The soft morning light glows gently through the shoji screens. It illuminates the porcelain electrical fittings on the dark wood ceiling above my futon in chiaroscuro. Birds twitter in the trees outside and frogs croak in the rice paddies beyond, but inside it is quiet, just the sound of my family breathing. I lay listening, watching the shadows slowly move across the ceiling, in no hurry to rise. The last few weeks have been hectic, I am trying to pace myself, but it is hard to find a rhythm. It will come. I just need to listen.
As these thoughts are passing through my mind, the town PA system rings the not quite Westminster chimes loudly down the valley, signalling “6:00 am, time to rise”, and ending in a signature click of static. I chuckle quietly to myself, as every-ones alarm clocks begin their daily chorus. Gradually the family begin to stir. I rise and Mika starts to get the children moving. Another day begins.
We all sit for breakfast together, sardines on saffron rice, a salad served in a bowl given me by Clive Bowen. We place our hands together in gratitude and chorus “Itadakimasu!” The kids chatter over breakfast, talking about their new friends, the upcoming tests, their sports clubs. They have settled in very well, their grades are good, I am very proud of them. I watch them head off for school, Sora and Canaan on their pushbikes, Rohan and Sean off to the bus stop, the sound of their dinosaur bells jangling into the distance.
It is about a year since Sora was diagnosed with fatigue fractures in her spinal column. It is caused by over training in sports, in Sora’s case basketball, and the specialist in Maebashi told us it would never heal. Our local doctor, however, had a corset made for her and gave her an exercise program anyway, with instructions to follow that program -not the program dictated by the basketball coach. After we had meetings with the school, she has been participating in the team on a restricted level, with regular checkups at the doctors. It has been a very difficult time for her, but she has been very brave. At last week’s check up, after x-rays and a thorough examination, the doctor gave her a clean bill of health! “The x-rays show the spine is straight and cleanly healed,” he said. “You don’t need to use the corset anymore, keep it as a souvenir.” It seems that the specialist was wrong, for which we thank god and the good advice of our local Doctor!
I return to the studio, which is becoming more functional with each working day. The light from the window reflects off the dark wooden decking, clean and waiting for me.
Now that it is summer we are not using the wood stoves for cooking so often. Instead, I often light a charcoal fire in the irori and cook over that. The pit is half full of ash now, and I level the ash off and rake it even each time I use it.
I have always felt that this is the true source of the stone gardens of Kyoto, though I have no proof to support that other than the beauty of these patterns that were once the heart and hearth of every home in Japan.
My work cycle begins with wedging the clay, blending two clays until they become a new homogenous body. The clay becomes marbled during the process, and like every part of the process it has an intrinsic beauty. I will wedge 300 kg or so today, in preparation for my “Hatsugama”, the first firing of exhibition work in the new kiln.
It takes time to get into a proper working cycle. In the last month I have managed to make and fire the first test firing, a rehearsal for the “hatsugama”. We need to know how the kiln will fire, with a balance of pots inside. Not work made for museums, vessels made for my family, simple and honest. We need coffee mugs, cups and saucers, green tea cups. It takes 400 pots to fill the kiln, so I make 100 of each. If they work out well, I’m sure that others will want them too.
The aesthetic of Mingei is based on the simple beauty of functional ware made for everyday use. So, too, is the art of tea, but in a much more specific way. For me, the making of pots is like a tree making leaves. I make them in order to grow; when they are finished they will nourish others, becoming a part of their lives. Each is an individual and unrepeatable expression of the beauty of nature given form through me, and the more beautiful and simple each part of the process is the more beautiful the results will be.
When I stood before the fire box, bathed in the light and heat of the wood flame, it was not by my effort alone. It was with the help and support of so many of you, and the grace of god, whatever you conceive that entity to be.
The kiln fired perfectly. It fired in ten minutes less than the estimated fourteen hours, with exactly 400kg of wood, to 1305C by the pyrometer and Seger cone 10. The reduction flame from the chimney blew red into the darkness like a phoenix rising into the night.
I opened the kiln on the morning of the third day after the firing, with Mika and the children there. It was perfect. The flame had blessed us with red and orange and gold, lustrous surfaces, Sumi-e like ash glazes and beautiful igusa straw markings. No two were the same, but each a precious crystallisation of all the elemental forces of nature that have helped form them. And yes, one of those forces is love.
I lined the pots up on boards and took them to the studio. The vessels stretched across the dark decking in elegant rows. There are no words to describe the feeling of seeing this, to have come full circle.
This has been a long journey; I thank you for sharing it. Now I stand at the beginning of a new journey; or perhaps a continuation, I cannot tell. Every step is always the first. Shimaoka sensei said to me once, “I have no secrets, but if you don’t ask, I won’t tell you.” I have no secrets, but I have learnt a great deal on this journey. I will continue to share what I have learnt with you as I can, perhaps a little more regularly as we settle down into our new lives. I am blessed. I owe a debt of gratitude to so many, for all of these small miracles.