Young children and ceramics are not an obvious mix — the former having an alarming tendency to break the latter when they come into contact with one another (at least in our household). However, there is one situation when combining the two works like magic: children’s pottery classes.
There are few more fun, or messy, joys for young kids than plunging their hands — and yes, on occasion their entire arms and maybe the odd foot — into a fresh mound of squishy clay. And it’s even better — for parents, at least — when they don’t do it at home, bearing in mind the clean-up it involves.
We recently put a children’s pottery class to the test in a place that was located a safe 135-kilometer distance from our kitchen table — Mashiko in Tochigi Prefecture.
Mashiko’s pottery credentials are as flawless as a perfectly crafted tea bowl. The quiet town, surrounded by fields, is something of a national mecca for all things pottery. It has been famed for crafting distinct country-style Mashiko-yaki ceramics since the 19th century, and among its most famous resident potters was the late Shoji Hamada (1894-1978), a designated Living National Treasure.
Today, dozens of pottery shops line the main street, showcasing an eclectic range of work fired in hundreds of local kilns, with regular busloads of tourists stopping off to stock up on ceramic supplies, particularly during annual pottery fairs.
This may not sound like an obvious place to take a pair of rampaging sisters, aged 4 and 6, who, in confined spaces possess the spatial awareness and coordination skills of newborn giraffes.
Yet we were reassured that kids were especially welcome in one particular place in Mashiko: Yamani Otsuka, a pottery studio that offers an array of on-site classes for both children and adults.
It’s perhaps little surprise that everyone knows everyone in Mashiko: It was our hosts — the lovely Ooka family who run a small inn filled with ceramics and surrounded by rural farmland on the fringes of the town — who introduced us to the pottery studio.
And so on a drizzly Sunday morning, my husband and I took the children to a designated one-hour pottery class, and within minutes, all four of us were settling down to work in various corners.
The girls were led to a table in the center by a friendly teacher, who gave each of them a lump of clay before asking them about their favorite things and what they would like to make.
As they slowly warmed up to their new friend, and after much reflection, the girls revealed their desired creations — a heart and a star. Then they set to work under the patient guidance of the teacher and began to make flat slabs, slowly sculpting the edges to form plates.
After they were finally happy with the shapes of their plates, they were presented with a bowl of wooden stamps — another firm kids’ favorite — which they used to enthusiastically press into the surface of their plates as final decorative flourishes.
The hour passed quickly and peacefully. Also, unusually for the girls — who normally require full body showers and total clothing changes after craft classes — the two were remarkably clean, aside from the odd grey smear on their tops, by the end of the lesson.
This time, it was their parents who got messy. As the children sat quietly at the table, we sat at nearby pottery wheels where we found ourselves splashing one another with clay spray as another teacher helped us shape various spinning creations with our hands.
By the end of the class, we had learned that pottery is not just about technique — it’s an exercise in patience. It would be quite a while, we were told, before we would see our finished creations. The studio is able to fire and glaze the items made in classes before sending them to any address across Japan, but it takes time.
It was several months later, long after life had returned to normal in Tokyo, that a parcel arrived in the post. Inside, to the girls’ delight, were the heart and star plates, my small teacup and a vase by my husband — all in all, a successful family pottery trip, involving zero tidying up at home.
Classes at Yamani Otsuka last one hour and cost from ¥1,500 per person. There are four classes a day: 10:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Reservations are recommended. It costs extra if you want to have your creations fired, glazed and sent to you (service available only in Japan). Children from the age of around 9 can use the pottery wheel. For more information, visit www.yamani-otsuka.co.jp.