Monday 24 December 2012

White Christmas

The garden and fields outside the windows are a study in black and white, as I light the wood stove in the early morning gloom. Snow flakes flurry before the wind blowing down from Mount Mikuni in the north west, and to the south east the sky is growing pale between the jagged edge of the horizon and the clouds that cover most of the sky. I have made a mental note of the point on the horizon that the sun rose from on the solstice, and will watch its progress back to the east over the mornings from now till summer. Gold begins to condense on the edges of the clouds before congealing into a shining globe that floats upwards through the pale sky. Shafts of light spear through the falling snow, and thousands of diamonds sparkle across the white landscape, before the fiery ball disappears up into the cloud bank. The weather bureau forecasts a top of minus three today.

These last few days, since the end of the exhibition in Utsunomiya, have been spent preparing fire wood for winter and installing the large, cast iron, slow combustion stove that we have finally brought here from Mashiko. There will be roast dinner and steamed pudding for Christmas tomorrow! The potted fir tree has been brought inside and decorated, and its top is adorned with the "goldish" star which I made when the children were small. There are presents around the tree, wrapped in white and red, with ribbons of gold and silver.

The boys spend the morning outside ravaging the snowy landscape and building toboggan slopes amid bursts of spontaneous snowball fights and laughter. The cats forge a path between the shed and the house, occasionally following the children round but huddling, for the most part, in whatever warm spots they can find. By tomorrow morning fresh snow will make the world new again, erasing the tracks of children and cats alike. 

Mika and the kids are making ginger bread this afternoon, but whether it will be a house or little people is still a matter of debate! Tonight, before they go to bed, the children will put out a snack for Father Christmas, and their stocking at the foot of their beds in hope of presents. I know they have been good...even double checked the list just in case. I, for my part, have cunningly asked Santa for charcoal...

I pray that there is peace on earth; at the very least there is peace in my home, and that is a very good start. I wish you all health and happiness, and may you be blessed in all your endeavours. 

Merry Christmas!  


Saturday 8 December 2012

Reality Check

It is about a quarter past five in the evening, I kneel in the entry hall in front of the bath furnace setting kindling on top of sakura bark. Mika is at the desk in the main room, finishing up some correspondence, while Sora, Rohan and Sean do their homework at the kitchen table. A few flakes of snow are blowing across the front yard, caught against the darkness by the light spilling from the front windows. Canaan is still not home, yet. We received a mail earlier in the afternoon telling us that the after school basketball had been cancelled due to influenza and that students would be returning home as normal. The plan had been for the boys basketball team to catch the school bus to a gymnasium in Sarugakyou, just the other side of Lake Akaya from here, to prepare for a tournament over the weekend, but the email said that there would "no longer be a need to go and pick him up at half past five". We expect him home any time.

As I reach up for the box of matches the windows begin to rattle and the floor moves sickeningly beneath my feet. I slide open the front door and the kitchen shoji screen, the children are already diving under the kitchen table, Mika is standing in the loungeroom doorway with her hand braced on the doorframe. Our eyes meet. The house and the floor begin moving more violently.

"Outside, now." I say in as calm a voice as I can.

The children quickly move to me, putting on sandals as they go past me through the front door, Mika follows and I go out last, taking Sean's shoes with me, as he has forgotten them in his haste.
I give Sean his shoes as we stand together on the cobbled causeway in front of the house, the rocks moving beneath our feet, and watch the house swaying and shaking. Above the rattling of the windows I hear the hissing sound of water splashing from the large cauldron on the hot wood stove in the lounge room. Walking across the moving ground, I open the shutters and window near the stove from the outside, just in case I need to deal with a fire. There is a large fire extinguisher close at hand if we need it. I go back to Mika and the kids and put my arms around them as the tremors continue, peak and subside. We wait in the dark for a few minutes more, a few flakes of snow resting briefly on the children's hair before melting into nothing. 

Satisfied that the quake is over, we take the kids back into the house, close up the doors, and double check the wood stove and chimney. It was the strongest quake we have had since we came to Minakami, since we moved into this house. 

"What time is Canaan supposed to be home?" I ask Mika.

"The mail said 'normal home time', so he should here by now..." There is a tone of trepidation in her voice.

"He's probably on his bike on the way home right now, I'll just drive down in the truck and pick him up." I say. I grab the car keys and start the cold engine. The little truck bounces over the cobble stones as I drive into the darkness. Snow blows across the road as I drive through the village, searching the empty footpaths on either side as I go. At the edge of the plateau is the bike shed, where the school kids leave their bikes and walk the last steep hill, through the snow shed, to the main highway and across to the school. I note that there is one bike in the rack as I drive past.

There is no sign of Canaan on the road to the school; there is nobody at the school. I phone Mika from the public telephone on the corner, he isn't home yet. Perhaps I missed him on the road? Or maybe they have gone to the gymnasium in Sarugakyou, despite the email? I drive back home by the normal route, stopping at the bike rack on the way. I check the name on the helmet; Canaan Craig. Where is he?

I arrive home, Mika is waiting in the doorway. No sign of Canaan.

"They must have gone to Sarugakyou," I say. "I'll go to the Gym and check."

I give Mika the truck keys and climb into the station wagon, it has four wheel drive and there is always more snow in Sarugakyou. Back across the cobblestones and onto the main road. As I approach the corner I see a car pulling away from the bus stop. A figure in dark clothes is walking towards me on the side of the road. As my headlights illuminate Canaan I feel relief flood over me. I stop beside him and he climbs into the car.

"Sensei dropped us all off himself." he says as he fastens his seat belt. "We had to prepare the gym for the other teams tomorrow."

"We had an email telling us you were coming home at normal time." I said. "We were a bit worried because of the earthquake."

"What earthquake?" he says.

I tell him about our evening as I pull into the front yard. 

"We must have been in the car," he says. "We didn't feel a thing."

Mika is relieved to see us. She has checked the net, the earthquake was 7.3 magnitude, just off the coast of Tohoku; not as large as last years great earthquake, which was 9. We listen to the emergency radio, there is a tsunami warning for Tohoku. 

I give everyone a hug, each in turn. We're OK. We pray quietly that everyone else is, too. There seems to be no damage, we are all home safe. It is not six O'clock yet.

I go back out to the entry hall, pick up the box of matches and light the bath stove. Time to cook dinner.  

We listen to the radio during the evening, to the tsunami warnings, to the safety reports from the nuclear power stations. After each report, we turn it off, so that the children do not have to fear. It is only recently that they have stopped having nightmares or calling out in their sleep. Sometimes these days they even laugh in their dreams, and that is the most wonderful sound of all. 

Mika and I go to bed after the tsunami warning is lifted, when we are sure there will be no further disaster. We are as safe as we can make ourselves.


I rise at first light this morning, and go out to check the kiln. No cracks, no movement whatsoever. I pat it gently on the side. "Well done." I say to it. "You can stay."

Coming back into the house, I light the stove, then go out to the studio and check the pottery. All of the work for next weeks exhibition is lined up on the throwing bench, just as I left it. Nothing has fallen over, nothing is broken.

Japan is a land of earthquakes. There will be more. Nobody can ever guess when or where or how big they will be. We cannot live in constant fear, so we must be constantly prepared. When I rebuilt the kiln, it was in the knowledge that there would be more earthquakes, so I built it stronger. When we moved into this house, I knew that it was built to flex in an earthquake. We have wood stoves, a wood heated bath, our own well water. We have a stock of emergency food and we are as prepared as we can be.

There is great deal that we have learnt from our experiences, and it is important to practice risk management. There will be earthquakes, and typhoons, and tsunami and blizzards. We must prepare for them as best we can, deal with them as calmly as possible, and care for the victims afterwards, learning lessons to prepare us for next time.

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Jigetty Jig

 Steel grey clouds tear like ragged fabric on the tips of the snow white mountains as the winter wind cuts through the valley. There is snow forecast for the rest of the week, this is the last chance I will have to get the fire wood in before the real snow. I wave the children off to school, then lift the axe once more. I have been back from Tokyo for a few days now, and my feet are only now starting to touch the ground. It has been an exciting time.

Friday, November 23rd, 2012 
The children are excited, chattering noisily as we drive to Tokyo through the freezing rain. Our side of the freeway is uncrowded despite it being peak hour, as today is a national holiday; the lanes coming out of Tokyo are jammed. Sean makes up songs for the place names as we pass. It is opening day of the exhibition, the culmination of all our efforts, and it is important to me that the family all share in this event. I delivered the work to the gallery yesterday, set up the exhibition with Miyake san during the day and returned to Minakami late last night. It is a three hour drive each way. I do not know if anyone will come, but whether they come or not, this is a triumph for us, and I have done my best. It is out of my hands now, once again.

  As we leave the freeway, turning onto chuo-dori, it is like coming home. I have been exhibiting at Ebiya for 19 years and Nihombashi is familiar stamping ground. I point out the landmarks to the kids; Takashimaya and Mitsukoshi Department stores where I exhibited in years past; Nihombashi, the bridge of Japan; Kappo Toyoda, where chef Hashimoto will prepare the food for the opening party; the Mandarin Hotel; and there on the corner, the Ebiya Bijutsuten. Miyake san is waiting for us when we arrive, there are hugs and tears and laughter. Yes, it is like coming home. 

Miyake san gives us all "Ebiya" hanten coats to wear, a special privilege. The antiquities have been stored away, and now my work adorns the antique furniture. Miyake san comments that my work seems at home in these surroundings, at ease with furniture from any age. Not subject to the whim of fashion, not copies of ancient art, but art for the human hand and spirit, ageless.

The Gallery opens its doors, the guests begin to arrive. Friends, old and new, many of whom I have not seen since before the quake, many who have helped us through these difficult times. We embrace and smile and laugh, and yes, sometimes we cry. Sora, Canaan and Rohan offer refreshments to the guests, Sean plays with the elevator. Mika stands beside me as the clocks begin to chime midday, and as the sixtieth bell tolls, we rise for the toast. This exhibition may well be the work of my hands, but it is not mine alone. It is the result of the efforts and the support of so many of you, and I thank you all.


I stack the wood by size, some for the bath furnace, some for the main stove, some for the studio. Eventually I will find a uniform size that fits all the stoves and the kiln, but for the moment this is fine. Mika has gone to the school this morning to read to the students with some of the other mothers. I am home alone, well, alone with the cats. It is a strange contrast to last week; I must have spoken to hundreds of people in Tokyo, we were busy throughout the whole exhibition, and each day was busier than the last. There was a constant stream of visitors, and even two school groups! I even had a very special visit from a blog follower from Washington DC, a chance to meet someone from the other side of the world who has shared our journey! Some of my guests returned three or four times, and on the last day we closed late because there were still clients deciding which vessels to purchase. After we closed the doors I quietly wrapped and packed the remaining work while Miyake san did the paperwork. It was a very successful show, the return trip was much lighter. Thank you all!

 During the exhibition, a film crew from TBS Television spent several hours at the gallery taking footage for a program called "Totteoki Nippon" (Special Reserve Japan), which focuses on Japanese culture through the eyes of artists like myself. They also spent a day filming here in Minakami the day after the exhibition ended! The program will go to air on Japanese national television in two parts, the first of which is tomorrow night, the 6th of December, at 8:49 pm (for five minutes, so don't blink!) , and the second part airs on the 13th of December at the same time. By what providence I do not know, but this will be a record of my first exhibition, just as the NHK world program recorded the first firing.          
 The days are becoming shorter now, and the sun falls beyond the mountains to our west by mid afternoon, to leave us with a long extended dusk. The wood preparation is almost finished, I will put the rest away tomorrow morning. Now I need to light the bath and get the evening household chores done. The children return home from school and do their homework on the kitchen table while Mika and I prepare dinner.  We have stocked the larder for winter, and today I paid the last installment on the concrete for the kiln shed. It is ours, finally!

Over the next week I will be boxing up the work for the second stage of the "Comeback" exhibitions. From Thursday, December 13th till Tuesday, December 18th, between the hours of 11:00am and 6:00pm, I will be exhibiting the rest of the work from the first firings at Gallery Ciel in Utsunomiya, in Tochigi prefecture close to Mashiko. I will be in the gallery every day. 

It has been such a long journey to return to where I began. Oh, yes, there is still much to do; but that is part of the journey, too. But as I write, the wood stove crackles and our home is warm and safe, the children sleep peacefully in the next room, while Mika dozes in the armchair. The coffee is hot and fragrant as I drink from a mug with a dragon on its base and a shrimp swimming round its side. Every day is full of love and beauty, and though none of us know what tomorrow may bring, today has been peaceful and happy. Thank you all for sharing in this journey.