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)

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