Mike's Pots

 Janet Leach - Tamba - 1957

Janet Leach
Tamba - 1957

Any one of the pottery villages still operating in Japan is a revelation to the Western potter, especially that in the area known as Tamba, for its primitive roots are the most strongly preserved. Even to the Japanese potter this pottery is unique and shows origins and evolutions of work otherwise unknown to him. Hamada has taken much inspiration from old Tamba pots, and it was he who suggested that I did my "field work" in this village.

It was incidental to this devoted potter that it would be in the dead of winter; that living was the most primitive in Japan and that no English was spoken there. After all, I had come to study pots and the best were in the central mountains, approachable only from one direction-up the narrow winding valley from Osaka not far in mileage but a hard four hours by train and an agile mountain goat type of bus.

The village of about forty potter families fringes the narrow valley of rice paddies. The mountains rise on both sides at a seemingly forty-five degree angle, and the thatch covered roofs appear to thrust skyward at a similar pitch. The landscape is exciting and dramatic, and I never ceased to enjoy the constantly changing colours on the haze covered mountain tops. The weather knew no temperance, be it rain, wind or snow. There was a curious beauty composed of harsh bleak angles, unrelieved.

The people are small, their habits spartan, their food poor, but they are proud of their survival and heritage-for theirs is one of the oldest potteries in Japan. Pottery has been made here con- tinuously since about 500 A.D. - it is believed that there was a prior epoch of potters, but little archaelogical study has been done in Japan and this remains to be verified.

Curiously, the Tamba pottery has not survived all these centuries because of the continued accessibility of clays and wood, nor because markets were easy to reach. Neither is so; these potters have survived because of their way of life, in which changes come so slowly as to be almost imperceptible. The height of their activity occurred in the tenth century, when Kyoto was a flourishing capital. They transported their pots by foot over the hazardous crest of the mountains. It was cheap utilitarian ware, such as saki bottles, pickle jars and huge pots for trees. The stark forms of these red clay pots pleased the Tea Masters of Kyoto, and still a Tamba pot is the most cherished utensil as the water jar for the Tea Ceremony.

It has been the salvation of the Tamba potters that an article which they produced as a utilitarian piece was suitable for tea. Whenever the village craftsman has attempted to design more profitable articles of unfamiliar function, whether tea bowls or export ware, the resultant loss of integrity has led to woeful decline. Therefore any student of pottery in Japan today must always go to the remote hinterlands. Those near the cultural centres declined under the Tea Ceremony influence (as it itself declined), and those near ports were caught up in European export.

I remember driving with a potter through the old Seto area. For miles we passed small potteries, each with plaster moulds drying outside. In not one of those potteries, my companion kept telling me, was there a potter's wheel. Naturally, I asked why. In a very disgusted tone he answered: "Fifty years ago a Westerner came here and asked them to make some teacups. And now look at the place!"

In earlier times the potter established his home and his kiln on the best clay beds and moved on when they were exhausted, but today he stays in permanent villages. Most of the rural potteries have exhausted their good clay and are using the less plastic material remaining after centuries of selection. This is especially true of Tamba clay, which is very bad; but here, as elsewhere, they have evolved throwing processes in accordance with its limitations. Large and small pots alike have to be thrown in two or three stages, as the clay cannot be pulled up or opened out in our manner. Even the smallest six-inch saki bottle is made in two steps. A small ball of clay is patted on the wheel for the base, and a 3" coil of very soft clay is added to this and thrown up to about four inches. In a day or so. when this has become firm, another coil is added and the belly and neck of the bottle are completed.

On examining Sung and Korean pots, I discovered that this same progressive throwing was used, and it is my opinion that the method is vitally important in designing a pot. The form of the old English pitcher, for example, could only be obtained by throwing a tall plastic cylinder, whereas the break in form of shank, belly and neck of the old Oriental pot is inspired and achieved by coiling and throwing in progressive stages. The wheel used, the character of the clay and the method of throwing are all closely integrated with the design.

In a pottery village, pots are life. They have the same relationship with the folk as rice or apples. There is a time honoured tradition of method, and each thrower strives to maintain the standard his village has accepted for centuries. No two pots on a board are any more similar than two apples off one tree; the village being, figuratively, the orchard. After firing, the colour of pots varies widely, due to semi-controlled oxidation or reduction and a range of temperature between 1200oC and 1400oC. Little concern is given to this or to "seconds." Such is the law of nature; and it was constantly evident to me that this identification with natural laws was the source of old Japanese wisdom, culture and custom at every level. In this village I saw it more clearly because life was stripped of all ruffles and icing.

The family I lived with for more than six months is one of the largest pottery producers in Tamba. What induced them to take in an unknown foreign woman, who obviously would be much trouble, I shall never know. It wouldn't happen with the mountain. folk in America or in isolated areas of England, I'm sure. They knew nothing of our customs. Grandma could never understand what we wore for everyday use; she repeatedly asked if we wore kimono, and shook her head in confusion. Her knowledge of Western dress was confined to the suit of clothing her son wore for business trips to the city and the cheap cotton circular skirt and white blouse currently worn by women in the heat of summer as a relief from the long kimono and the bulky uncomfortable obe (sash). Western style clothing is, by their monetary standards, expensive and is worn daily only by the very rich. This attitude, of course. is only that of the peasant Japanese; the sophisticated Japanese woman in good Western attire is quite a stunning person.

The head of the family and the pottery, Mr. Ichino, was about 45. His health wasn't good, so he spent his time mainly on the business organization of the place. His wife was about 38. She had come from the town of Sasayama, a little farther north, in the usual marriage cycle of the village: the wives were chosen from the north and the daughters married southward to prevent inbreeding. They told me this "produced the best children." I did not feel that the wife was unhappy; on the contrary, Japanese women are always outstanding in warmth and kindness. But the life of a wife is hard, as it is the custom for the younger women to work the fields while the men make the pots and grandma does a minimum of household chores. For a few days in the spring and autumn, the men stopped pottery production to assist in ploughing, planting or harvesting, but during the rest of the year farming and, usually, wood-chopping was the job of the women.

They often came from the fields to give menial assistance in the pottery. Many were very skilful at decorating and glazing, but their principal duties were cleaning the glazed feet and carrying pots and saggers to the kiln. I was a novelty (or freak) wherever I worked because they never thought of a woman using a wheel. I know of only two young Japanese women taking up potting, but there may be others in the art schools.

Although I found living and food difficult, the fact that I could speak very little became an asset, for gradually my sense of "smell" was developed and my instincts became as sharpened as a blind man's. I believe it was easier to get closer to their thinking and motivations that way than by smuggling with my kindergarten Japanese.

The smaller pottery families, with one or two men working, were usually housed in a small shed-like room adjoining the house, but this family had a larger organization of five throwers, a kiln man and a packer. It was less of a family enterprise and more of a transition towards a factory.

The younger Ichino brother was a thrower, and I found his development and interests to be similar to my own. He had grown up with the traditional shapes but had developed more flexibility than the others and was attempting to design some new shapes on the theme of old work. His intuitive feeling for materials and his respect for the old pots served as a guide which prevented him from going too far into deep unknown waters. He was one of the few I saw who used both the hand- and kick-wheel. He preferred the former for rice bowls, tea cups and small pieces thrown off a mound of clay to be trimmed later, and used the kick-wheel for large unturned pots and enormous plates made by coiling.

The principal thrower had been one for fifty years. He could make variations on only three or four basic shapes, but he was highly respected throughout the village for producing the best interpretations of them. His speciality was saki bottles, for which Tamba is well known. For me it was an introduction into another world to watch this small, spry, bow-legged man daily kicking his tiny wheel and producing identical pot after pot with great pride. He never became unresponsive and apparently boredom was not in his make-up.

The other throwers made the larger pots, saki-making jars, chemical and acid jars, and so on. Little differentiation was made between the usual commercial pottery and the better quality table- ware except that the large commercial pieces were given a thin washing of kaki (a crushed stone) and fired raw, while the better pieces were biscuited and glazed with a larger variety of colours - tenmoku, transparent over a white slip, a treacle-like ash glaze and a copper-green for glaze patterns.

The small throwers, working on pots half their own size, often appeared out of scale, and I was amazed at their ability to handle these big pots; but their methods minimised the most arduous tasks and fatigue was never apparent. A large pot or jar between two or three feet tall was made in three stages by throwing, thus avoiding centring a heavy mound of clay. Patting out the base also served the purpose of compressing the clay and preventing cracking. Two or three layers of coils were worked on, then the form was pulled together by using a very coarse jute-like cloth as we do our finishing leather. Using extremely soft clay, very little water, and a cloth covered in slurry, they deftly pulled up very thin walls. Most of the traditional shapes did not require turning, which is different from the practice at other potteries.

Grandpa, a fine, noble character, had retired from pot-making but was still active in glazing, decorating and packing. The saki bottle was usually sold with the name of the shop written on it. It was raw-glazed with thin kaki (rust red) and the writing was done in vitreous white slip over the glaze. Grandpa prided himself on his writing, which he did with a unique slip trailer composed of a cylindrical cup of bamboo about two inches in diameter and eight long. From the base a small stem of bamboo projected at a right angle. I was amazed at the sensitive calligraphy accomplished with this crude tool, which could be used only on a vertical surface, whereas European slip trailing is best done on the flat. While I was there, Dr. Yanagi visited and ordered some large saki bottles for the Folkcraft museum-to be thrown by the old thrower and trailed by grandpa. This was the highest of all honours next to one from the Emperor.

The most impressive things at Tamba are the kilns and firing methods. The potters' knowledge of fire is extensive, but their method of firing stoneware is the most primitive I have seen. In their daily living and in their firing methods there is a unity of thought. If they are cold, they hover over a small charcoal fire, never think of closing a door or using a fire to heat a room. It is the same at the kiln; fuel is thrown directly on top of the pots; observing this, I thought, time and time again: they go to fire for heat, but never think of enclosing warmth.

Nevertheless, these potters understand what they are doing and why. Scientifically designed "Kyoto type" climbing kilns have been built in Tamba in an effort to "enlighten" them, but they were soon discarded as being inferior. This was not merely conserva- tism, for they know that their pots derive much of their vitality from contact with fire, wood, and ash; and they have resisted being levelled to mediocrity, though the local government established a laboratory in their midst to educate them in the use of modern chemicals, besides a small electric kiln, slip casting, scientific control and the rest. Fortunately, their instincts are wiser than the good intentions of the government, and nothing changes.

From the sixth century until the fifteenth the pottery was fired in a sort of hole in a cliff. Some remains still exist, also stoneware pots with ash glazes dating from about 1350 A.D. One can find similar shards of even earlier dates. Obviously the fusion of ash on pots during firing led to the use of ach glazes throughout the Orient.

These old kilns are very interesting because they indicate the birth of the climbing kiln. They are simply a tunnel, four feet in diameter, rising at about a 30o angle in a small cliffside until they reach the upper ground level. The lower end of the hole is the firemouth and pots are loaded through it; the upper hole serves as chimney. Presumably there was some sort of stepping inside on which to place the pots. I found the idea fascinating and wanted to dig such a kiln for myself, but to date I haven't located a suitable claybank.

The Tamba kiln today is only a slight refinement of this idea and was started about the sixteenth century with the coming of the Korean potters' influence into Japan. It is a semi-circular tunnel built of clay and bricks and climbs 100 to 150 feet up the mountain- side at an incline of two feet in twelve. Its width at base and height at crown are about five and three feet respectively. Originally it too was stacked from the firemouth up the entire length (!); later side openings were made about every twelve feet, giving the appearance of a snake with bulges at intervals. At each bulge are two or three supporting columns four inches thick, but the result hardly conforms to our idea of a chambered kiln and the idea of confining heat in any given area is non-existent. The flow of heat, unrestrained, rushes through the tunnel with amazing speed. There is no chimney, only a vertical end wall perforated with six-inch holes and looking like a semi-circular beehive. About two feet above ground level on both sides are four-inch stokeholes, spaced about a foot apart and ten a side to each chamber. The crudity of construction is unbelievable: of home-made bricks about five inches thick basted with clay. The kiln presents a sculptured or modelled appearance, the outer surface being basted with straw and clay. To my amazement the straw does not burn out. Huge flat stones are laid along the sides, broadening the foundation. The entire kiln is covered with a low, peaked shed, which, besides protecting it from the elements, makes impossible the taking of a satisfactory photograph.

The older kilns in Japan were stacked without shelves or saggers. With amazing ingenuity, smaller pots were set into larger ones, forming tall columns. Most rural potteries making kitchen ware continue to stack in this manner. Tamba does, using a dusting or rice straw ash between pots to prevent sticking. The better pots, like tableware, are put in saggers, but in Tamba this is not much of a refinement, for every sagger I saw at any of the twenty-two kilns was broken into at least two pieces after being fired a few times. This is due to the rapid heat rise and equally fast cooling. It is the custom to fit the sagger together and wrap and tie it with rope each time it is used. They regarded this as the natural thing to do, and I never saw one slip.

The columns of pots or saggers were stacked in rows across the kiln aligned with the spaces between the stokeholes. A four-inch clearance was left between the rows under the stokeholes, but, to my amazement, a row of bottles about a foot tall was always set on the floor in this space, where all the stoking wood fell!

Watching the men poking split pinewood sticks into the stoke- holes and getting 600oC rise in a chamber in about two hours while the following chamber remained almost black, I felt they were breaking some of the laws we have made about temperature rises. A book on Tamba kilns by Japanese research ceramics gives the exact data verifies my own observations.

Firing an eight-chambered kiln takes some 53½ hours to reach a temperature of 1300 to 1400oC. The firemouth is stoked slowly, starting one evening and continuing through the following day and night. It is a leisurely job and I have seen a woman occasionally putting on a few sticks while she sat doing the family mending. After thirty-eight hours, the first chamber has reached about 850oC, the eighth only about 75oC. Then the fire is quickened and in the next three hours the temperature climbs to 1300oC. Another hour brings it to its peak of 1400oC; the last chamber is then only about 150. Then side stoking is begun by a man on either side of the kiln. In the next twelve hours they gradually work their way up the kiln, stoking each hole until it reaches its temperature before moving on to the next. Each chamber requires approximately an hour and a half to fire. As there are ten pairs of stokeholes in each chamber, this means less than ten minutes stoking for each. The first chamber actually requires a little over an hour to side stoke and the last a little more than two.

Meanwhile flames are bursting from everywhere. The men usually wear broad-brimmed straw hats to protect their eyes from the heat, and I wondered why these hats didn't catch fire. The firewood, in fourteen-inch sticks, cannot be thrown into the kiln in the usual manner. Space is so restricted that the wood has to be forcefully pushed in against and between the pots. Soon the stacks of pots were completely embedded in embers, and these were pushed down with a long iron poker to make room for more wood. Each man constantly used his poker, pushing and spreading embers and uprighting an occasional fallen pot. I once saw a man bend an entire tier of pots nearer to the stokehole, as though it were a young tree, to enable him to extract a glaze test; yet, I noticed at the unpacking, the pots came to no harm. In one of my first firings was a large plate that I had just learned to make in their manner. It lay on top of a bung of saggers, its rim only a few inches from the stokehole. As I watched it fill up with embers, I consoled myself that I had at least had the pleasure of making it, for I was convinced that the glazed surface would be completely ruined. Actually, it came out without any battle scars and the glaze was improved by the additional ash.

The kiln, being like a wind tunnel, retains little heat; although the stokeholes are sealed, it cools rapidly. By the time they are stoking the third chamber temperature in the first has fallen to about 600oC. Mr. Leach tells the story of similar but larger Korean kilns where they were unpacking the first chambers while continuing to fire the others, and I can see that this is quite possible in a kiln of fifteen or more chambers.

The temperature curve in the last (eighth) chamber is most revealing. During the firing of the second, third and fourth it is scarcely affected and rises to only about 200oC. Firing the fifth adds another 50oC; with the sixth comes a sharp rise to 600oC, then the heat from the seventh increases it to about 700oC. Another two hours and twenty minutes of progressive stoking achieves 1300oC. All this time-usually it is evening-flames are belching from the beehive openings at the end of the chamber; it is a beautiful sight. After the final stoking, the beehive meshwork is plugged and sealed by throwing clay over it.

When I indicate a given temperature in a given chamber, it must be remembered that the temperature varies at every foot along the kiln. If the middle of the chamber is being stoked to reach 1300oC, this means that the first part has begun to cool and is now below 1200oC although the end of the chamber has not yet reached that heat.

At every firing I gained the impression of a dragon, spitting fire from all its apertures and not fully tamed. Every time the men of experience gained the degree of control necessary for their purpose, then, in true Eastern manner, they bowed and said "Thank you".

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