Thursday 20 January 2011

Beneath the Masters Gate

When one becomes a "deshi"(弟子 literally "younger brother-child" but best translated as disciple) to a master potter in Japan, one is said to be beneath his gate (門下となる-monka to naru). I was fortunate to have been deshi to the National Living Treasure, Tatsuzo Shimaoka, when I first came to Japan. It was an experience which I will carry with me all my life. I would like to share with you an essay which I wrote last century (really!) which was first published in the "Studio Potter" magazine in 2001. It will help to put my last blog entry into perspective. The main studio was a rustic affair, the walls made of grey, rough hewn stone to about knee height, then hand cut timber, weathered to the same grey as the stone. Icicles hung like ornaments from the fringe of the thatched roof. I raised the wooden shutters to reveal the paper screen windows, pushed open the heavy wooden door and the paper screen behind it, and entered the gloom within.

Inside the studio was slightly warmer, though only just, as a small kerosene stove had been left on overnight to prevent the pots from freezing. I turned on the larger stove and went to fill the kettle while it primed. Removing the box from the top of the well, I cracked the ice in the top of the hand pump with my knuckle, then heaved upon the handle to free the rest of the ice. The first few gushes of water were brown and rusty, but soon it was running clear and sweet. With the kettle filled I went to remove my hand from the pump, only to find that my glove had frozen to the handle. I peeled it off with a slight tearing sound and went back inside to set the kettle on the stove.

As a deshi, my next job was to sweep the grounds before the workers arrived. The broom was made of hardy rushes and a bamboo handle, not an elegant tool, but sturdy and functional. Beginning with the immediate surrounds of sensei's house I worked my way back through the compound cleaning up any unsightly leaves and clearing the paths of hoarfrost. I'd never seen hoarfrost before I came to Mashiko, as where I come from in Australia, it never got that cold. Millions of ice needles would form a thick, glistening carpet across the barren ground. A sweep of the broom would leave a glittering swathe, like the stroke of an artists brush.

Eventually the workers would arrive, elderly men and their wives, simple folk in simple farming attire. Indeed, they all had farms which they worked in the spring when the ground had thawed. Of the six of them, only one had a drivers licence. They had worked all their lives at Shimaoka's, lived within walking distance of the pottery, and would retire and grow old in Mashiko. Their children’s lives were different, many of them drawn to the bright lights of Tokyo, like most of their generation. Their world was brighter and broader than their parents, but somehow shallow and trite by comparison. The quiet dedication of the old workers was alien to the new world, but as regular and natural as the seasons. They would greet me in the garden as they passed, with a smile and a brief, "Good morning, cold isn't it?" then shuffle off to the studio to gather round the stove till starting time. When I had finished my chores I would join them briefly, then the days work would begin.

At a signal from the foreman, the oldest of the workers, everyone would scatter to their allotted space to perform their daily routines. Fukuyan would start press moulding, perhaps water drippers for calligraphy, perhaps square bottle forms for ikebana. Sabuyan, axe in hand, would make his way to the wood shed and split logs for the next firing. The women would settle themselves into their habitual spots and start trimming the slip inlayed rope decoration. Mitsuyan, the head thrower, Hamada, the other deshi, and I would go to our wheels and set to making whatever of sensei's forms he had assigned to us.

As I had only been at Shimaoka's for a month or so at that time, I was still making green tea cups, the standard shape that all deshi make in their first year. I was given an example piece, which sat on the wheel bench in front of me, and I made that shape until I got it right. There was no deadline. I had been working in potteries for twelve years before I was lucky enough to be introduced to Shimaoka sensei and for the first time in my life the only consideration was quality. I had learnt to throw in Australia with a stop watch beside the wheel. Yet here, speed and quantity were absolutely irrelevant. After a days throwing, first Mitsuyan would carefully scrutinize the work, picking up one, then another, feeling the weight, looking at the shape, checking the wall thickness. Anything that wasn't quite right would be set aside to be remade the following day. After his editing was done, Sensei himself would go through the same process. In the beginning, I was sometimes left with only ten percent of my days work in tact. "Too thick," he would say, "Too thin", or "Too fat". I was often left confused about the correct shape. So I would start again, each day thinking, maybe today, maybe today.

This day was no different. Taking about ten kilo of clay I began to knead, one hundred times this way, one hundred the reverse. When it was ready I threw it on the wheel and prepared to start. The wheel was the simplest design, just a wooden wheel head and a wooden fly wheel balanced on a steel shaft, pushed around by foot. I removed my shoes and socks, avoiding standing on the bare earth floor, and began to rotate the wheel. All the throwers worked in bare feet, mainly for better traction on the fly wheel, but also to save wear on the wood. After the first hour or so the act of constantly kicking got the blood circulating through your feet and it wasn't too bad.

The same applied to your hands. Everyone topped up their water bowls from the kettle that I had put on first thing in the morning, so by the time it got around to me it was empty. I would refill it and replace it on the stove and make do with the water I had. Once I had removed the ice from my bowl it wasn't long before it warmed up, along with the clay, just from the heat of my hands. It was fascinating to watch the tendrils of steam rising off my hands as I formed the pots, spiraling up and then vanishing into thin air. And the air was so dry. The combination of the cold and the dryness, the constant wetting and drying of my hands, cracked the skin on my fingers so that there was nothing I could do without them opening up and bleeding. Still, work had to be done, so I persevered, blood or not, and the pain, like the mist, would eventually fade.

The day was punctuated by tea breaks, morning and afternoon, of green tea and pickled radish, or sometimes rice crackers. Lunch was a tin of salmon, some vinegared rice and seaweed. Conversation round the stove filled the dark emptiness hanging over us in the cavity of the thatched roof. Not a soul spoke English, and occasionally Hamada, who came from the neighbouring prefecture, would translate pieces of Mashiko dialect that I didn't understand into standard Japanese for me. I was never without a dictionary, but much of my Japanese was mastered by studying Kanji scratched in the dirt floor.

Towards the end of day Sensei entered the main studio. His personal studio was separate and slightly newer, and he would work there undisturbed, calling for us when there were pots to move or clay to knead. I treasured those times when I was able to be assisting him in his studio, watching him work, talking with him. He is a man of few words. The atmosphere changed when he entered the room, everyone suddenly self conscious and ready to jump to his requests. Not that he is an overbearing figure, to the contrary, he is a serene and dignified man, and I have never once heard him raise his voice, nor speak in anger. He simply commands respect, with quiet, calm assertion.

He began to examine my tea cups silently, picking them up at random, feeling their balance, holding them up to see their silhouette against the paper screen, then putting them down and going to the next board. I had made eighty cups that day, and when he had finished, eighty remained.

"Good," he said, "next week you may make coffee sets. Mitsuyan will teach you." and with that he left the studio, and the sound of his wooden sandals could be heard moving across the pebbled driveway to the house. I looked over at Mitsuyan, who grinned and said "Good," just as sensei had. Hamada smiled at me and said "Congratulations". That was all. Yet somehow my world had changed. In that moment, I almost felt as if I belonged.

The working day was over, and we turned off the main stove and set the small one for the night. Hamada and I closed the shutters, and the box was replaced on the well. The workers and their wives turned towards their homes in pairs with calls of, "Good night," and, "Thank you for your efforts today".

Indeed, it was night when work finished, and as I closed the door of the studio the darkness was almost complete. I waited there for a moment until my eyes had adjusted, and looked up at the cloudless sky. The stars were pale and sparse, and for a moment I thought of the sea of stars that washes across the night sky of home. With a shiver, perhaps only of cold, I pushed that thought aside and made my way back down the hill to my paper and plywood domicile, another day complete, another frozen night ahead, and tomorrow the ritual would begin again.....

It has been twenty years since I studied at Shimaoka's, but I have remained in Mashiko. I live in an old farm house with my wife and children, and work towards an ideal that was alive at Shimaoka's. My work and my life will never be like his, nor should they be. Shimaoka sensei passed away in 2007 at the age of 88. His work was an expression of the man, and we are different men. But I will carry with me what he taught me for all my days, the beauty of the object springing from the beauty of the process, and quality above all. And the stop watch? I stopped watching years ago.

Wednesday 19 January 2011

Far Enough East

It is quiet in the studio this morning as I throw yunomi. The children are off at their various schools, Mika has gone to work at her new job as assistant to the curator at the Mashiko Museum of Ceramic Art and I have the house to myself. The kettle whispers on the stove and the fire occasionally pops and crackles. Just me and the clay in the pale winter light. As I relax into the rhythm of making these shapes, allowing the amorphous clay to find it's form within the forces at work upon it on the wheel, I remember my first years here in Japan. What was once alien and exotic has become so familiar.

Yesterday I was invited to the elementary school to give the children there a talk about Mashiko Pottery. Next month there will be a follow up seminar with thirty or so teachers from the area, with myself, the head of the Mashiko Tourism Association and the Vice President of the Mashiko Pottery Retailers association heading a panel discussion. Last night I sat opposite the boys at the kitchen table, helping them with their homework. Occasionally I would reach across the table and correct their kanji, upside down. I suddenly realize that in just a few days I will have been in Japan for twenty-one years.

The differences which seemed so significant when I first came here were only superficial after all. The customs and language which bind a race or culture together are only a veneer of commonality that allows them to interact with each other. Beneath that veneer are individuals as diverse in personal values, belief and perspective as in whatever community or family you find yourself in. One needs only to think about how different siblings can be to understand that. Beyond that, however, underpinning our sense of self, is our common humanity. Regardless of race, creed or language, we humans share our need to love and be loved, we all find beauty in the wonder of nature, we are all moved by kindness. We have more in common than we realise most of the time, but we get confused by superficialities. As long as people keep on insisting that there is a difference between East and West, no number of bridges will be enough.

I cut the next Yunomi from the wheel and discover that the ware boards are full, and I have no place to put it. I suppose it must be time for tea. And whether the people who eventually use these cups drink green tea or earl grey, coffee or oolong tea, the hand that holds the cup will be a hand like yours or mine, the lip that drinks from it a lip like the one you love. There are those who romance about the mystic East, but I have discovered that if you go far enough East, you arrive back home.