Go potter in Mashiko

by Stephen Mansfield

Special To The Japan Times

If a visitor to Mashiko had any doubts about the town’s dedication to pottery, the giant, iconic stoneware jar that stands near the station ticket barrier, would dispel them.

Exiting the station, the large photographic images hanging on the walls — some representing renowned potters at work, others showing horses hauling carts loaded with great bales of straw used to wrap ceramic items — serve to immediately immerse new arrivals in the working life of this famed locale in the Haga District of Tochigi Prefecture.

The town provides a helpful crash course in how ceramic ware is made and marketed. Visitors can follow the process from the excavation of the clay to its shaping, firing and display in the countless shops, galleries and museums along the town’s main street.

The finished items in the tidy showrooms of Mashiko, though, belie the messy physicality that goes into creating them. This is where a rented bicycle comes into its own, allowing you to explore the surrounding area’s byways. Here you will see barns where tools and clay samples are stored, broken shards of pottery that represent failed attempts at creation, bundles of scrap wood propped against walls, waiting to be used as kindling — and small sawmills that usually process red pine for kilns.

The clay itself is dug from the mountains, mixed with water until the coarser elements sink, leaving an upper layer of actual clay, which is dried and stored for later use. The clay is usually wedged and kneaded by hand, a process that makes the throwing easier. After items are shaped on the wheel, the finished objects are dried and then biscuit-fired — a preliminary step conducted at relatively low temperatures.

Stoneware is then decorated with solutions containing pigments such as cobalt, copper, manganese and chromium oxide. There are six Mashiko glazes; the amber, persimmon and rice-husk-ash ones are especially attractive. The works are then placed into kilns. The end results are never predictable, making this the most exciting phase.

The typical stoneware form of Mashiko-yaki may suggest a rustic modernity, but it is by no means a young craft, as its history can be traced back to the Nara Period (710-84). In later years, its proximity to the city of Edo (present-day Tokyo, around 150 km distant by road), provided it with larger markets for its products.

If there was one person, though, who put Mashiko on the map in the contemporary age, it was the master potter Shoji Hamada (1894-1978). Hamada, who would become a “living national treasure,” set up a kiln here in 1930, attracting in the process other key figures in the mingei (folk-craft movement), which placed importance on the anonymity of well-made, aesthetically pleasing but functional objects. Hamada’s friends and like-minded potters, such as Kawai Kanjiro (1890-1966) and the Hong Kong-born Englishman Bernard Leach (1887-1979), enjoyed extended stays in the village.

As a visitor familiar with the ideas of the mingei movement, the grandeur of Hamada’s house — a huge residence made from the finest materials — came as a surprise. Although he preached the virtues of the modest folk craftsman, there is a touch of irony in the fact that he became one of the richest potters in Japan.

And, though Hamada — in the spirit of the humble mingei practitioner — refused to sign his work, I was reminded of a comment made to me by the late English writer John Lowe, a great student of traditional Japanese crafts during his years here. He pointed out that though Hamada’s works may not have been signed, the wooden crates in which they were shipped were — making it quite clear who the artist was and, by implication, the potential market value of the artefacts.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. The wealth and prestige Hamada accrued via his association with the methods of unsung craftsman was apparent upon visiting his other residence, a splendid house in Tokyo’s upscale Komaba district of Meguro Ward that’s now a folk-craft museum.

Perhaps this is the way of the world, that idealism can inadvertently pay off and transform its advocates into the very thing they once stood against.

Hamada worked quickly, but with the assurance of a master. Lowe, after spending a pleasant autumn day with Hamada, wrote: “We sat in the sun talking while he decorated piles of plates with quick, and always original, strokes of his brush.”

A fine example of a noborigama (climbing kiln) stands in the grounds of Hamada’s residence. These are always built on slopes, the incline aiding the maintenance of a steady level of heat within the kiln. Typically, Maskiko-yaki is fired at 1,300 degrees Celsius for 60 hours.

Gas kilns are common these days, but these hand-built clay behemoths are well worth seeking out. When the climbing kilns are lit, the vents and small windows turn orange, making them look a little like huge and heavy caterpillars.

One of Mashiko’s best workshop courses is held at the studio in the grounds of Hamada’s home. Novices are shown how to operate a potter’s wheel, and even get to make a simple item, which is then glazed, fired and eventually posted to them.

The nearby Mashiko Reference Collection Museum, a fine resource center, showcases the work of Hamada, Leach and many of the town’s other leading potters.

If you tire of ceramic ware, there are several other points of interest. Saimyo-ji and Entsu-ji temples are structures of great antiquity, while tiny Tsuna and Okura shrines date from the ninth and 12th centuries. Koya, an indigo dyeing workshop is housed in a thatched building dating from the Edo Period (1603-1867).

Ultimately, Mashiko is about pottery, an occupation that influences everything from lifestyles to architecture. The suitably rustic locations of kilns set beside fields and wooded areas, though difficult to access on foot on a day trip, are easy to visit by bicycle. Set in the middle of an agricultural region, trails on the outskirts of the town take you along rice paddies, by strawberry fields, vineyards and orchards of apple and persimmon trees.

Mashiko boasts more than 300 kilns, though some still bear scars of the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake — while others were entirely destroyed, forcing craftsmen to rebuild their livelihoods from scratch.

Mashiko’s bi-annual pottery fairs — one in Golden Week, the other in November — are well-supported events that attract many visitors. Meanwhile, smaller markets spring up from time to time, often on vacant lots or — like the one I was lucky enough to catch — on a gravel field normally used for parking.

Around 30 open tents had been set up, each run by the potters themselves who, between them, were proffering every conceivable object — from tableware to sake flasks, chopstick stands, ceramic stools, chess tables and giant frogs. Living in a home already bulging with ceramic ware, I came away with pots of homemade jam and organic pickles.

A visit to Mashiko has the effect of dissolving, or muddling, the dividing line between art and craft. The idea that art is beauty infused with profound meaning and resonance, while craft works are merely functional, collapses when you set eyes on a miso sauce jar so exquisite as to literally take your breath away. Such are the small epiphanies of a visit to Mashiko.


Getting there: The Tohoku Shinkansen from JR Ueno Station in Tokyo takes about 45 minutes to Utsunomiya, from where a bus to Mashiko leaves every hour from the station. The main pottery fairs are held April 29-May 5, and in early November.