Made from clay – completed by fire

An encounter with three individualists of contemporary tea pottery in Japan

About a successive carrear as a potter in Japan often the rigid system of master and pupil will decide. Newcomers and autodidacts are the exseption : A visit of two luminary potters, who nevertheless became world-famous, and of a promising up-and-coming female artist.
Philipp Meier

While travelling from Tokyo via Nagoya by Shinkansen and later by local trains in to the backcountry of Mie prefecture, the scenery becomes more and more rural. Despite of its geographical vicinity to the old imperial city of Kyoto the Ueno-basin framed by mountain ranges with the city Iga in its center for a long time was considered as isolated. A certain charm of rural solitude still inheres to the landscape with its rice paddies and dotted villages. The colours of the nature besides remind of the shades and tones of unglased yakishime pottery from this region. Especially in March the landscape slowly passing at the train window comes in brownish and ochre tones, interspersed with luminous light green till dark blue colour shades as well as powdery gentle off-white dabs all arising from bamboo, evergreen sugi trees and the still sparse branches of the leaf trees in the forested hills and mountains.

The breathing of the kiln
Only few travelers from abroad stray in this region. Mostly they are on their way following the traces of Hattori Hanzô and his Ninja-fighters, who during the 16. Century had their stronghold in the castle of Iga. Possibly oneself is taken for a Ninja tourist. However, a total different cultural heritage brought us to this area. At a small train station called Shindo Watanabe Aiko-san, a potter, is waiting for us. In her forty-somethings, she easily can recognise the foreigner, who will be her guest for a few hours. On the walk alongside rice paddies to her workshop the way comes past the property of Suzuki-san. The unexpected encounter with the potter and her foreign company the rice peasant uses as an occasion for a short chat. In the meantime one becomes aware of large ceramic pots in front of his house. Also Suzuki-san is a potter. At last making his own table ware from the clay one is digging up from beneath the paddy is part of self supply.

However, Watanabe Aiko-san neither is the daughter of a rice peasant nor does she descend from a potters family. She is a newcomer. After studies at Kyoto Saga University of Arts, where she attended painting, she discovered her passion for the rough pottery of Shigaraki and Iga. This unglased stoneware witnessed a golden age at Momoyama period (1573-1603) and now since the second half of the 20. Century experiences a revival. For the first time Watanabe Aiko-san saw such pieces when she was 24 and fell in love instantly. She started to study the old techniques of anagama kiln firing and 2001 built her first own kiln – a traditional semi-underground one-chamber-kiln constructed into the hill.
This type of kiln is fired with wood and reaches temperatures of 1400 degree Celsius. Covered with a simple roof on pillars, in fact two of such kilns plastered with clay lie like big, good-natured animals alongside her studio, wich is a wooden house on the edge of a rice paddy. Behind the building high Sugi trees, so called japanese cedars,  rise in the sky. Of such wood also the house is made. Inside it reveals a bold roof construction of huge solid beams. The house is built by Ando Kunihiro in the Itakura panel construction. The architect, specialised on traditional japanese wood construciton, is known for his emmergency accommodations built in this technique in Iwaki for the victims oft he Tohoku earthquake.
In this hydeaway Watanabe-san lives when in the countryside she fires her pieces. As her husband lives in Tokyo she often works with clay in the capital. However, she makes pottery only with clay from the mountains of Iga. Sometimes she finds suitable material in her direct surrounding. Industrially treated clay does not come into consideration. Besides Watanabe-san uses a manual pottery wheel, on wich she finishes her pieces after coil building them.

Her ceramics are characterized by the effects resulting from firing.The natural glazing in the coloring from light until dark green and from whitish-grey till violet on the ocherous shard originates from melting out of deposited wood ash. During this process sometimes glazed drops evolve mostly in glowing green. The surfaces scarred by the fire sometimes obtain a profoundness wich according to Watanabe-san can be caused only by wood firing. The alternating rhythm of oxidation and reduction emerging from the repeated stoking with logs Watanabe-san compares with a kind of deep breathing.
As a newcomer Watanabe-san represents an exception in Japan, where crafts is strongly dominated by specialized families. Usually techniques are handed down from generation to generation or else in a rigid system of master and scholar. With all freedom the autodidact can allow herself, Watanabe-san is ruted in the tradition. This is not unusual with japanese ceramics related to tea ceremony. Also Watanabe Aiko-san is guided by the classical canon of forms. Herself she parctices the way of tea in the tradition of the famous Omotesenke school.

Watanabe Aiko-san does not consider herself as a professional potter. Craftmanship means more to her. With this attitude she refers to the Mingei potter Kawai Kanjirô and his credo „to live means to work and to work means to live“. Watanabe-san sees her intention in creating „honest pieces“, as she puts it. By the way she ranks among the very few female potters of Japan, who work with a wood fired kiln. The reasons for this are historically induced. In early days women were kept away from this profession because it was believed women would enrage the fire gods. However, with Koyama Kyoko (born 1936) a a woman holds a leading role in the modern firing techniques of Shigaraki pottery.


A lone wolf

A celebrated master of the Shigaraki-pottery is Kanzaki Shiho ( born 1942 ). He lives and works on the other side of the hills in the old pottery centre of Shigaraki. When you arrive at the village, you soon can see everywhere huge displays with vessels of all sorts. And especially a very specific kind of manufacture of the local potter craftsmanship is omnipresent: the Tanuki, also known as the Japanese racoon dog. Like the dwarfs in our gardens you can see very often these ceramic droll figures depicted as fabulous creatures with a oversized scrotum in Japan’s front gardens.
In front of Kanazki-san’s house, in a piece of woodlands on the mountain of Mukai, you won’t find such figures. Instead a graceful small-scale sculpture that stands on his big Anagama-kiln will catch one’s eye: it’s the figure of the Amida-Buddha, modeled out of reddish stoneware by Kanzaki himself. The potter who was born in Shigaraki came during his career as a potter to the Amida-Buddhism. As a son of a rice merchant, he graduated in jurisprudence but later on he decided for a career as a potter. This decision made him a dropout and had the consequence that his father wanted to disinherit him. It isn’t a happenstance that behind his fireplace in his big traditional, classical Japanese house, a carved wooden wolf has its place.

Long-established potters call him the „lone wolf“, a maverick that stays away from the community life. In this description swings also all the admiration for someone who has the courage to go unwavering his own way. Very similar to Watanabe Aiko, Kanzaki Shiho-san was charmed by the glistening Iga ceramic and the vigorous Shigaraki stoneware at an early age. He dedicated himself to pottery with body and soul, especially to the revival of the tea pottery from the Momoyama period. He was fascinated by the simple and natural form language and its lively colorfulness caused by the fire. He studied the ruins of the Shigaraki kilns and the old firing techniques. For the penniless newcomer a real „way through the fire“ started.*

Kanzaki-san is firing, especially tea bowls, vases or water jars who are related to the way of tea, for a extraordinary long time. A firing can easily take ten days and nights. The fire is hardly to keep under control and the vehemence of the fire creates an incredible colorfulness out of scattered shards and natural ash deposits. The deep blue hue reminds of the sea, the green reminds of old moss. The results of Kanzaki-san’s firing of yearslong efforts, wich where also attended by failure, are believed today to be unrivalled. They brought him tribute way beyond Japan.

* WAY THROUGH THE FIRE – A ILLUSTRATED BOOK. Over forty years of experience in firing made Shiho Kanzaki a master of the Anagama firing. His firing results are as unique as his experience report, who is published in a beautiful illustrated book in German.: Volker Harlan, Anke von Loewensprung: Hi no michi – Weg durch das Feuer. Leben und Werk des japanischen Keramikkünstlers Shiho Kanzaki. Verlag Freies Geistesleben, Stuttgart 2011. 240 S. Fr. 47.90

An other star oft he international pottery pit we meet in front of the station of the former capital Nara south from Kyoto. The off-road vehicle – a Porsche Cayenne -, Tsujimura Shiro (born 1947) picks us up wich, takes us under the generous use of the gas pedal  fast to our destination, a remote bamboo grove in the mountains of Nara. The sporty car in no sense contrasts with Tsujimura-san’s unconventional style of life, as we soon realise. For lunch we sit down on a dark wooden floor by the sunken fire place. The delicacies Tsujimura-san’s wife Mieko has prepared naturally are served in pottery made by the famous host and his two sons Kai and Yui. In the meantime Tsujimura-san serves sake to the guests in his varied sakazuki. He himself favours red wine, wich he drinks from a large Ido chawan.  

Such bowls Tsujimura-san made a lifetime, they must be more than 100‘000.  It became an opsession. Up to 200 pieces he is able to make during a day. The meditative repetition helps to silence the head. Once Tsujimura-san intended to become a painter. While traveling and during an extended stay in a Zen monastery doubts grew about such an artists career, however. During a visit of the Nihon Mingeikan in Tokyo he finely came across a tea bowl of the korean Ido type wich became a revelation. In his eyes this chawan unified « all the good and evil of the world» as he put it once. In its Buddha-like nature this chawan was equivalent exactly to his mental and artistic ideas. Thus, at the age of 23 Tsujimura-san decided to become a potter.

During two years he worked on a farm to save money. Therewith he purchased a remote idyllic piece of land in the mountains of Nara. The house he and his wife built from old beams of a former temple still is the centre of the Tsujimura family life. Further buildings like workshops, a viewing pavillion with a wide view over the hills and a small crooked tea house had been added. They represent Tsujimura-san’s independence he preserves also by relying on very small kilns. These allow him to kiln whenever he wants to, without being dependent on assistants. Today, seven kilns are at his disposal. A shorter length of time of firing accommodates his distinct love of experimentation.

Furthermore Tsujimura-san digs and compounds his clays by himself. As a self-taught potter he takes his freedom to work in all styles he likes. Beside Ido chawan he fires in the Shino style, in the red Raku style, in the Karatsu, Kohiki or in the pitch-black Hikidashi style. Furthermore he is a master of Shigaraki and Iga pottery. His studio buildings are packed with bowls and pots, and everywhere on his large property one can discover ceramic pieces in the bamboo undergrowth. In this manner Tsujimura-san stores his countless works. But many of these ceramics may also be failures wich arise with his venturesome kind to kiln.

With his longtime experience and his efficient kiln technique Tsujimura-san is able to optimal control the requested effects. However, the master potter does not get lost in details. His aim is the less then perfect  as long as his pieces match with his visions. His vessels show scratches and incrustations. Sometimes they are strongly deformed and sometimes they even burst during the firing. This gives them a fascinating expressiveness. Tsujimuras pottery entirely corresponds with the aesthetic ideal of Wabi Sabi, wich finds beauty in the imperfect.

This article is based on a journey to Japan in March 2014. It issued in the main swiss newspaper « Neue Zürcher Zeitung» on 23. of June 2014 in German. Link: