by Pat Southwood
Published: March 2013
My favourite Craft memory…
As part of our 30 years celebrations, we’ve invited readers to tell us about their favourite craft memory.
My favourite craft memory is the six weeks that I spent in the Japanese pottery town of Tokoname in the summer of 2009.
I had visited Japan four times previously to study and to exhibit, now I was looking for an opportunity to immerse myself completely in the Culture and the Country.
My application was successful and I became the U.K. participant in the 25th International Workshop of Ceramic Art in Tokoname.
Held annually for 6 weeks in July and August, ten potters selected from worldwide applications came together to work and stay with locals as part of their family.
To be able to spend six weeks working in such an historic, and yet contemporary pottery town was an amazing opportunity. Historically Tokoname is recognised as one of the six ancient kilns of Japan, its ceramic history dates from 794 with the old chimneys giving a distinctive skyline to the town.
Contemporary potters can now be found on the “Sanpaimatchi” - the pottery footpath. This has around fifty studio potters, living, working and running Galleries, on a compact series of very steep hills in the centre of town.
Potter, Tomoko Okuda was my host for the whole six weeks. Her house dates from the 1830s and was at the top of the Sanpaimatchi.Being the only participant staying with another potter I considered myself to be very fortunate.
Over the next few mornings we got into a sort of rythmn. Up early, after a hot and sweaty night on tatami matting with futon bedding and dried pea pillow. Breakfast was sometimes challenging, but always healthy. After a sweaty cycle to the nearest vending machine, a cold can of coffee and a rest. Then a pant up another steep hill to our workshop. Trying to appear composed upon arrival proved impossible with 45 degrees heat and humidity of around 95%.
Two memorable non-pottery events were going to the house of a Tea master and a day of Ikebana (Flower arranging). The restrained elegance of the two hour tea ceremony itself, and the utensils used were beautiful. After the Ikebana demonstration we had a go, with varying results!
Another treat, full of happy, if fuzzy memories, was our study tour to the pottery towns of Seto and Mino. Visiting old kilns, new kilns, Galleries, tool shops and Museums at almost the speed of light, at night we came back to a gorgeous local Ryokan (traditional guest house) set in the mountains.
Our shared rooms were exquisite, opposite a waterfall and perfumed with the soft scent of tatami matting, and shoji paper screens. We dressed for dinner in traditional Yukata and enjoyed a Japanese banquet that lasted for many hours. Hence the fuzzy memories!
Our return saw us packing the massive Anagama wood fired kiln. All ten of us spent three days wadding pots and packing the kiln. So much work and so many expectations and hopes.
After loading, the I.W.C.A.T Chairman performed a very formal kiln blessing, with salt and sake.We fired the Anagama for 36 hrs, working in gangs of three for eight hour shifts. Taking turns to heave wood, feed the kiln, and have a sit down, we got through it. It was very hard work. The heat, both from the kiln and the weather, the humidity and the inevitable hungry mosquitos, all made for a memorable experience. Health and Safety amounted to a headscarf tied across my face and being brave. Welcome visits from our host families brought gifts of cold tea, snacks and beer.
After three days “free time” the kiln was cool enough to unpack. That certainly didn’t take as long as the packing. With excitement and expectation levels high the work was laid out, oohed and aahed over, and, in some unfortunate cases, commiserated upon.
Our group exhibition was held at the 43rd Tokoname Annual Pottery Festival. An unforgettable sight, around eight hundred potters on three floors of a massive building.
A farewell party was held in our honour, with spectacular fireworks marking the end of the festival. We decided that they were for us as well.
During our six weeks we had formed some very strong friendships and some participants had become very good friends with their host families.
At first, I thought it was all about the making, we all stressed about not having enough time to make.We were all wrong, and most of us realised this. What was important was that we were being given a very precious experience, Japanese families welcoming complete strangers into their homes is a rare thing. Everyone was a volunteer.
We also realised that it wasn’t just about learning from Japanese potters, we all learnt from each other, adapting new techniques and playing with new ideas.
Tokoname was the biggest adventure of my life, it was hard work, but a great experience, I will never forget it.
It was with great delight that I was able to return to Tokoname in the October of 2010 to exhibit at “Gallery CoCoLo” on the Sanpaimatchie and to renew my friendships in the town and in 2013 I returned to Japan to visit an old friend that had to relocate his pottery and his family after the Earthquake, but that’s another story…..