Friday 11 November 2011

Close to home

The typhoons of last month seem to have washed the colour from the mountains, revealing the sepia study beneath. The first snow has streaked the tip of Tanigawa Dake with white, three weeks earlier than usual. Summer has gone, Autumn has come and Winter is close upon her heels.

Much has happened since last we spoke, and plans never quite work out the way we expect. The time spent at Laura's pottery in Nagano was very productive, and I am eternally grateful to her and Giichi for their support. It did, however put a great deal of pressure on Mika and the children, fending for themselves in this new environment. My role, first and foremost, is to protect my family, and it became increasingly clear that I could not do so from a distance. We have come through so much this year, but there are other dangers much closer to home. I need to be here, with my family.

After seeing the children off to school I set off on foot up the hill towards Takumi no Sato. Our plans to build a new studio on the edge of the craft village there were put on hold while I was away. It seems that fate had a hand in this as well, for in mid Summer one of Mika's distant relatives came to offer us another option. The house and land where Mika's grandmother was born was vacant and derelict, and the inheritor who lives an hour away had no interest in it, would we like to buy it? By instalments of course, no hurry, we're family....

And so we went to see this house. It stands 3.6 kilometers from Mika's parents house, in the west precincts of Takumi no Sato. I approach it now, walking past the mulberry orchard and onto the cobbled driveway. The mulberry leaves were used to feed silk worms back in the days when the family bred them commercially, and the upper floor of the farmhouse was dedicated to the business of raising the caterpillars till they spun cocoons, then trading them to the silk mills in other parts of Gunma. Here, it seems, was the start of the silk road.

To the left of the driveway is a stone walled channel, and beside it a rice paddy farmed by another relative. To the right, behind the mulberries, are vegetable patches, untended and overgrown, and a persimmon tree laden with fruit and bare of leaves. The drive breaks through the hedge, bracketted by cedar trees, and there is the house. Built in the fifth year of the Meiji era, 1873, the year Japan adopted the gregorian calendar, it is a traditional farmhouse of pillar and post construction, with plastered wattle and daub on a bamboo framework for the walls. In many ways it reminds me of Tudor architecture, strange how different cultures find common solutions.

The cats come running towards me from the old shed to the left in the front yard, mewling for attention and, more importantly, food. Stomach love. I ruffle their heads and give them a feed in their new home. In the shed are old barrels and, yes, even a saddle. We brought our four cats from Mashiko after the earthquake, and now we have is a precious thing.

Around the house are logs and beams and miscellaneous odds and sods. The old man who lived here last, Mika's great uncle, had been a bit of a hoarder. Not a bad thing in moderation. He had also paved around the house with concrete slabs and rocks and old roof tiles and roofing iron a result the drainage around the house wasn't all that good.

Entering the "Genkan" entry hall there is the fragrance of damp earth. I call out "Tadaima!" to the empty house, the customary Japanese "I'm home!", and slide the door closed behind me. To the right is the wood furnace for the bath, then the bathroom and pit toilet beyond. To the left is the kitchen and living space. In front of me is the new studio, half earth floor, half wooden deck. This was the work space for the farm. In the back corner are the old stables, partly filled with rotting firewood. Shimaoka sensei's studio smelt like this, a musty aroma, the fragrance of a freshly opened bag of clay. This room smells like a pottery. A dirt floor maintains an even humidity, allowing pots to dry evenly, and prevents dust from gathering thus averting the danger of silicosis. It is also easier to stand on for long working periods than a concrete floor.

The wooden deck was rotten, as were the floors throughout the rest of the house. But I could see the potential. I also needed to make pots, to make a living for my family. At first I repaired a bare minimum, I needed a wedging table and a throwing space. In one of the old stables I built a wedging table, using stone from the ruins of our old house and wood from repairs to the floor of this house. It seems to fit.

One corner of the decking was badly broken, so I rebuilt that first, making room for two wheels. I had brought my old electric wheel from Mashiko, but I also had Hamada sensei's wheel to restore. The bearings were rusty and the wood dry and cracking from thirty years of dissuse. With the help of the local garage we removed the bearings and derusted them. So many people told me to just get new bearings....blasphemy! We restored it with the original bearings and nails, oiled the wood and it shone like new.

With this basic work space I was able to get the order of cups finished, fired in Nagano and delivered to Utsunomiya by the skin of my teeth.

The rest of the house, however is still unlivable...yet. Debi and Julie came up to help me rip up the studio floor and restump the foundations. Since then I have reframed it and built a raised throwing bench to accomodate the Hamada wheel. I suppose my legs must be longer than his were, it will take some adjustment!

The loft is full of "stuff", timber, bamboo, old silk worm equipment. There were also frames from old "Kotatsu" tables which made perfect frames for the wheel wells. The covers from the storage boxes, number coded with kanji calligraphy made ideal covers, and the one to cover Hamada's wheel even says "六ろ" (Roku Ro or "6R"), a phonetic pun for the japanese word for potters wheel, "Rokuro". It is as if it was waiting for me. Or perhaps my whole life has been preparing me for this...

It has, however, become imperative that we move out of our temporary residence and into this house as soon as can be. Mika and ,more importantly, the children need a safe and stable environment. My task now is to get this house livable, just the minimum will do, before the winter comes. I have put a temporary wood stove into the living room, replaced the sink in the kitchen, got the bath furnace in working order. There is a room which we can use for sleeping, but we must clean out the loft and relay the floor/ceiling so that ancient dust and mold doesn't filter through the gaps in the single layer of boards onto the sleeping children. We need to insulate and stop up gaps to keep out the bitter cold of the mountain winter. We need to heat the studio and living space.

My task today to finish the deck so that it is safe to climb the stairs, and to lay the stones into the "irori" charcoal brazier to maintain the studio temperature. I have saved as many of the original flooring boards as I can, jigsawing them together to keep the spirit of the original architecture. The stones for the irori are from the shed in Ichikai, the one that was supposed to be the studio there, which burnt down the day the lease became valid in December 1999. They are Ashinuma stone, from which Mashiko "Kaki" glaze is made. I carefully chisel them into shape and fit them into the frame I have left in the floor.

It is time to go and get the children. Sean from the preschool, Rohan and Canaan have walked back to Mika's brothers house from primary school. I go to get Sora from basketball practice. She is allowed to practice again now, though the crack in her spinal column will never mend, a constant reminder of how I failed to protect her from an over zealous basketball coach. If only I had been here, if only I my request for more off days had been listened to...fatigue fracture it's called, apparently, but hard to diagnose and once the bone has started to set it cannot be cured. The muscle and sinew supports it now, so she must maintain her muscle tone for the rest of her life. She smiles at me cheerfully as she gets in the car. I drive back to our farmhouse, and the children do their homework as I cook curry on the wood stove.

Mika brings "Bachan" (Grandma) to have dinner with us here. Tomorrow "Jichan" "Grand dad" returns from hospital after his stroke. That will be a celebration! We enjoy our meal in the warmth of the wood stove, and then I light the bath fire and also the charcoal in the irori for the first time. Bachan sits beside the fire and tells a few stories about the family history of this house.

The boys and I have a bath, but then we must return to Mikas brothers house to sleep. Soon we will not be living patchwork lives. My friends are gathering over thanksgiving for one last push before the snow, and we hope to be in the house by then. I hope to have the kiln built by Christmas and I have great hope for the new year. We could not have come this far save for the help and support of all our friends throughout the world, all of you. I thank you from the bottom of my heart. We are are not quite there yet, but we are getting very close to home.

If you are coming our way, you are welcome. Our new address is;

121 Higashimine, Minakami-machi,
Tone-gun, Gunma-ken,
Japan 379-1418

T/F 0278-25-3982