Veteran of Hagi continues rediscovery

by Robert Yellin

Most of the great potters who rediscovered and revived old potting styles in the early to mid years of the 20th century have passed on into the great kiln in the sky. Yet there is one legend who is still potting: Hagi ceramist Kyusetsu Miwa XI.

To celebrate his sotsuju birthday (90), a large exhibition is traveling Japan, kicking off in Tokyo at Nihonbashi Takashimaya department store’s sixth art gallery until Jan. 26.

Miwa was a contemporary of the likes of Toyozo Arakawa (1894-1985) and Toyo Kaneshige (1896-1967), both in the first wave of Living National Treasures in the mid-1950s. Miwa was named an LNT for Hagi in 1983, becoming the second LNT for Hagi after his brother Kyuwa Miwa (1895-1981, Kyusetsu X). The Miwa brothers are responsible for putting the spirit of Tea back into the Hagi chawan.

The Hagi chawan (tea bowl) has been revered in the tea world for centuries; chajin (tea men) have long ranked chawan styles as “Raku first, Hagi second, Karatsu third.” Like many pottery styles, Hagi ware derives its name from its home, in this the former castle town of that name located on the Japan Sea in Yamaguchi Prefecture.

The first Hagi wares, a glazed, high-fired stoneware, originated with the Korean potter Li Kyong. He was brought back to Japan by Lord Mori Terumoto after the invasion of Korea in 1593. Many potting centers in Western Japan, such as Agano, Takatori and Satsuma, date their beginnings to the same period and for the same reasons. Local daimyo were not only focused on war activities but also on the world in a chashitsu (tea hut) and were intent on setting up potteries to supply the needed chadogu (tea utensils).

Li made pots in the same manner of Korean peasant bowls, those which later came to be called Ido chawan. He changed his name to Koraizaemon and took the family name Saka; this potting dynasty is still active in Hagi today. In the year Kanbun 3 (1663) a new kiln was founded near Hagi in Matsumoto by the first Kyusetsu, Miwa Chubei Toshisada. Both his and the Saka family served the Mori daimyo until the Meiji Restoration (1868).

Miwa is the foremost chawan maker in all of Japan these days and his chawan have a massive feeling, contained within a vessel that fits comfortably in two hands. It’s hard to believe that a man of his age made them; they are bursting with vitality and power, without being reckless or indifferent. Miwa leads a very active life, still raising his own vegetables, and he says that he gets his energy for chawan from the ocean.

“I often ride my bicycle to the Japan Sea, which is so different from the Pacific Ocean or the Seto Inland Sea,” he wrote in a recent article in Honoho Geijutsu ceramic magazine. “The waves are so rough, even if there’s only a light breeze. I often lose myself while watching them crash on the shore. I have only just recently been able to put that turbulent feeling into my chawan.”

The chawan are mostly a pure ivory color that sometimes have shades of pink or blue and small stones (ishihaze) bursting out from them.

Miwa refers to many of his chawan as “Oni (Devil)” Hagi, which sets them in direct contrast with the more tame and traditional “Hime (Princess)” Hagi. It’s easy to see why. Oni Hagi chawan have a coarse, almost grotesque look to them, especially where the thickly applied glaze has crawled during the firing, leaving large chunks of the body exposed over the gritty porous clay.

Miwa uses a special mountain clay called daido into which he adds fine sand to give it that coarse, earthy feel. He then kneads the clay the old-fashioned way by slapping a large pile on the floor and trampling it with his feet for up to an hour. At age 90 that’s not easy, but Miwa still insists on doing it himself. After forming the pieces he then dips or ladles onto them a feldspar glaze mixed with various kinds of ash.

The pieces are loaded into the wood-burning kiln in a stacking style called tenbin-zumi (balance piling) on the kiln shelves — a technique that requires extreme skill and experience. Miwa fires his kiln for about 30 hours, intensely stoking the fire box and raising the temperature very quickly, unlike the slow, patient rise in temperature of, say, a two-week Bizen firing.

Tea connoisseurs say a Hagi chawan goes through seven stages of color changes, and the more one uses it, the better it becomes. Part of the reason is the porous clay, which allows the tea to seep into the bowl and leave residues. Another effect seen on chawan is called amamori (leaky roof) due to the spots that appear on the surface of the piece; this effect is most highly regarded and antique pieces with amamori inevitably sell for the highest prices, no matter the style.

On the making of chawan Miwa comments, “Relying on technique alone is no good, and usually finds a potter stretching the clay beyond what is called for. One should add a bit of a childish manner, and in that way chadogu with grace and style are made.” Sounds like Miwa has the playful spirit of the Zen monk Ryokan in him.

Many of Miwa’s chawan have a split cross footring called a warekodai that was favored by busho chajin (warrior tea men); it traces its origins to Korean chawan. Miwa includes this footring on more than half of the chawan in the current exhibition.

Miwa limits his output to chadogu. These include some mizusashi (freshwater jars) and various hanaire (vases), some of which have hooks on the back for hanging on a wall.

Although the exhibition takes place in the somewhat stuffy confines of a department store’s gallery, that’s the way the art world has operated in Japan for years and many great potters choose to exhibit in such settings. As a matter of fact, for many artists a show at a big department store is like a stamp of approval from the art critics, something to aspire to. I don’t buy into that theory, but just accept the fact that department stores are venues for many of Japan’s best artists — and Miwa is certainly one of the best.

Works by Kyusetsu Miwa XI at Nihonbashi Takashimaya until Jan. 26; in Osaka Feb. 3-8, in Kyoto Feb. 9-15, and in Yokohama Feb. 23-29, in all cases at Takashimaya department stores.

Chawan are the staple not only of Hagi potters but of Mino potters as well. Ichiro Hori, a personal favorite of mine, is a mid-40s potter who has the depth and feel of a man well beyond his years. I know I often write about shows at Shibuya Kuroda Toen, but the simple fact is that it’s a place where good exhibitions happen, in a homey atmosphere.

Chawan by Ichiro Hori until Jan. 26 at Kuroda Toen (03) 3499-3225.

Another Mino potter, an apprentice of Arakawa’s, is Seiya Toyoba. His works will be on show at Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi’s sixth-floor gallery until Jan. 23.