Yesterday I returned from a four day Golden Week ceramic trip to Numazu in Shizuoka, near Mount Fuji and the Izu Peninsula. The in-law ceramics senseis organized this annual trip to use a wood-fired oven to make special bizen pottery.
For three days and nights, we heated a wood kiln until it reached 1200 degrees celsius, taking turns feeding it. It will take another three or four days for the kiln to cool down, so a return trip is necessary to take out the pottery.
Here are some photos that depict some of the process. Below are the 18 or 20 pieces I made: mostly flower vases with lattice tops, ten small round plates, and four rectangular plates.
Read more and see more photos
Over the Golden Week holiday (May 1 to May 5), I am going with the ceramics senseis and some students to a small town in Shizuoka to make bizen pottery in a wood-fired kiln that will be heated for five days. We will take turns staying up all night to keep the fire lit.
Bizen pottery is very special. It is the oldest form of Japanese pottery, and can only be done in special kilns. Bizen uses no glaze, but instead organic materials like rice straw and pine ash placed on the ceramics produce red and brown markings and spots. The effects are often unpredictable, and they are called “yohen” or kiln accidents.
Here’s two examples of fine bizen: Okayama website, the town that is its original home. And Sachiko Torok’s work, an artist in Bizen.
My first pieces include the four vases above, modeled on the one on the right. My line is still not very good, but I like the trick of turning a round shape into a twisted five-sided shape. I also made four rectangle plates, ten tiny bowls, and five vases that include ceramic lattices for arranging flowers. Two of the lattices are in the shape of steep inverted bowls that sit on top of shallow bowls; three are flat lattices that sit on cylinders and an octagon.
I am curious how they’ll turn out in the oven. We are leaving two weeks from today, and I may make a few more pieces before we go. I’ll post more pictures from the trip and the finished results.
Apparently the bizen town we are going to is super small, and I was warned that there would be no internet. Fortunately one of the students has a nation-wide mobile internet provider for his laptop. I also confirmed with the senseis that while the town is small, they are well stocked with conbinis (convenience stores).
A friend sent this photo showing a daffodil in the pot I made. Yeah, spring!
Spring comes slowly in Tokyo. Here’s the husband enjoying a rare bit of sun on our balcony. You can see my ceramics and the city views from the 10th floor.
One of the ceramic studio students has an adorable one year old who accompanies her. In addition to having the coolest outfits, he also has wonderful ceramics for his lunch. Recently, his mom brought him the most elegant tin bento box. No plastic cups, plates and bowls for this lucky baby!
Last week, the in-laws fired two more plates I designed. They asked if it was OK to use the reduction firing (versus the oxidation firing). Of course, I agreed. It’s interesting how the same clay and glaze turned out so differently.
The reducation firing, above, at first looked burnt or dirty to me. It was interesting that my in-law teachers and most of the students preferred that look, deeming it “antique” looking and better for serving food. The look is growing on me, too.
Now I am working on some mugs for coffee drinking at home.
It’s easy to make hideous mistakes when you are learning Japanese. Switch a vowel or add an extra syllable and you’re innocent remark has quickly turned unseemly. Here’s two examples.
A few months back, my sister-in-law, who loves shoes, was visiting. The expression on her face made it clear that what I thought was a complement had come out terribly wrong.
「けつはきれいです」 Ketsu wa kirei desu.
What I meant to say was, “I like your shoes.” 「靴はきれいです」Kutsu wa kirei desu. Unfortunately, ketsu means “ass.”
Another time, finishing ceramics class, I cheerfully told my father-in-law, 「お触りました」Osawarimashita.
What I meant to say was, “I am done.” 「終わりました」Owarimashita. Both in-laws and my husband stared at me, and I realized I did it again. Fortunately, father-in-law has a sense of humor, and demonstrated “osawarimashita” (“touch” or “grope,” made strangely formal by the addition of “o”) by pinching my ass.
As I stumble my way learning Japanese, I am fortunate to have such a welcoming (and forgiving) family.
At the ceramics studio this winter, I have been focusing on a set of plates, commissioned by my Japanese aunt, and small sake cups (ぐい飲み). For the plates, I am experimenting with circular patterns and using a white glaze on black clay. It’s hard to make the plates, and several have cracked during the first firing.
The small sake cups I brought to San Francisco to give to friends. I tried various techniques for carving and pattern-making with something that looks like cheese cloth. The idea was to create texture to steady your hand as you drink. I also made some necklaces and brooches for my relatives in NYC using cookie cutters and stamps to create flower patterns.
You can see I tried a few different color combinations.
I like how the seam is visible.
Ah, Nakano Broadway! You have your own mascot Pipi, just like the Police, the Post Office, and every other institution in this lucky nation. While your showing your age, more or less the same as this author’s, your low-ceilings, lack of windows, and hundreds of tiny shops catering to local, national and international otaku (nerds) make me happy to call Nakano home. You never fail to provide an abundance of shopping, from boy-band memoriabilia to fujoshi comics, costume shops, and the home-roasted coffee from the always immaculate sisters. And the crowds you attract make me feel down right understated.
Do you have any new year’s resolutions? My number 1 resolution is to get fat. I’m also trying to improve my Japanese, learn some more about ceramics, and explore the many charms of Nakano.
I am working extra hard at the ceramics studio to get ready for the student show on November 21. Above are the finished pots that I blogged on Oct 20.
Below are five more that have been glazed but not final-baked. I am experimenting with geometric designs.
Finally, I am still experimenting with different shapes. Round with a straight side is the most practical for commercially-bought plants. I’ve also tried square, and below you can see triangular and oval (before biscuit frying).
I’ll be in the studio a lot over the next weeks.