it springs from the beauty of the process. I will continue to strive, to make each day, each moment, as beautiful and rich as I can, and trust that that beauty will live in my work. No matter what plans I make, I find myself dealing with circumstances. But that is the way it is, and I cannot force the world to my will, any more than I can force the clay. I trust that if I live my life as honestly as I can, each and every day, then life will be beautiful, as a matter of course. I will let you know how I get on.

Wednesday 13 April 2011

The Raven

The sun climbs tentatively through my bedroom window as I wake to the nightingales call. Just beyond the first range of peaks a bank of clouds reaches tenderly around the shoulders of the mountains in a misty embrace. There is a raven building a new nest on the top of the power pole outside. It is spring.

We raise the shutters in the children’s room and shake them from their slumber. Though they sometimes cry out in the night still, they seem to sleep more soundly with each passing day. A month has passed since the earthquake, and though there are still aftershocks, as many as eight or nine tremors of scale 3 or more every day, we are settling into a new routine.

After a breakfast of eggs and ham on rice, Canaan and Rohan go off to primary school. I walk with them to the corner and watch them down the hill as they join up with their new friends. The raven flies over my head with a broken branch in its beak.

I take the path beside the stream to the main road. Other children are waiting beside the bridge with a grand-parent and a mother watching over them. I greet them as I cross the bridge and walk on to the convenience store. I check the labels on the milk, it comes from Gifu. I buy two litres.

We moved most of our remaining personal belongings last weekend and the hot house is now full. Our friend Take-chan borrowed a truck from a work mate and did the round trip with us. My next challenge will be to build the studio and kiln shed so that I can move the pottery here and get back into production. Volunteers have been helping with the clean up in Mashiko, sorting out the bricks from the collapsed kilns. Mashiko, Ichikai and Haga have all been officially declared disaster areas, though they are overshadowed by the devastation in the north east. In each of the towns there are designated areas for the debris. There are huge piles of rubble, of broken pottery, of stone blocks from store houses, of masonry and timber and furniture…piles that dwarf the heavy machinery used to sort them.

As I walk back up the hill to the house I pass Sora coming the other way on her way to high school. She has promised to meet her new friends from the basketball club and walk with them to class. We joke and laugh as we pass, and I stop for a moment to watch her walk away, her curly hair bouncing behind her as she goes. As I walk up the driveway the raven brings another twig to the precariously balanced collection gathering at the top of the power pole.

I walked around the empty house in Ichikai on Sunday evening, the sound of my steps loud in the dusty air. So many memories were made within these walls, the sound of baby’s laughter, the company of family and friends…I carry them with me now. The house is just a house.

I make Mika a cappuccino while she prepares Sean for preschool. It is our first in a month, it seems so much longer. Sean comes into the kitchen to show us his new smock. Neighbours and relatives have lent us school uniforms for the kids. There are eight other new children at the primary school from the earthquake or radiation affected areas, so our children are not alone. The community here, the teaching staff and the local council are very kind and supportive. The number of refugees here has dropped, however, as people return to their homes. Regardless of the ongoing threat, there are many who choose to return as soon as they can to rebuild their lives, their careers, their schools. Issues of financial security and their children’s education outweigh lingering fears. I wish them well.

We drive Sean to the preschool. He runs ahead of us into the playground to climb on the jungle gym before we go inside. As we leave he calls out to us to come and get him early today. We promise that we shall. We drive away, waving out the window to him.

Today I am preparing for the exhibition in Tokyo. Gallery St.Ives has organised an exhibition for the Mashiko Earthquake Appeal, and I must deliver the pots tomorrow. Five potters from Mashiko have been invited to exhibit, and part of the sales will go to the relief fund. Ken Matsuzaki, Tomoo Hamada, Yuchiko Baba, Minoru Suzuki and I will be exhibiting our work from Saturday, April 16th till Sunday, May 8th. It is an honour to exhibit with them.

I sorted through the pots in the old house last weekend, discarding the broken work, selecting out the best pieces which survived the earthquake. This had not been my first priority, and only now do I begin to assess the damage to my pottery. Work which had been wrapped and stored in containers survived well, as did the tea bowls and yunomi which were in their own signed wooden boxes. Many of the pots which were on the shelves went crashing to the floor, but amid the shards it was surprising how much of the work survived unscathed. There is enough for this exhibition, and enough for the Mashiko pottery festival at the start of May…I wonder if there will be any customers?

Lining the vessels up on the kitchen table. Polishing them up and making sure they are in perfect condition. Listing them, numbering then, pricing them. Wrapping them up again and putting them into containers for transport. I have been borrowing a computer till now, which has helped keep me connected with you all, but we have set our own computer up at last, though the internet connection won’t come till a fortnight from now. Mika makes the list for the gallery on our computer, we download it to my MP3 and send it to the gallery from a borrowed internet link. NTT has provided free internet access to refugees at most town offices.

Tomoo Hamada (Shoji Hamada's grandson), Clive Bowen and me at the Hamada Museum, Mashiko 2009

Though I began my pottery career in Bendigo, Australia back in 1978, I came to Japan with two canvas bags in 1990, to the traditional pottery town of Mashiko, where the National Living Treasure Shoji Hamada worked, to the home of Mingei. I was honoured to be accepted as a deshi to Tatsuzou Shimaoka, Hamada’s disciple and also a National Living treasure in his own right. And when I graduated, I chose to remain in Mashiko, to establish my own studio, and work towards being accepted here, not as a guest, but as a peer. After 21 years in Mashiko, I think I achieved that. It is very difficult to leave.

Tatsuzou Shimaoka, National Living Treasure, and his deshi at his 88th birthday, 2007 (Ken Matsuzaki 6th from right, me 6th from left)

The raven has continued to build its nest, and as dusk falls the structure seems quite solid and firm, meshed into the cross bar at the top of the power pole. Sean is excited to see how it has progressed. I tell him that the raven has probably come here from Mashiko, just like us, to make a new home. He likes that idea. So do I.

The kids are home, we feed them and bathe them and get them off to bed. Tomorrow I will deliver the work to Tokyo. I have a workshop to teach on Saturday and I will be in Gallery St.Ives on Sunday. Last year, Isaka-san, the gallery director, asked me if I considered myself an Australian potter or a Japanese potter.

“Born in Australia,” I said. “Made in Japan.”

Saturday 2 April 2011

Yesterday's News

The stars still shine brightly at 3am. I hugged the children goodbye when they went to bed last night and I have kissed Mika goodbye. The memory still lingers on my lips as I walk through the cold air to the car. I am returning to Ichikai and I do not know exactly when I will be back.

They have opened the new freeway between Gunma and Tochigi, so what was a five hour journey across the mountains is now only two and half, much of it in tunnels through the mountains. The "Tsukiyohno" interchange is only 10 minutes away. Petrol is now available without queueing. I drive into the night.

Today is the "Himachi" festival and Annual General Meeting of the local self government group. Himachi celebrates the coming of spring, and begins with the cleaning of the small Buddhist shrine in the woods atop our neighbourhood hill. We are scheduled to gather there at 6am.

I am heading east, driving into the rising sun, and the clouds waft in diaphanous curtains of apricot and peach against the ever lightening sky. I leave the freeway at Mohka just after 5am, and drive past the Yanagita clinic where all four of our children were born. It is exactly 23 minutes to the house in Ichikai from here. Trust me, I know.

As I drive I have to dodge the occasional manhole. The liquefaction of the soil below the road during the earthquake made the surface drop by about ten centimetres, so the manholes now thrust proud above the road surface, so some sections of the road are quite a challenge.

The closer I get to Ichikai, the more marked the damage from the earthquake is. I stop at a temporary traffic light where one lane of the road has subsided completely. A sign beside the road tells me this is the town line, from this point I leave Haga and enter Ichikai. All of the houses within sight have blue sheet covering the displaced tiles and broken windows. I have heard there is a three year waiting list for repairs. The lights change and I drive on, past neatly stacked rows of Ohya stone from the shattered walls and warehouses. People are putting their lives in order.

I pull into the drive way of the house and park in the yard, away from the house in case an after shock should loosen more tiles on the roof. Grabbing my bamboo rake I walk back down the drive way and take a short cut across the rice paddies, treading carefully along the raised ridge that separates one field from another.

Up the hill beside the fire station, past Takagi sans house, ridge tiles gone and the family crest askew. His twin grandchildren are...were.. in Canaans class.

The pillars at Ozeki sans gate are twisted into strange angles, it's amazing they are still standing.

I enter the dirt road into the bamboo grove and start to climb the winding path up the hill to the shrine. Others walk the same path, greeting each other with steaming breath, and their conversations turn always to the earthquake, the damage, the nuclear reactors, the shortages, the uncertainty and insecurity of the situation, the weather, the direction of the wind.

Close to the shrine the evidence of serious raking and sweeping shows that the early birds are hard at work already. Ever since I first participated in this festival eleven years ago it has been a source of wonder, that if you gather at 6am as the notice tells you, you are too late, the work is already done. Luckily today I am fifteen minutes early and there is still work to be done.

Representatives of every household in the community rake and sweep, prune and weed, wipe and polish in a frenzy of activity. There are 125 households in our community, and everybody knows everybody, and they are all here.

As I rake I am reminded of my days as a deshi at Shimaoka sensei's studio, raking the garden before the workers came. It was a meditation, preparing for the day ahead. Here at the shrine, cleaning is a form of worship, and by showing humility and care in the tending of the shrine we hope for blessings. Today more than ever.

Neighbours and friends ask me how I am, about the damage to our house. Some of them already know we have decided to move, others are unaware. The Kaichou, community leader, calls for our attention and thanks every one for their efforts. He announces the schedule for the meeting this evening and the celebration after, and declares the cleaning finished. It is exactly 6am. It pays to be early.

As I walk down the hill surrounded by the community, Takagi san (a different Takagi, there's lots of them around here, this one is a builder) matches pace beside me. He has heard we are moving. I explain the situation.

"If it's just the house and land, I can lend you land for free," he says, " We'd really like you to stay."

I choke up. Tears come unbidden, and with a quivering voice I thank him, from the bottom of my heart. But I explain to him that it is more than that; it is the uncertainty and fear of the nuclear accident, still unresolved, that has compounded the situation for us. I must think of my children's health first, and this path is the best I can find.

He nods slowly, sadly. He understands, his own children are grown up and moved away, but if he were in my shoes...

"We will miss you." he says.

I bid him farewell as we emerge from the bamboo grove and tell him that I will see him at this evenings meeting. Back across the rice paddies, I return to the house. I take the twenty litres of water I have brought from Minakami out of the car and into the kitchen. The rest of the day is spent boxing up our possessions.

The things we immediately need have already gone. What remains are the personal things, the years of accumulated stuff that fills in the empty corners and makes a home.

I concentrate on the kitchen first. We lost many pots in the earthquake, yunomi by Warren Mackenzie and Peter Rushforth, Masumi Narita's sake cups....lots of pots, some of mine, some by friends.

Many others have survived, and as I pack them up I say the names of the friends who made them, remembering the stories that go with them. David and Margaret Frith, Phil Rogers, Lisa Hammond, Jennifer Hall...I wrap them in news paper, and as I wrap the occasional article or headline catches my eye... Sandy Simon, Ruthanne Tudball, George Dymesich...The first newspapers are the most recent, the ones on top of the stack, telling me about the radioactive water flowing into the ocean, that the tsunami meters failed and new measurements of the aftermath show that it peaked at 26.5metres, that the earths axis has moved and a day is shorter, that some beef is contaminated... John Dermer, Garry Bish, Libby Pickard, Maggie Prendergast... As I wrap, I work my way back through the days, through the contaminated vegetables and the contaminated water, the announcements of which came days after the actual contamination itself, THANK GOD we evacuated when we did!.. Shoji Hamada, Shinsaku Hamada, Shimaoka Tatsuzo, Hiroshi Seto....The hoseing and water bombing of the nuclear reactors, the explosions, the Tsunami, the earthquake...Ken Matsuzaki, Satoshi Yokoh...Time slips back to a time when there was no earthquake, where political upheavals in Egypt and before that Tunisia led the news.

There are several aftershocks during the day, and each time I dash from the house. The shelves gradually empty, and underneath the pots are other newspapers, mostly from 1999, just before we moved here. Articles about the millennium virus that never happened and the panic over nothing, over some arbitrary date. It seems that most of the time we are fussing over trivialities, fighting over nonsense and making news out of nothing. How I long for the simple and unparalleled beauty of the ordinary, the peace and happiness of everyday life.

There is a newspaper article from the 1st of January 2000, half a page in the Japanese daily mainichi, with a photograph of us, Mika, Sora and Canaan, me, sitting on the veranda of this house. We had just moved in, and had such great hope for this new century. The hope still burns. It will take more than an earthquake, a tsunami or a nuclear disaster to extinguish that flame.

I spend the day packing boxes, and dusk begins to creep through the windows. It is time for the meeting. I walk to the community hall, the meeting has already begun. There are more people here than other years, the house is packed. Everyone is uncertain of the future, and has come to find support among friends. I kneel in the entry hall.

Announcements are made, assessments of damage, plans for rebuilding, government support. Ichikai has been officially acknowledged as a disaster zone, though it is overshadowed by the tragedy of the north eastern prefectures. The damage in Ichikai alone is estimated at 2,000,000,000 yen.

Discussion ensues about the best course of action to repair the hall in which we now sit. During the proceedings a major after shock strikes. Everyone tenses, a few gasp, all of the faces are filled with fear. The quake subsides.

General business is called, new members of the community are introduced. There is a brief lull in the proceedings. The Kaicho nods to me. I stand and move to the open space at the front of the hall. One hundred and twenty five faces turn to me. I know them all.

"Good evening, " I say. "I am Euan Craig of MaeOhkuboh 3pan." They chorus a response of good evening.

"Like everyone here, my home was also damaged in the earthquake of the 11th of last month. The roof, the back wall of Ohya stone, the bathroom, the kiln, have all been badly damaged. For those of you who did not know, we did not own our home, but rented from a landlord who does not live in this area. When we were able to contact the landord after the power was restored, they indicated that they would not be paying to restore the house to livable conditions."

I take a deep breath, " Even so, I began repairs, but on the 15th, when the nuclear reactors exploded, I realised that I could not protect my children here. We evacuated to my wife's parents home in Minakami, but I could not return until the petrol was available. After discussions with my wife's parents, they have offered to give us some land to start fresh, and if we build there our investment will belong to us."

I look at the faces upturned to me, " For eleven years, you have embraced my family and included us as part of this community, and I am proud to have lived among you. This situation was not of my or anyone's choosing, but I am sad to say that, as of the end of last month, I must leave this community, and my family will be moving permanently to Minakami," my voice begins to quaver. "Thank you all for taking care of us for these 11 years, I have no words to express my sorrow." I bow, deeply, to hide my tears.

125 pair of hands begin to applaud. I leave the floor amid the sound of clapping.

The meeting comes to an end. As the elected officials start to serve plates of sushi and sashimi, trays of cutlets, beer and sake, I find an empty cushion among my friends. They gather around me, filling my glass, asking the details of our move, expressing sorrow that we are leaving, but understanding our decision and affirming its validity. They wish me luck and tell me that I must come back and visit. I promise I will. I will. We eat, we drink, we laugh. Time passes.

As I walk home from the hall, I follow the road rather than cut across the fields. I walk past the pond.

"Benten Ike", the pond of Benten. Curious, isn't it, that the water should bear the same name as the water in Minakami.

There is an Island in the middle of the pond, and a narrow bridge joins the island to the bank. On the Island is a temple to Benten. It has been there for generations, but three years ago, when I was Hancho, the old temple had decayed and was falling down, and so we rebuilt it.

The men of the community volunteered their labour and together we built a new temple. Working side by side, we built good strong concrete foundations, a frame and walls of wood, an iron roof.

I cross the bridge. The temple stands undamaged on it's island, unaffected by the earthquake.

I walk back to the house, cold and empty. The house is just a house. I will miss the people of this town, but I miss my family more. It will take a few more days to pack the rest of the house, but I long for home, and home is not here anymore.

Friday 1 April 2011

The Long March

It is April. Mika opens the storm shutters and morning light streams into the bedroom, stinging my eyes and dragging me from my restless sleep. I do not remember all of my dreams, but they are haunted by images of falling masonry, moving ground and searching for the children. Mika strokes my forehead and whispers, "Good morning." She smiles. The dreams fade.
This last week has been hectic. Since our decision to establish ourselves here there has been no down time. A friend found us a 2 tonne truck for two days free use, and I drove back and forth to Mashiko with trepidation. The house needs to be cleared, paperwork put through the town hall, the kiln dismantled and moved, the childrens school affairs transfered...

The drinking water in Kasama, next to Mashiko, was deemed unsafe for children because of radiation. The list of produce unfit for human consumption grows. The nuclear reactors are not under control, though radiactivity is now leaking into the sea water rather than the atmosphere they say. The levels in the sea water are increasing. They say it will take weeks to get it under control. They say it will take months to seal the plant down. They say there is no immediate danger. They say lots of things. I suspect that they don't know. Neither do I.

We have moved a great deal of our things here now, most of the kitchen equipment, the dining table and chairs. It is difficult moving home when there is no empty home to move to. We are squeezing our belongings into corners, and what overflows I am storing in the hot house on the Sukawa field. I spent two days clearing the south half of the hot house, laying out palettes to keep our things high and dry till we have built our own storage. My brother in law's kitchen is looking like mine.

We have vegemite on home baked bread this morning. A taste of home. With all of us and Mika's parents and brother, we now prepare meals for a family of nine. The children set the table, we sit down together.

Putting our hands together we chorus, "Itadakimasu", the Japanese "Grace", we are grateful to receive this food.

It is good that I can now bake bread, as there are still days when there is none in the supermarket. Today there was no milk. Eggs are rationed, strangely there is no yoghurt...I don't know why that bothers me, it seems such an odd thing to be in shortage. Each day as I walk around the supermarket I check the labels to see where the produce originated. I am wary of contamination, albeit "within safe levels", and prefer fresh foods from Hokkaido or Shizuoka, as far afield as possible. Mika's Uncles have brought us vegetables from their own farms, near us here in the mountains. Our friends in Ichikai were relieved when their strawberries tested safe for radiation, and brought us two punnets while we were moving. Until now my concern has been to give my family a wide, varied and healthy diet...Now I pray only that it is safe.

The phone rings. It is the gallery from Utsunomiya calling to cancel my exhibition which was scheduled to begin on April 21st. There are no customers. Perhaps later in the year when things have settled down? "We look forward to exhibiting your new work." So do I. Till then there is a kiln shed, studio and kiln to build and a family to feed. I thank them for their efforts, I know that they are doing their best too. I hang up the phone.

Mika and I go to the local town office to register our new address. The other day we registered our move from Ichikai with the town office there. We fill in the forms, they check my Alien Card, we transfer the childrens school records. The papers are stamped, we are now citizens of Minakami.

The schools are close, and have either been recently rebuilt or reinforced to make them earthquake safe. The teaching staff are friendly and relaxed, understanding of the situation we are in and I believe they will be supportive of the children while they come to terms with their new lives. While we are at the high school it starts to rain. Whoever thought I would be scared of rain? But I remind myself that the prevailing winds come from the west, it's's ok..

Two letters await us when we arrive home. One is from the Ichikai town office telling us our house there is officially uninhabitable. It is reassuring to know that we didn't over react after all. The other is the quote from the builder. A simple square shed, 7.2 meters on each side, a half slab of reinforced concrete for under the seven tonne kiln, wooden frame and corrugated iron roof. No walls, windows or fixtures at this stage. Just foundation, frames and roof, everything else I will do myself as materials come to hand. 1,310,000 yen, give or take. It's only the first quote. We file the letters for later.

After lunch Isaka san from Gallery St Ives in Tokyo phones. He has organised a five person exhibition in Tokyo of Mashiko potters affected by the earthquake, and a percentage of the sales will go to help the rebuilding fund. Ken Matsuzaki, Tomoo Hamada, Minoru Suzuki, Yuchiko Baba and me. It will start on April 16th. Can I provide him with 50 pieces at such short notice? It just so happens that I can. More if he needs them...

Mika's cousin visit's, her three daughters will be going to the same school as the boys, she can also lend us the uniform for Seans preschool...

The stars are bright in a clear sky this evening as I walk with my family to the local hot spring. It is perhaps ten minutes walk, and only the residents of this district can use it. A priveledge we can now claim. Down the hill in the dark, the children giggling, the scuff of our shoes on the gravel.

Up here in the mountains the stars do not have to compete with city lights, and they twinkle merrily in the cold black sky.

The "Onsen" is little more than a shed, divided down the middle into men's and lady's. There is a small changing room on each side, and an honesty box in which to place 100 yen for the upkeep of the facilities.

The boys and I go through the sliding doors into the steamy bathroom, a faint sulfurous fragrance in the air. The bath itself, a four inch thick wooden box into which the hot spring water flows continuously from a pipe, is currently occupied by three old men. They stare at us curiously as we greet them, but as we scoop bowls of water from the bath and wash ourselves I explain who we are and before long we are chatting like old friends.

One of them grows cherries, the ones that Mika's mother sends to us each year, and he knows all about us from her. Another is the owner of the general store, apparently a distant relative.

The water is gaspingly hot as we sink into the tub, and I feel the tension leeching out of me into the water. We are not alone, though sometimes it feels that way, and with the help and support of family and friends we will come through this.

I walk behind Mika and the children as we make our way back home. Sean sets the pace, we all match in with him, we all stay together.

Tomorrow morning, very early, I will go back to the house in Ichikai to say my final farewells to the community there, who accepted me so warmly into their midst, and to pack up what remains for the final move.

It has been a long march from the housing commission estates of Broadmeadows in Melbourne to the mountains of Minakami in Japan, and fortunes seem to change with the wind. But I am not alone, and wither so ever the winds of fortune may blow, I will persevere.

I am a potter, and a potters strength lies in their ability to remain steady. Yes, the march has been long, but this last month has been the longest March of all. I am glad it is April.

Tuesday 22 March 2011


I look out the window as I wash the dishes. The rain has washed the snow away, though the majestic peaks of the Mikuni Alps rise white amid the drifting clouds. Ten days have past since the earthquake stuck, a week since the explosions in the third and fourth nuclear reactors which led us to evacuate here.
Over the past few days the struggle to control the reactors seems to be winning, and the radiation level seems to be falling day by day. Each day, however, there is new news of contamination, ever more widely spread. First the drinking water in Fukushima, then the surrounding prefectures, Tochigi and Tokyo. Milk from Fukushima is contaminated, and Spinach from Ibaraki. The next day vegetables from Mibu in Tochigi, further from the reactors than Mashiko. The ocean around fukushima, the rain across the Kanto plain. Beans from Kagoshima that were contaminated while going through Narita airport on their way to Taiwan...

     The government spokesman and the experts tell us it is many times greater than the accepted limits, but still safe for human consumption. It does not inspire confidence, and I am glad we are here. I have checked the sites that some of you have recommended, the radiation levels in the air, the water, the rain. The Internet was made for times like this.

The relief work for those suffering in the earthquake and tsunami hit areas continues, and though supplies of heating oil and fresh water are still lacking in some areas, the roads are clearer. Supplies are getting through. People are being evacuated to safer areas in other prefectures to the west and south. Petrol is back to normal in Tokyo, I hear, but there is still none here. Milk and bread are hard to get here now. Maybe tomorrow. It will be a long road to recovery.

The rain has stopped and the sky is clear. I take Sora for a walk before dark. We talk as we walk up the steep hill behind the village hall, forest to right and left. We have had long family discussions over the last few days, trying to find a way forward. The house in Ichikai is unlivable as it is, to repair it would cost a great deal in time and money, and in the end it will still not be ours. The kiln needs to be rebuilt. There are still aftershocks and the risk of more earthquakes. There is still radioactivity, though less than before, and the reactors are still not completely under control. We cannot go back, we must find a way forward.

Sora and I crest the hill, walking past Mika's father's blue berry field. Last Summer we all came and helped him harvest them, though there were probably as many eaten as went into the baskets! I found some in his freezer yesterday and made blueberry jam last night. This morning we had it with yoghurt on drop scones for breakfast. The branches are bare now, but there is a hint of spring in the air.

Many of my family and friends in Australia want us to move there. Admittedly, there are no nuclear power plants in Australia, and I know that everyone would rally around us. I miss the sound of Magpies in the morning, the fragrance of the gum trees. I could start from scratch, Mika would be fine, but it is not just us. My children are in the midst of their schooling, and though it would not be impossible for them, it would be very difficult. Particularly after the trauma of the earthquake. I also remember how hard it is to make a living as a potter there, and I hear that things have not changed. Could I support a family of six?

We cross a bridge over a deep gully. From here we can see over the village and the valley below. The mountains march off into the distance. Across the bridge there is an orchard with an electric fence around it to keep the monkeys out. It has been good to watch the children with their grand parents, playing "Shogi" (Japanese Chess) with grandad ("Jichan") or listening to "Bachan's" (Grandma's) stories. My father passed away many years ago, well before I came to Japan, and my mother the year before Sean was born. It would have been nice for the children to have spent more time with her.....

We walk across the fields of Sukawa Daira, beside the Temple of Daikoku. We stop at a field, perhaps a quarter acre, which has a large plastic hot house. This field belongs to Mika's parents, and until recently was used for growing "Konyaku" potatoes. The hot house is full of the timber from the old shed where Mika's brother built his house, the house in which we now take refuge. They have offered us this land to build a new studio, a new home. We have accepted.

I will not return to Mashiko or Ichikai, though they have been my home for 21 years. I will not return to Australia, though I miss it sometimes. I will stay here. Where the earth is solid and the air is clear. Where there is pure spring water to drink and hot springs to relax in after a long, hard day. Where the children can spend time with their grandparents, and pick blue berries and grow vegetables. Here, where it is safe.

The studio and kiln shed will need to be built first. Then I can start working again. A house will have to wait, but we can stay with Mika's family till then. I have spoken to a local builder, and we are waiting for some quotes. I will do as much of the work as I can myself, to keep the cost down, and help the builders do the bits I can't do myself. Once the shell of the studio is built I can move my wheel and tools here, dismantle the old kiln and rebuild it here.

People from all around the world are raising money to help rebuild Mashiko, and it is heart warming to see the ceramic community pull together like this. The Leach Pottery in the UK and the Ceramics Council in the USA are accepting donations to be sent to the Mashiko Potters Fund, an NPO created to help the potters in Mashiko rebuild after the earthquake. Mashiko will be rebuilt, but, alas, I will not be a part of it.

Sora and I walk home, back down the hill by a different path. The full moon rises huge and orange over the jagged horizon and dusk begins to fall. We stop at the general store on the way past and buy a litre of milk. It has been rationed here to one per family, which for us at the moment is nine.

Light is spilling from the kitchen window as we arrive home. Canaan hugs me in the hall way.

He turns his face up to mine and says, "We're all really happy, Dad."

I smile and kiss him on the forehead. "Yes, son, I believe we are."

I will make my own path forward, with my family. I thank you all for your kindness and encouragement, and I look forward to sharing this journey with you.

You can always contact me by email at ;

God bless and keep you all.