Pottering with intent between Japan and Hawaii

by Angela Jeffs

Eat your heart all those who dream of creating a sustainable life in “real Japan.” Most people have no inkling as to how to find a way, but some do, and Tom Morris and his wife, Kae, are two of them.

They live in Gokurakuji, on the narrow-gauge Enoden Line running along the Shonan coast between Kamakura and Fujisawa. The small, quaint station spills out crowds to view misted hydrangeas during the rainy season, but walk across the red bridge and turn right, and it’s a different world.

The house is not only in traditional style, but enormous. Upstairs, in the room used for teaching, with a scroll reading “Agape Ceramic Studio” hanging in the “tokonoma” (art alcove), Tom explains that it was built somewhere between 60 and 80 years ago; no one seems quite sure. “We had a visitor at one of our exhibitions, an elderly man well over 60, who remembered living here as a child.”

Tom dates his interest in Japan and Japanese food and ceramics back to when he was a teenager in California. “I worked in a Japanese sushi bar as bus boy, playing softball and golf with the staff, absorbing a lot of stuff. In America, we grab any old plate to eat off. At age 15 I was watching staff matching the food to the utensil it was served in or eaten off.”

He first came to Japan in 1990 at age 25. He taught history and English at a college and also in the ESL “eikaiwa” system, and was introduced to Kae by mutual friends. He began studying pottery in Kamakura with a teacher who “first introduced me to the ‘rakuyaki’ firing style, and then everything else he knew.”

Three years later, Tom returned to the U.S. to study theology. “I guess I was looking for a way to fuse my feelings about art and spirituality.” When he came back to Japan in 1996, he saw himself in the long term teaching ceramics privately in a traditional setting. But things moved faster and more positively than ever imagined.

“We moved to Zaimokuza in Kamakura, where I began teaching and Kae went daily to her job in Yokohama,” he explains. “People began to hear about my classes, and I advertised locally. Our Web site generates a wider interest.”

When the Kamakura house grew too small, it took around four months to find the kind of accommodation they wanted. Now they offer B & B (bed and breakfast) facilities to the general public, and ceramics classes for six to eight people at a time twice a week three times a month.

“You sign on for a three-month course of nine classes. These are open and of mixed ability. I teach the basic building techniques, after which students are generally confident enough to say, ‘I want to make something like this.’ ” Tom says many ceramic schools are rigid, but not Agape. (The name, by the way, means “universal love.”)

He describes his own work as a potter as spiritual with a Zen twist. “I’m interested in ‘mingei’-style ceramics, meaning folkloric in the practical functional sense. I make pots and plates for people to use in their everyday lives.”

He shows examples of his own and students’ work. Being so close to the Pacific, one glaze is the result of being dipped in seawater. Another incorporates “konbu” seaweed. Here is a “nabe” stew pot with an octopus on the lid. There, “sumi-e” ink has been rubbed into the slip for an interesting crackled mosaic effect. “I try to respect tradition, but adding a Californian twist. Japanese people either like it or simply accept it.”

When I query the comfort of drinking from an especially rough surface, Tom quotes the Japanese aesthetic of “wabi-sabi.” “I believe art is about breaking the borders and parameters of our expectations. Normally when we lift a cup or glass to our lips, we rarely think about it. An uneven surface like this offers a new sense of stimulation and consideration.”

On June 30 Tom will fly to Hawaii for a couple of days. He and Kae have bought an acre (0.4 hectare) of land on “the Big Island” of Hawaii itself. The idea is to build a B & B where he can teach and welcome guests from the States, or Japanese who fancy studying in a different environment.

There is another plot.

“There are some 60 other B & Bs in and around Volcano village — it’s OK, we’re on the safe side of the crater! Kae is a very good cook, and we’ve applied for a certified kitchen legally allowed to serve food. We visualize bikes with riders carrying dishes of food, Japanese style, to order. Being a niche market, it could do very well.”

The project in Hawaii is called Enso, after the simple circle drawn with a wide brush stroke that in Zen Buddhism represents infinity, the void, the “no thing,” or perfect meditative state of satori (enlightenment).

“I’m going to finalize things with the contractor, hoping to break ground by the end of the year. Expect Enso to be open by the end of next year or early 2006 at the latest.”

Tom is not religious. He doesn’t like what the world has done to the word “god,” preferring to quote St. John of the Cross: “In the end we will all be judged according to love.”

He recalls a retired man contacting him from the States, who made and collected Christian-based Nativity scenes. “He wanted one from Japan, so I asked an elderly Japanese student to try his hand. He was not Christian, but still found the experience very interesting and subtle.”

On the step in the “genkan” (hallway) my shoes were neatly lined, ready to be stepped into. Kae was not in sight, having two friends to stay. But she was just as good a host as her husband, in her own very Japanese way.