Tuesday 21 January 2020

30 Years

The hazy crescent moon sails across the night sky, like a pale ship on a misty sea with no star to follow. Flakes of snow fall like motes of dust, settling on my shoulders and chest as I walk down the silent lane. I can feel them flutter against my right cheek, tiny spots of cold that tell me the breeze is blowing from the north. There are no shadows, though the eastern sky behind me is a subtly paler shade of charcoal grey, heralding the slow coming of morning. The sound of my own feet thudding softly on the bitumen becomes quieter as the snow begins to settle, and dark footprints follow my progress, gradually fading as the snow gently erases them to the nothing from which they came. 

The snow is deeper as I walk down the west side of the valley, past the Taineiji Temple and beside "Byakkozawa" the White Fox Creek, and it complains squeakily beneath my feet, a rhythmic croak that echoes like some giant insect passing through the trees. Bamboo arches across the road above the village, the leafy heads of each stalk weighed down by the snow, making a dark tunnel through which I must pass. As I breach the bamboo a waft of breeze brings the fragrance of cows and straw and the consequences of such a confluence of forces. Ah! The joy of country life!

And now I come down the valley, the last stretch of road before home. The snow falls thicker now and, as I open my mouth to draw a sigh, a flake of snow lands sizzlingly cold on my tongue. I enter our driveway and carefully pick my way across the dark cobblestones, slippery with the snow melted by the warmth they had stored from yesterday's sun. I am home.

As I open the storm shutters the Town Public Address system chimes six o'clock and thirty years. For it was thirty years ago today, the 21st of January 1990, at 6:00 AM, that I first landed at Narita Airport and saw snow for the first time in my life. 

It has been a long journey since then. Learning a whole new language and culture, studying at Shimaoka's in the thatched roof studio on a wooden kick wheel. Marrying Mika and building the new wood kiln. The blessed births of our four beautiful children, watching them grow. The burning down of the studio when we moved to the house in Ichikai, fitting into a new community there. Building a life there, only to have it destroyed by the earthquake of 2011. Starting from nothing again in Minakami and the help and support we had from so many people. And our children growing into adulthood here, gradually leaving the nest, one by one. It has been thirty years full of love and hope, laughter and tears, triumph and disaster and unrelenting optimism. And above all, love. The richest years of my life. 

Now it is time to make breakfast and get the family moving, and my own wooden kick wheel is waiting in the studio for me.

I have come full circle, arriving in the snow at the break of dawn. But this time, I am home.

Tuesday 14 January 2020

Marking Time

Time is elusive and capricious. It slips by when we aren't paying attention, only to ooze like cold treacle when it knows we are waiting. We have tried to measure it, quantify it and dissect it, but the tighter we try to grasp it the more it escapes through our fingers. Even physicists have failed to prove it exists and pass it off as an illusion. 

Yet, the days pass and light becomes dark, becomes light, becomes dark...

Each day is new and unrepeatable, and when we have accumulated three-hundred and sixty-five and a quarter of them we find we have managed to get through four whole seasons and are back to the same spot in our endless orbit around the sun. Many cultures, including Japan, work on an arbitrary system called the "Gregorian Calendar", dividing the year into 12 unequal months. We have marked the starting point of this annual cycle as about ten days after the solstice (Winter in the Northern Hemisphere and Summer in the Southern Hemisphere), naming it "New Year's Day". 

We also number or name those years, perhaps so that we don't lose track of when we are, by a variety of systems. Though it may be 2020 AD in much of the world, here in Japan it is Reiwa 2, the second year of the reign of the Reiwa emperor. Though Japan adopted the Gregorian Calendar in the fifth year of the reign of the Meiji emperor (1873 AD, the same year that our house was built!), they have maintained a numbering system based on the Japanese Imperial Succession. 

So, though I was born in 1964 AD, I was also born in Showa 39 which, according to "Eto" (干支), the Japanese zodiac, is the Year of the Dragon. There are twelve animals in the cycle; Mouse, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Boar. Not only that, but it appears that there are five elemental cycles of the twelve animals, thus the full cycle becomes sixty years. I am apparently a "Kudari ryuu", a descending dragon, just as my wife's Grandfather was. He was born in Meiji 37, 1904 AD, making him exactly 60 years my senior, and he lived to the ripe old age of 100, his mind as sharp as a knife to the very end. (Her Grandmother, incidentally, lived to be 102!) That is something worth aspiring to!

My work has evolved over my career, of course, and there have been certain design elements in my work which indicate the period in which they were made, a change in the glazes, decoration or firing, the treatment of the foot perhaps, or the size or shape of my potters mark or whether it was intaglio or relief. These changes had always been random and I had never thought of them as a dating system. But I was having a discussion with one of my collectors some years ago about the chronology of the works which he has of mine. 

"It would be good to have some indication on the work of when it was made so that in the future we can see how your work developed." He said. 

This was food for thought...

So I decided to start making some kind of mark on my work to locate it in the chronology of my life. I wanted the mark to be an intimate communication to those people who would use those works, something which may spark their curiosity and imagination, but which would tell a story about my one, finite life, even after I was gone. I have always set my sights on living to the age of 130, but, in all practical expectations, I may only last for a hundred years like Mika's Grandfather. And so it was that in 2006 I carved a small dog into the end of a wooden rod and my Eto series began.

Each year since then my first task has been to create my new Eto stamp. Sometimes made from wood, sometimes metal, every one is an original hand crafted design. Often I will carve a different year into the other end of another stamp, pairing the animals together on the same shaft. 

Every vessel which I make is unique, of course, but of all the years that I have been doing this Eto series, the Year of the Rabbit is rarest. In 2011 I was only able to fire 3 times...

I entered the second set in 2018, and this year's stamp is the second "Nezumi" in the full sixty year cycle. “Nezumi” means “Mouse” in Japanese and the word for “Rat” is specifically “Dobu Nezumi”, which translates literally as “Gutter Mouse” (which is practically “Sewer Rat”). Though Japan and China both use Kanji Characters, the form, pronunciation and meanings are often different. I suspect that the “Year of the Rat” came directly into English from the Chinese.

This year I am using an aluminium rod, with skills I learnt in Australia at High School to drill, file and polish the new mouse. In order to differentiate, I have made this year's face in the opposite direction to the last mouse, 2008 being a left facing Nezumi when stamped on the pot, and the new  Nezumi facing right. Every vessel which I make this year will bear this stamp alongside my maker's mark. 

These stamps are as much a part of my work as any other process, and I make them with the same care and passion that give all of the different facets of my life. Today is the culmination of all the years, months and days of my life, and everything which I have learned over those years. All of my experiences, good and bad, are a part of who I am. Yet I know that I stand in the middle of a story, the beginning of which I cannot remember and the end of which I can only imagine. The things I learn today will become part of my work and life for all the years left to come. If all goes well, this project will complete it's first full cycle in 2066, when I am 102. 

Plenty of time to think about what I might do after that...

Wednesday 1 January 2020

20/20 : A New Vision

Dawn spills over the horizon and flows across the valley, a layer of gold floating on the heavy night air. The weight of the light drives the darkness into the nooks, the crannies and the shadows, and night begins to drain from the world. As the disk of the sun rises over the shoulder of Mount Akagi, some 30km in the South West, it’s light falls on the hard frozen snow in our front garden, shattering into a myriad of splinters and shards which glint and sparkle as they lay upon the smooth white surface. A new day begins, the most recent iteration of an immeasurable string stretching back to the beginning of the world, when the spinning surface of the earth first rolled beneath the event horizon that separates day and night. And with this new day begins a new year and a new decade.

I coax the embers of last night’s fire into life in the firebox of the wood stove and stoke it in preparation for cooking breakfast. It is traditional here in Japan to start the year with a breakfast called "Ozohni" (お雑煮), a simmered soup of daikon, carrot and Omochi rice cake, made with the first drawn water of the year. The recipe varies by region and by household, and this year ours includes locally grown Shiitake mushrooms and Yuzu (Citron), with shrimp for good luck and long life. 

The bent back of the shrimp represents the stooped posture of old age, thus becoming a symbol of long life. Also, the Japanese saying "Ebi de Tai wo tsuru" (海老で鯛を釣る) means to "cast a shrimp to catch a sea bream". That generally means to "profit largely from a small investment", but much Japanese symbolism is based on puns, and a "Tai" (Sea Bream) is often used as a ceremonial offering to represent "Omedetai", meaning happy, joyous or auspicious. So, we serve shrimp to bring us happiness and longevity. 

This is our seventh winter in this house, and though the children are growing into adults and one by one leaving the nest to build their own lives, we are blessed to have everyone home over New Year. It is a celebration of our journey thus far and holds promise for a bright future. Sharing our stories of the year past, our hopes for the future, talking, laughing, occasionally crying. Playing games together, both traditional and new. 

The main meal on New Years Day is "Osechi Ryouri"(御節料理), traditionally served in a three tiered vessel called a "Sandanju" (三段重). Each layer contains different types of food which can be eaten over the New Year without having to spend time cooking. Which means everyone can enjoy the fun! We share the festive fare just as we share our lives, and the food and the vessels are prepared with love to nourish both body and soul.

This year is 2020, the year of the mouse. I hope that it will bless us with the "20/20" vision to forge a better future. To clearly see what is within our control and what is not. To recognise those things which are conditions to our lives, as the earth moves on beneath the bowl of heaven and the seasons turn. And to take right action when we are faced with new challenges that we can change, however difficult the path, with the courage of a mouse that will bite a cat when the need comes.  The past is a turned page which cannot change, but from which we can learn and grow in wisdom. Today and the future are ours to write, and even in the bitter cold of winter we can still make our home a warm haven for the people we love.  

I wish everyone a safe and blessed year!