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.


  1. ...don't know if making pots is a real job but YOU are a REAL potter. I guess the dividing line is whether you can make a living of it, or not. I can only send you my encouragements.

  2. You will find a way.
    It will feel awkward at first as if your hands, head and heart do not feel like they fully belong to you as you have to think more about your movements and reach for tools that are not quiet in their places.
    But soon it will all fall in to place.

  3. How can people question that making pots IS or ISN'T a REAL Job? It is probably one of the first jobs man ever had. That & making tools. Good luck Euan, you have the talent & resolve to make it. Still enjoying my pottery class, although yesterday wasn't a good day but we all have those. Looking forward to your next entry. Love Karen

  4. As always, your writing touches the heart Euan. Thank you for keeping that cheerful spirit of yours alive and making the most out of it all. That's what makes you so special. No doubt, you've passed on this wonderful trait to your kids and they'll multiply the joy of that Craig spirit throughout their lives. Both you and Mika are such kind and lucky people. Thank you as well for taking the time to give us some really good reading stuff!
    Your latest stories have brought tears to my eyes because I know how difficult things must be for you and others affected by the earthquake(s) and I feel for you all, but the tears are also for the joy of life you put into your stories. So full of hope and drive.
    Can't wait to see what the clay & you will 'tango into shape' this time around in this next chapter of your life as one of the best potters I've ever met and know of. Take care and pot on my friend.

  5. Hi Euan,
    thanks for the update, Ive been wondering how you guys were. The gift of the wheel is wonderful- with such a rich history,it will speak to you as you work Im sure !!

  6. so good to hear again from you euan and so blessed that folks around you can offer help like a studio and kiln...have a great week..I wish google translated radio!!

  7. Thank you for the beautiful lesson in living life fully and responsibly. As always we hold you and your family in our thoughts and prayers.

  8. it is good to read an update from you, euan. i am sorry to hear that things aren't proceeding as easily as one might hope in moving forward with your new studio and kiln. i hope that you will find a way forward soon. i am sad to hear that your choice to relocate your studio means that you will not have the aid that you would have received had you stayed in mashiko. please let us know if there is anything that we can do to help--i am sure that there are many of us out here who would be happy to do so. what a generous gift from tomoo hamada--i hope it will bring blessings to your new studio!

  9. Beautifully said. Your life and your work are of one fabric. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Reading your posts always makes me happy. Not only are you a potter but a wonderful writer. With all my heart I wish you well.

  11. Your sharing of the gift from Tomoo Hamada brings tears to my eyes. There is love through this awful tragedy. You speak with such forgiveness for the reigning down of pain from the uncontrollable elements. How is that you find such humility and grace? Your writings are a lesson and a gift to me. Thank you and Namaste.

  12. Euan, it's wonderful to hear from you again. I'm so pleased to hear that you are building a new life. My best wishes to you all.

  13. What a beautifully written post glad things are looking up for you.