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.


  1. beautiful to read, i felt the cold ice breaking as you described it (canada, eh) such a wonderful memory to reach back and feel in the heart any time, i agree that the pot is an expression of the potter-we all need to allow our life force to flow into and through our pots. thank you for posting this elegant piece. hilary

  2. This piece reads as a captivating short story - it gave me a glimpse into a very particular world. How special that is is real and a part of your life. I enjoyed reading your essay very much indeed.

  3. I liked this post very much. The tradition of service to the master is still alive and well in India; the proving of the disciple's determination by service, often menial and laborious. Sometimes students/disciples were even sent away to perform a task before the teacher accepted them; "take this cow into the forest and only come back when you have a herd of fifty cows". The old days ...

    As a young and ignorant Englishman in the '60s I also had to get up at 4am and sweep the ashram and make the tea and cook the breakfast and go to the market, wash clothes in the river, on and on ... overcoming my feelings of resentment, humiliation and anger was very hard and not really successful but I treasure that time and what I learnt.

  4. Simply and compellingly told. Great!
    Thank you for posting this.

  5. What a wonderful post, and very eloquently told.
    Thanks for sharing it.

  6. Bravo, time to write that book my friend. Can't wait to read more...... Compelling reading! Yours words are magical! x x