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.