Thursday, April 22, 2010

Back in the Day...

Over two years ago, before I even knew about Sara Yama or had any interest or knowledge about pottery my friend invited me to this mysterious place called Arita. I'm never one to turn down any cultural invitation so I of course said, "YES!" I went to Arita a few months after I first came to Kyushu, and at that time I was still getting to know my area and more about Kyushu itself. It's safe to say, I was a fledgling about anything Kyushu. I learned on our drive there Arita is a famous pottery town, (One of the most famous in all of Japan) It's nestled in the mountains and is located in Saga Prefecture. Many famous pottery families live there and practice there, and I found out we were going to one of these so called "generation potters" families. I was excited, I'd never done anything like this before and I was sure it'd be something to remember.

We ended up at the Tokunaga family studio. It has been there for generations and pottery runs in their blood. My friend Hiro (the initial inviter) introduced me to the oldest son, Eijirou and sister Satoko. Both siblings are in their early thirties and slowly taking over the family business.

I learned Eijirou has been learning pottery since he was in his early teens and has studied all over Japan. When I first met him, he had just returned from Kyoto learning under some famous master of clay. (I don't remember the name) Satoko was more into the business side of things. She was the hostess for the day and brought us tea and answered all my questions about the pieces I saw. She was very knowledgable about the different types of dishes and what they're used for. She seemed modest up front but I had the feeling she's the brains behind the business.
When we first arrived we were taken to the wheel throwing area and got to try the wheel first hand. Hiro was first, along with his friend, since they had both done it before they thought I should watch first to see the process. Soon it was my turn. At the time I had no idea but, Eijirou prepped the clay quite a lot for me. The easiest thing to make was a cup, so that's what I started with. After Eijirou made the initial shape, it was my job to slowly raise the cup walls more and more. (You can see Eijirou guiding me on how to keep steady in the picture) We did shifts between the three of us (Eijirou guiding us all) and made three things each. I ended up with two cups and a bowl. The others ended up with more advanced things like plates and small vases.
Soon I was addicted and having so much fun. It was a Sunday afternoon so the entire studio was quiet all except 3 Japanese guys and one American girl hehe. While we made our stuff, Eijirou had Japanese and American hiphop playing on his radio, I bet if anyone saw us, they'd do a double take and question where they were hehe. The entire scene was anything but typical.
On one of my breaks I asked if I could get a tour of the entire studio, or as I soon found out mini ceramics factory. Eijirou showed me the entire place, start to finish. I learned they mostly sold porcelain pieces which were mold made and hand painted, but also sold wheel thrown hand made pieces made by Eijirou and his father. Eijirou went to study with other masters to further his resume and to be more appealing. The more techniques you know, the more presitgious your work is.

Here are the porcelain pieces which have been glazed, and are waiting to be fired.

When the pieces are ready to be put in the kiln, they are loaded onto a special shelf that rolls right into the kiln. Since they do such large batches, putting the pieces on a special rolly shelf like this saves time and allows for easy in and out. You can see the same pieces are put in the same shelf. I'm sure they do this for many reasons, ease of loading/unloading, organizing, shelf levels are the same and alike glazes stay together.

Here is the large kiln with the door shut. I'd say the kiln was about 2.5-3m by 3 meters or so. I believe it was gas but it could be electric. At the time I didn't think to ask.

After the pieces are painted and fired some don't make the cut. And the duds go here. I looked over a few of the pieces and could see obvious smudges and marks on some but others I had no idea. The duds get graded and prices are adjusted according to the degree of marks and mistakes.

The flawless pieces are taken up to the showroom on the top floor of the studio. Potential buyers will come here, look around and negotiate about the pieces. The number and price of each piece is labeled on them. I found out these pieces are sold in top department stores around Japan. I've seen dishes and such in department stores around Japan but never thought in a million years I'd eventually see one of the places they were crafted and made. It was really cool!

Here are a few porcelain pieces in the showroom (the fan plate was about 5000yen)

This plate was a simple rectangle but had such great hand painted momiji on it (maple leaves)

Here are a few of Eijirous had made pieces, I believe he used Bizen clay but I'm not sure (Again I didn't think to ask at the time)

The entire day was a wonderful experience! I'm so glad I had the chance to see what I did. They invited me back and we see eachother occasionally. Thanks for the wonderful experience Eijirou! I'll see you this Golden Week at the Arita Pottery Festival! (April 29th to May 5th 2010, Arita City Saga Prefecture)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Nagasaki Ceramics Research Center Part 2

The hardest part of the day was behind me and Abe-san and Kajiwara-san were ready to give me a tour of the place. Our journey through the labyrinth like building started at a long hallway with various pieces and poster boards. There was anything and everything you could think of, odd things like lampshades and etched lighting fixtures to daily items like cups and saucers. It was cool to see what was possible at this high tech center, it seemed like anything...

Now that I was tempted with what was possible, the tour whisked me back to the basics. Back to the most staple and core ingredient, stone. Several stones were on display, (at least ten) and I saw first hand what exactly went into the beautiful pieces I had seen at the beginning of the tour.

What to do with solid pieces of stone? Well grind them to a powder of course! This green and yellow machine is where pieces of rock are inserted and magically come out a perfectly consistent powder. Modern technology sure has made the life of ceramics artists much easier, I can't even imagine the time and power it must have taken to pound solid rock by hand back in the day...

After the powder is made, its put into this cylinder with stone balls and left to rotate for a day. This is done to mix the powder and crush any final pieces.

As the tour continued, I was shown more machines I've never seen or knew existed for ceramics. Rollers, mixers, computer image generators...oh my!

Soon we ended up in a workshop room and to my luck there was an instructor there finishing up some tea pots. By coincidence it was someone Arai Sensei knew, an old teacher friend he hadn't seen in quite some time.

While Kajiwara-san moved from lecturing me to Arai Sensei about the room I took the chance to see what exactly the instructor was doing.

He had all the parts of the tea pot laid out. Spout, body, lid etc. It was mold made and perfectly white and smooth.
The piece being made is towards the front while the end product, fired and all is towards the rear.

At this time he was making the strain guard for inside the tea pot. This seemed to be one of the only places a human hand was needed. The strainer was mold made, but using a special tool the teacher punched holes into it which when completed would allow water to pass through the teapot without the tea leaves following. His precision and speed was trained, almost like a machine. It was obvious he had done this thousands of times.

I asked him about the class he taught at the center and he said it was a class about mold making and currently three students were learning with him. He's been working at NCRC for 24 years...I was about to ask more questions but it was time to move on...
Next I found myself in the kiln room. I had never seen any kiln room like this before. The gas kilns looked more like creepy science experiments of the future. Tubes and wires hooked up to large pipes and boxes, it was really sci-fi. I didn't have a chance to ask for a detailed explanation but simply the kilns were always monitored, thus all the extra instruments were attached to them. Out of all the kilns, one stood out...the Nabeyaki kiln.

It was twice as large as any other kiln and had a hole in it! Turns out this kiln is very special. It allows you to see the inside while a piece is being fired! On the top there are two cameras that record the firing process. Even Arai Sensei was impressed, he's never seen anything like this before, and neither have I. But it's amazing that even through 1200C degree heat, we are able to see how the glaze changes through out the process. Very innovative and helpful.

Here is the inside of the kiln, you put the piece on the pedestal and shut the door.

Here is the hole on the side of the kiln, while wearing special goggles you can watch as the piece is being fired. Pretty neat eh?

Here is a poster explaining how the kiln works. It claims this is the only kiln IN THE WHOLE WORLD like this. The middle has pictures of pieces being fired, and the bottom is a diagram of the kiln and its part. If this statement is true, then it was pretty neat seeing the only kiln in the world that allows you to see the entire firing process! Sadly this was the last part of the tour. The whole experience was amazing, but in the end this place wasn't exactly what I was looking for. Maybe in a few years, after learning more of the basics I can come back to NCRC to learn more assembly line type techniques and about mass production. They invited me back which is a great thing!

Nagasaki Ceramic Research Center Part 1

Arai Sensei first mentioned the Nagasaki Ceramics Research Center (長崎県窯業技術センター or Nagasakiken yougyou gijutsu senta)awhile back when I asked him about further places to study pottery at a more advanced level. He gave me a brief explanation of it basically being a place where potters come to learn more techniques, how to improve their current techniques or if they have a problem and need a professional to help find a solution.

I was intruigued, and showed interest in going. After a month of schedule conflicts we finally went last week and I was able to see what this place is all about.

When I initally thought of ceramic research center I imagined veteran teachers in a studio showing potters wheel techniques, kiln usage or better ways for drying pieces. But once I laid eyes upon the Nagasaki Ceramics Research Center all my preconceived notions were thrown out the window. It was totally different than anything I imagined. Driving up the hill to their parking lot we were greeted with several large buildings resembling an office complex, the only clue it had anything to do with ceramics was the plate and tile strewn walkway to the main door. Upon entering there were several men in the typical Japanese factory uniform (light green dickeys, matching shirt and workboots) talking in hushed voices around tables with tiny tea cups most likely made at the center. They gave me a few long stares and went back to their conversations. We made our way to the front desk, apparently Arai Sensei had made a reservation, and two men in the green uniforms came out to greet us. One, (Abe-san or Mr. Abe) was a quiet gentle looking man with glasses and appeared soft spoken while the other (Kajiwara-san or Mr. Kajiwara) was a small stout older man with a look of doubt in his eyes. We gave eachother the traditional Japanese aisatsu, or greeting, a bow, an exchange of business cards, and a humble isogashi toki ni sumimasen. (thank you for gving us time even though you are busy)

At this point I was still taking it all in, I was slightly confused since my pre-imagined ceramics center was nothing like what I had just walked into, and since we were slightly late due to traffic we were rushing through the initial chit chat and moving straight to business. Immediately all focus turned to me and my pottery. I had known the Nagasaki Ceramics Research Center (Let's call it NCRC for short) held classes and taught people about pottery and such, and I secretly hoped there was a place for me to further my studies in pottery, but the initial shock and realization that this place was way more complicated than I thought threw me off. Instantly walking in the door and seeing the various flaw free lamps, plates, photo frames etc in the displays gave me a sense that this place wasn't exactly what I was looking for or hoping for, it was way over my head, and frankly intimidating.
Kajiwara-san who was constantly shifting in his chair wasn't helping me relax or feel confident about anything, but the spotlight was on me...I managed to answer their questions in understandable, yet respectable Japanese not nearly giving myself enough credit and the mood lightened. They were impressed! Probably more so with my Japanese than my pottery skills but either way, I felt slightly relieved at the change of mood. Arai Sensei then chimmed in about my work, artistic skills and how dedicated I am. (He even mentioned this blog hehe) His reassurance made me feel much better, maybe this place wasn't so scary after all? From then things turned for the better, the two started to talk about ways I COULD study at the NCRC...

It was a breakthrough. Coming into a traditional craft like pottery and wanting to advance in a country weary of foreigners is like pulling teeth. Either you get lucky, know the right people or are so amazing they can't say no, I had a feeling I was more the first two, but either way it didn't matter. The idea of a foreign woman, or any foreigner at all, studying at NCRC was starting to cross their minds...My attitude turned from skeptical to hopeful in seconds...

Monday, April 19, 2010

Emptying the Noborigama

April 18th, we opened the long awaited noborigama at Sara Yama Studios. Although taking the pieces out of the noborigama is much easier and faster than the reverse, it still takes a lot of man power and coordination to do it correctly. All students of Sara Yama are supposed to help so there were about 40 of us helping that day.

First we must scrape away the sand goop like mixture we put on the brick doorway a week ago. A wedge like metal tool is what Arai Sensei uses and it works like a charm. Since all the water has obviously evaporated from the sand it falls off quite easily when slight pressure is applied. It results in a sandy mess all over the floor and your shoes.

After all the sand is removed, the bricks are numbered again with chalk so when we do the next noborigama we won't have to waste time figuring out which brick goes where.

The bricks are removed one by one...

This is the first glimpse into the can see tons of ash on the floor and the glazed pieces on the right.

The ash must be cleaned out from the noborigama before we can begin taking the pieces out. A long iron rod with a wedge on the end is used to drag the ash out. (Yes, theres that much ash it needs to be dragged!) After large amounts are removed, we can sweep out the inside to get the rest. The ash is put into styrofoam boxes. I asked what they do with the ash, figuring it'd make good gardening soil additive, but actually I learned that the ash can be used to make the medicine put on pieces to make sure the glaze doesn't run. Nothing goes to waste!

Now that the ash is mostly gone, a towel is laid down so Arai Sensei can kneel inside while passing out each piece one by one.

A light is placed inside and it looks magical. All the pieces have turned a nice brown color. Now the passing begins...

From the kiln doorway...

to the tarp...

All the students line up and begin passing the pieces one by one out of the kiln. There is a grassy park right across from the studio and a large blue tarp is laid out to put the pieces on
The pieces are laid out in the exact order they were put in. The reason we do that is to see the effects of the kiln on the pieces. Certain spots in the kiln are wonderful, resulting in great ware, certain spots aren't so great and the wares don't get fired all the way through...

Unfortunately, about half of my 20 or so pieces did not get fired properly and will have to be re-done in the electric kiln in order to turn out sufficient. A piece that did not get fired properly looks like this. It's dull in color and has small bubble looking lumps on its surface. I was pretty bummed out that half of my pieces didn't turn out, but it's good to know they can be re-done. Crisis averted.

The pieces that did turn out are here... 2 yunomi (tea cups) one small vase, one large salad bowl, and 8 kozara (or small plates) *All are free form except the 2 cups and vase, those where wheel thrown. I was going for a natural theme. (look how the pieces are nice and shiny compared to the one above)

Things that I'm happy with are the vase and tea cups, they turned out well and have a nice mix of clay and glaze showing. The flower shaped kozara turned out so so. The next batch of kozara I will not use any texture imprinting on the clay, I found out it prevented the glazes from flowing down and mixing easily and I ended up with bald spots on some pieces. I was able to see what color combos suited each other (like I mentioned before i used about 6 different glazes in different combos) in the noborigama, and what colors did not.

As you can see in this picture the noborigama is great for earthen colors, not so great for anything but. I experimented this time and brought in some blues and yellows and lighter colors but sadly most of my pieces with the lighter colors didn't get fired all the way and will have to be put in the electric kiln anyways. But a few did make it and I didn't care for the result. Looking at everyone elses pieces I noticed the black sandy clay with a white glaze was the most interesting and eye catching. Bizen and Shigaraki clay mostly turned out in brown hues, very subdued. All the glazes in general ended up turning out mild compared to their electric firing process counterparts. (you can also see the earthen color in the photos above) Next noborigama I'll use the black clay and experiment with white glazes. Overall this noborigama was a great learning experience, and I can't wait for the next one this summer!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Imari's International Amateur Ceramics Contest

April 1st to the 11th Saga Prefecture's (佐賀県) Imari city (伊万里市)hosted their annual International Amateur Ceramics Contest. It is held in Okawamachi's (大川町)Nabashima Ceramics building. (鍋島焼会館)Any amateur potter in Japan can participate, foreign or Japanese. This was my first contest to participate in and my first time going to Imari's Okawamachi. This event is every year and potters young and old from all over Japan send in their pieces to get judged. The top prize is 80000 yen, second prize is 30000 yen and 3rd place (going to two people) is 20000 yen.

These are the top three places this year. 1st prize goes to Nakazaki from Nagoya city,(green plate) second place goes to Harumi from Tokyo,(black vase) 3rd places go to Maeda from Wakayama prefecture (2 person statue) and Amin from Tokyo. (brown vase to the far left) Congratulations!

These pieces made honorable mention and are my personal favorites.

Owl figure and a vase with eggplants on it.

Kids are also involved in the contest, here are a few of my favorite figurines.

Lastly here's my piece! The turtle in the middle. I didn't win anything this year, but I hope to next year! I was the only turtle in the whole show hehe.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Imari's Okawamachi

Imari is famous for it's beautiful porcelain and intricate designs. The best place to buy and see pieces is in Imari's Okawamachi. It is situated in the middle of some mountains right outside Imari city's main town area. Only about a 7 minute drive from Imari station, it is easy to get to and a must stop for any pottery lover.

You'll feel a million miles away in this quaint pottery village with misty mountains and kiln chimneys all around. There are over a dozen small and large stores to see in Okawamachi. Some are modestly priced while most are for higher budget shoppers. Expect to spend 3000 yen and up for tea/coffee cups, 5000 yen and up for dinner plates, and 10000 yen and up for dish sets. Porcelain ware are the main pieces sold at most of the stores in Okawamachi, but nestled between the porcelain pieces you can find some other clay types and glazes.

This was one of the older style stores I found in Okawamachi. It's at least 70 years old and even has a fire pit with a tea kettle in the center to keep the place warm in winter! Very cool! Besides this place, most of the stores have modernized but still keep the traditional Japanese feeling to them. Expect simple spaces with great track lighting and soft Japanese string music playing in the background.

Make sure to check out the main bridge in town. It's covered with broken pottery pieces and is quite beautiful. Check out the stream below as well, there are 6 huge koi fish swimming there. Overall Imari is a great stop for any ceramics lover, check it out!