Mike's Pots

 Bernard Leach - Onda Visit Diary - 1955

Bernard Leach
Onda Visit Diary - 1955

Repeatedly, while in Japan, I have received invitations from the potters of a remote village called Onda, in the southern island of Kyushu. They seemed most earnest that I should go and work with them for a time, and they offered to make me a foreign bed, to prepare foreign food and to build a special bathroom. Yanagi told me of his first visit many years ago; of their simple unspoiled life and the good pots they made.

April 1st

I set out alone, taking the "Tsumabe" (swallow) express to Kyoto, where I was met by Kawai and his nephew Fakeishi Kawai. We changed into a fast train and were met at Kobe an hour later by a group of "Mingei" supporters who entertained us royally at the craft restaurant, "Chikayotei." We boarded the night steamer for Beppu, at the other end of the Inland Sea. At dawn we picked up Hamada on the coast of the big island of Shikoku.

He brought some excellent cakes called "tarto." They resembled Swiss rolls, but were filled with a dark sweet bean paste. About three hundred years ago the local Daimyo imported this food from Nagasaki, where it had been introduced by foreign traders. We reached Beppu about eight. This famous hot spring centre bulges with hotels and visitors strolling in "yukatta" (cotton kimonos provided by hotels). From miles out we had seen the spumes of steam rising against the hills as we skimmed over a calm sea. During the night hours we had missed the most exciting scenery, but the morning was like a beautiful dream, with the ever hanging outlines of the myriad islands and the little dark fishing boats hung in transparency.

We were met by Mr. Hosoda, Governor of Oita Prefecture, and his officials and entertained to a good foreign dinner, followed by a long and warm discussion about the preservation of crafts in the province. Then we went for a stroll in the busy and unbombed town. It was Spring Festival: cherry in blossom, crowds, and all shops open until midnight. We visited antique shops, saw some good things, and I bought a Seto oil lamp plate, about a hundred and fifty years old, for Soame Jennyns of the British Museum, £2,000. Prices were lower than in Tokyo, where nothing is cheap any more. We were recognised by the dealers (because of the evening papers, I suppose) and proper prices were quoted.

April 4th

Over the mountains by car to Hita, the Sanyokwan Hotel and another dinner party with local officials. More discussion; the meaning of traditional crafts; why had I come to Kyushu? why to Onda of all places? Journalists and photographers morning and night; but we got out for another stroll and I bought another dish with a pattern called "horse eye." We have a slipware dish in England with a pattern called "the boney pie dish" made about the same period by corresponding folk craftsmen.

We drove through a long valley where the road got narrower and rougher and the slopes came down steep and dark with tall evergreen cryptomeria. On a bend we caught a glimpse of bark thatched roofs and men standing, "Onda no sarayana." (Onda of the mountain plates).

We went round the workshops and were introduced to some of the villagers. Long communal kilns reached down to the rough roadway, but the thing which astonished me most was the potter's clay and its preparation. It is hewn from the hillside as a half decomposed, ferruginous, granite rock, then pounded by wooden stamps of a primitive kind, a great beam about eighteen inches square and fifteen feet long has a heavy wooden pestle at one end and a pivot towards the other, which is hollowed to form a bath holding perhaps thirty gallons. Water is fed through bamboo pipes until its weight raises the pestle six feet or more, causing the water to empty and the pestle to come down every half minute with a heavy thump into the hollowed earth where the soft rock is heaped. Twice a day it is reshovelled and that is all the attention it requires. After food, saké and beer, talk was free and funny. When Kawai selected a bedpan for special praise the conversation became Shakespearean and uproarious, but never nasty. Kawai and Hamada sat most of the next day directing young throwers making tea bowls and water pots. The pots flowed out very naturally, and our suggestions were taken up and incorporated with ease. When the bowls were being turned, however, I simply could not agree with the foot rings which Kawai favoured. I felt they contradicted the impersonality he had so warmly advocated.

April 8th

Hamada and Kawai have gone. Takeisha and I remain. He looks after me with thoughtfulness and foresight and acts out of his good nature as a kindly solvent all round. Early this morning, as I lay abed, I heard water gushing, the periodic thumps of the stamps and the sweet low notes of the Japanese nightingale. It is cold before breakfast and I go to warm up in the Kotatsu," a low table covered with a rug under which there is a well in the floor with charcoal in the middle. People sit round and plunge their legs into the warm dug out, very friendly.

Today I started with my big pots, plates, jars and bread pans. I did not attempt to throw myself, not having comparable skill and familiarity with these tools and clay. Young Sakamoto carried out my wishes without difficulty and with a breadth of easy traditional handling which I could not hope to match.

April 10th

A long day's work. Up at seven, cold wash, diary, selection of drawings of pots, breakfast at eight. Back and forth decorating the big pots with brush and slips, with comb and gravers, keeping an eye on new pots growing on the wheel and yesterday's drying in the sun. Pots everywhere, strewn on the ground amongst playing children and scratching chickens, yet seldom getting broken (potters' children and, presumably, potters' hens, too!).

Spring in the air and the mountain cherry a bloom. An interval for lunch, then work until dark except for a Press interview. Bath and supper. Half a dozen brush drawings on the prepared cardboard backed forms, called "Shikishi," to give to various people who have been kind. This is a universally recognised way of giving thanks and much appreciated. I must have done several hundred to date. Bed 9.30, tired.

April 11th

Today half a dozen young potters arrived after walking four hours over the mountains from Koishibara, the nearest potters' village. In fact, Onda's tradition derived from Koishibara 240 years ago. The origin of both, as is so frequently the case in Japan, was in Corea, ravaged by Toyotomi Hideojoshi about sixty years before that. Pottery was a passport, then as now, and the Corean potter prisoners were settled by the feudal Daimyo in their provinces and usually treated well. These young artisans watched me decorate and "pull" handles all afternoon and stayed for a warm hearted saké supper and a discussion. They were keen and intelligent in a countrified way. At four in the morning they set off homeward over the hills.

April 12th

Today the villagers rose early to prepare for the Spring Festival. Each household takes bottles of saké, and a great dish of special food to a meeting place, out of doors if possible, but today it is raining, and so it is to the village hall. Conch shells are blown from house to house to gather the clan. I am seated in the middle of a throng of men, women and children and toasted. I toast them back. Reports and speeches are made; everybody is merry, and when we cannot eat any more an entertainment begins: Song, dance and mimicry, broad and very local. I was glad to get to bed, however, as I was not feeling well.

April 13th

I have what threatens to be a nasty cold; but I cannot afford to break the rhythm of work and the timetable. All day I pulled handles for pitchers and jugs, medieval and English in general character, and enjoyed doing it as much as anything connected with the making of pots: the feel of the tongue of wet clay slipping through the palm, the ribs and indentations, the pressure of one's fingers, the clean nip off with a spade movement of the right thumb. Then the ramming home of the butt end at the right point in the profile of the pot, the new bridge with perfect tensions and suitability for easy grasp, and finally the attachment at the other end of the span, with its gracenote of wipe off, and clean finish. This is very English, and nothing more true and beautiful exists than the handles on our old slipware. In making handles something other than myself is at work; and that, no doubt, is why these remote Japanese mountain potters were attracted, even as I have been attracted, by the impersonal rightness of their traditions. I knew more clearly today the underlying motive that has drawn me back to the East. It is to rediscover the unknown craftsman in his lair, and to try to learn from living and working with him what we have lost, since the industrial revolution, of wholeness and humility. I have learned two methods of decoration. One, employed in Sung China, has intrigued and puzzled me for years. They call it "Tobe gane" or "jumping iron." Instead of a normal right angled tool for paring the half dry shapes, they use a springy curved one which, when applied at right angles to the slowly spinning, slip covered pot, chatters on the surface, removing a touch of the engobe at each jump and so exposing the colour of the clay body below. So simple, quick and effective. The other process, also with slip, is softer. Slip is basted on the pot with a broad straight edged brush, smoothly, and then the surface is dabbed rhythmically, as it turns slowly, with the loaded brush.

I don't think any European craftsman can have had such an experience as the weeks with these delightful, unspoiled hill potters, in the remote mountains of Kyushu, have given me. I keep wishing that my friends in the West could share it, see it, live it for themselves; for no words of mine can convey it. It has not been the kindness and courtesy only, extended day after day to the many visitors, often from far afield, who have been fed and wined and often given beds for the night, but the spontaneous community action with its basic unity of heart. Long may it beat and the "Kara usu" thump in the stream below. Evening after evening, bath and supper over, the young men, or the old men, or the women, come in groups and talk and ask questions. They want to know about our customs and feelings and I want to know about theirs. They know so much more about us than any corresponding group of villagers in the British Isles knows about them!

Am I a dreamer if I think that in some ways they are more prepared for world citizenship? They own their own land and homes; there is neither poverty nor great wealth; they grow their staple foods on little terraced fields and paddies between the steeps; clay, water and wood cost but the labour, and now they are mentally free from the bondage of tradition.

That, however, is where the danger lies. Suddenly take away the props and the resulting stresses and strains may be too much for the old building. I have been round with some cameramen taking a movie of the village, and I was rather horrified to find, despite all that we have discussed of an evening, that my shapes and even patterns have been copied in every workshop. I found my children everywhere dressed in ill fitting garments! That is to say that, instead of a ten per cent. absorption of outside influence, which I have suggested as normal and healthy, this is at least a seventy five per cent. invasion without any resistance. And that, as I see it, is what is happening to Japan in general now.

This problem of imitation, which appears to the Western mind, at first sight, as commercial dishonesty, requires study and open understanding. Here at Onda the usual superficial interpretation would be wide of the mark. As far as feeling towards me is concerned the intention is a compliment. I am positive that nothing contrary crossed their minds. To them it was simply the obvious thing to do, and my warnings they read as only springing from personal modesty.

I lack the training with which to probe the subtleties of group psychology and social evolution, but it seems fairly obvious that the sense of proprietary right in design grew with the industrialism and individualism of the nineteenth century. In Japan, and especially in this outlying remnant of old Japan, we run into another set of communal values. In Onda, or in some good old country pottery like Fremington in North Devon, let us say, a good handle, or a good shape, was just good, wherever it came from, without any of this new nonsense about copyright.

Craft guilds existed to preserve standards and protect livelihoods it is true, but it is only since the entry of the machine, on the one hand, and the separation of individual artistry from life, on the other, that this high sense of proprietorship has developed. It is equally obvious that the assimulative capacity of the far less articulate communities like Onda and Fremington has waned and requires new props. In Japan these are leaders of the "Mingei," or craft movement, with their philosophy of humility, and a subordination of over stressed individualism to a co-operative and social proportion.

My anxiety, even before I came here, has been that the effect would be just so much more alien and indigestible. Yet Onda cannot be kept as an artificial enclave. It must swing with the national tide, and one can take comfort by remembering that the same process, or a very similar one, took place in Japan when Buddhism brought over Chinese culture, and that about three hundred years were required for assimilation and the rebirth of a true Japanese culture.

As for my own pots, I am far from pleased with their too carefully planned decorations so different from the carefree, birthright, flow of the large traditional jars and bowls, bed warmers, swaké and shoya containers, made just to serve requirements in the most straightforward way possible, without any art anxieties. They just come out of the life of these hill farmers, and that is why we replied to Governor Hosoda and his officials, when they suggested that it would be a good thing if the Onda potters were free from the labours of cultivating the soil, that we could not agree. Theirs is farmer's art, as true to nature as the rice they grow, and nearly as unconscious of beauty. They like and dislike, and possess the broad practical "know how," just as with their sowing and reaping, rotation of crops, picking of fungi and pickling of vegetables. It is all the same and unity is the keynote; but it is not ours, and we cannot pretend to such innocence. Ours is the hard road of reintegration, either by self culture, of which I am heartily sick, or by self forgetfulness. My pots do need a fresh and more naked impulse, less planning, less reliance on the past and more openness to immediate intuition.

April 19th

Takeichi Kawai left yesterday morning. Half the village gathered to see him off. He went round to each, bowing and thanking so warmly and with such fine manners. His selfless consideration of others has been an object lesson. The cold has got worse; coughing and a little fever. I was thankful to get away down to the town of Hita for a break. I managed, however, to make about twenty drawings, mostly for people who have been so kind that I could not refuse. Is there any other country where an artist's drawings are so wanted?

Young Mr. Sumi came across the island from Futagawa, where I worked for a fortnight nineteen years ago. His father is still alive and well but, sad to relate, the war put an end to their fine old pottery. Young Sumi talks of reviving it on a small scale. I hope he does, if only for the sake of the most beautiful white slip on a dark body in all Japan. It causes the transparent amber coloured glaze called "ame" to come out a lovely orange yellow in their oxidized firings.

April 21st

Back again at Onda, the abominable cold still heavy on me. Nothing worse than watching kilns at night, but I had to see how they did things and drink a cup of saké with the gathered potter stokers in front of the crackling wood fires at the lower end of the long climbing kiln that contains most of my pots. I was called into a cottage where a dozen laughing, chattering men and women were about to listen to a broadcast which I made a few days ago, mainly about themselves and their mountain life. A pot loving Dr. Inonge came visiting, scolded me, gave a penicillin injection and later sent up medicines.

April 22nd

Out in the early slanting sunlight to watch the side-stoking of chamber V. Smoke rising gently amongst the bamboo plumes; crackle of the six foot pieces of cryptomeria wood being shot in from side ports; rush of water; thump of "Kara usu," and that nightingale.

The firing of these Onda kilns is almost unbelievable. This one, with eight successive chambers up a steep incline, averaging 15ft. wide, 5ft high and 7ft. front to back, containing large raw wares took only twenty five hours. The temperature averaged 1280oC. The "aburi," or preheating from the main lower firemouths, took but five hours and each chamber only two and a half hours of side-stoking. No saggars and no ordinary shelves were employed, and only about a third, at most, of the cubic area contained pots, the remainder was empty.

To the scientific Western mind this might well appear at first glance to be an appalling waste, but the figures speak for themselves. The local calculation is that one of the large storage jars, approximately 2ft. x 2ft., is raised to the requisite heat by the average expenditure of one bundle of fuel, weighing forty to fifty pounds. Red pine is the best wood, but the demand of pulp and tobacco has driven the price up so outrageously, apart from the ravages of war, that most country potters are feeling the pinch acutely. I was told that before the war it cost about five pounds to buy a hill and the wood on it, but now the same hill would fetch £5,000. The last time I came to Japan the yen was worth a little over one shilling, now it is 1,000 to £1.

April 24th

Governor Hosoda and many others came for our last day and cars crowded the narrow road. A broadcast, a last supper and our films shown out of doors. They clapped and clapped over the St. Ives film. Yanagi arrived from Tokyo. Twenty five of the best pots were taken down to Hita for exhibition, where Mr. Hosoda took the chair at a lecture and film meeting. He spoke well and with feeling saying how after the defeat he experienced what so many still feel loss of direction and of something to hang on to. To us he said: "You have given me something real to work for, the preservation of Japanese expression through our crafts." There was a grand dinner party, and next morning we set out in cars, in the rain, up another valley to Koishibara. There we plodded through the thick clayey mud from workshop to workshop, and were delighted to find that although Koishibara may not be as intimate a co-operation as Onda, the work was, if anything, broader and larger. We had lunch with the potters, the most substantial "bento" I have ever seen. "Bento" is the equivalent of a luncheon basket, and each consists of a plain light wooden box containing chopsticks, cold rice, fish, vegetables, pickles, etc. this case, two large fish and meat as well, enough for a family.

April 26-27th

Farewell to Kyushu, to lovely Onda, to Governor Hosoda, to Terakawa, Noma and Sakamotes. Train to Kyoto. I wrote a card to Onda folk: "Yama zakure to isho, nantonaku mijikai" ("With the mountain cherry, how brief!"). Three weeks, three hundred pots, many of them large and excellently fired, almost without loss. Hill receding to faint blue and the steeps of the cloudless sky shot with gold this April day in Southern Japan. Boys' Festival carp floating over grey tiled roofs again. Oh! the passing sun soaked beauty of the hills.

More Pottery Quarterly Articles