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.