First some background...
Arai Sensei is originally from Seto city Aichi prefecture in northern Japan. The region is famous for its pottery, and has a long history of over 1300 years. Arai's family is not one that has been practicing pottery for generations, but has recently (last sixty years) started in the trade.
After porcelain techniques were brought to Seto city the area became known for its novelty figurines, (dolls, birds, vases, ash trays, paper weights etc.) which were mostly sold overseas. Arai's father worked at one of the factories that produced these exports. The factory opened a new branch down in Saza Town Nagasaki prefecture located in Kyushu, where he was transferred to work. As a result the whole family uprooted from Seto City and moved down to Kyushu.
Arai Sensei was still young and inexperienced at the time so he went back to Aichi Prefecture to attend a one year vocational ceramics school. There he learned kiln techniques, how to make glazes and most of the technical aspects of running a pottery studio. After graduating he did an apprenticeship at a traditional pottery studio in Aichi prefecture for ten years! It was the type of studio where you make everything from start to finish (including the clay!) to learn the hands on techniques passed on from generation to generation. A skill that cannot be learned in any vocational school.
Arai returned to Saza and opened Toubou Yamabiko studio and Saza Yaki store in 1986 with his father who quit the factory soon after his return. At Toubou Yamabiko Arai taught classes for four years until in 1990 he was asked by the town of Saza to open Sara Yama Pottery studio. (A town funded studio to draw people into Saza Town) He has been at Sara Yama Studio since then but still makes his own pieces at his personal studio, Toubou Yamabiko. He holds one to three exhibitions per year there and sells his wares.
"What inspires you?"
"Space, the universe. I like the idea of planets, craters, the moon. My last exhibition had large plates which were inspired from the moon."
"What is your favorite clay to work with?"
"Blended clays are my favorite. I don't like the processed clay from factories. I like to go out to the mountains and find my own materials that cant be bought."
"What's your favorite firing process?"
"Definitely slow firing gas."
"What's your favorite glaze to use?"
"A color called Haiyu, a deep green. But I also like to use colors that move on their own, that have depth."
"What is your favorite thing to make?"
"Things that I can use on a daily basis. Like cups, bowls and plates."
"Who is your favorite Japanese potter(s)?
"For porcelain I like Kakiemon*, Iemon*. For traditional Japanese pottery I like Arakawa Hiyozou, Katou Toukurou and Hamada Shoji for his old style. When I see any of these masters I feel inspired."
*Kakiemon and Iemon are a family of potters who have been practicing porcelain for hundreds of years, they are some of the most well know ceramic families in Japan.
"Who is your favorite foreign potter?"
"Maybe you don't know him since I'm old but I like Benard Rich.
"Where do you think Japanese ceramics is headed?"
"I think it's splitting into two different groups, traditional and modern. Maybe both groups are using the same materials but the ideas and design are changing. The shapes associated with clay in the modern group are changing and becoming things the Japanese have not seen before. This maybe because of outside influences from the rest of the world, but the traditional way of Japanese pottery will always have a strong hold in Japan, there will always be someone who wants to stick to the traditional method, but it's not certain."
"When you see foreign clay art, what do you think of it?"
" I think it's original, has new style and is focused more around objects. There are so many designs and shapes that aren't found in Japan. It's very interesting."
"What's the biggest difference between Kyushu and Honshu* ceramics?"
"Before Kyushu was only porcelain and the rest of Japan only clay but now you can get anything sent from all over Japan, but Kyushu is still the strongest in porcelain. "
*Honshu is the main island of Japan and hosts most of the other famous ceramic spots in Japan
"Whats the biggest change you've seen in pottery since you've started?"
"I haven't really seen any big changes..."
"What's the future of your studio?"
"I'd like to mix different clays together to create new colors and designs. I also want to study more design aspects and shapes."
"What is the most important aspect of mastering Japanese clay?"
"Practice! Making good design, original pieces, using color inventively and learning from your mistakes. It takes years to master ceramics, and the only way to get better is with hands on experience."
***The entire interview was conducted in Japanese, translated to English by Sierra Sroka