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transper_1pic.gif A Functional Art: A Visit to Two Premier Pottery Centers

Photos and text by Adrion Blake


Oriental ceramics have captured the world’s imagination throughout the ages. Scenes of the exotic East found on Chinese porcelain brought back to Europe in the sixteenth century opened the Western imagination to things Oriental, and demand for Oriental pottery quickly flourished. In fact, mass-produced “made in Japan” imitations of Chinese porcelain became Japan’s first major trading commodity with the West.

Even to this day, Japanese ceramics are a popular item among travelers to Japan, and a visit to one of Japan’s local pottery towns can be a very rewarding and delightful experience. Two towns particularly famous for their pottery are Tokoname and Seto, both in Aichi Prefecture.

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Wall and street tiles made of pottery

Just minutes away from Central Japan International Airport, the soon-to-open access hub to Aichi and central Japan, is the ancient port town of Tokoname. Overlooking Ise Bay, the town claims a 900-year-old pottery tradition dating back to when aristocrats in Kyoto’s imperial court began collecting Tokoname pottery. Today, local potters enjoy an international reputation, thanks in part to the town’s annual International Workshop of Ceramic Art in Tokoname. Every summer ceramic artists from around the world spend a month living with local families, and the town becomes lively with pottery exhibitions and educational events.

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Potter Peter Seabridge in his studio
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Peter Seabridge is a local potter who attended the workshop 10 years ago. Attracted by the creative support of the local pottery community, he decided to make Tokoname his home. “The people of Tokoname are very open and supportive,” Seabridge comments. “Potters from around Japan and abroad are welcomed here. There is a strong mentoring tradition whereby older potters help newcomers. When those potters then get established they go on to help the next generation.”

Seabridge’s work, which is exhibited regularly in galleries around Japan, is distinguished by his use of wave imagery depicting the local scenery around Ise Bay. It is a style that has become more fluid and organic during his years in Japan. “In England, there is more an attitude of forcing the clay into the image you wish to create, whereas here, I’m slowly learning to relax and let the clay flow into shape with the nudging of my hands,” he explains.

Pottery has become for Seabridge more than just a personal means of expression; it has become an articulation of nature. “It is working with the elements,” he says. “The outcome of each piece of pottery depends on the weather, the humidity, wind, temperature, dryness of the fire-wood that heats the kiln, and the way each piece is placed in the kiln, and this makes each piece unique.”

A common view of Japan is that of a society that values conformity and sameness, as seen in the stereotypical image of Japanese businessmen dressed and acting in unison. When it comes to pottery, however, Japanese people tend to value diversity. It is not uncommon to visit a Japanese restaurant or home and find an eclectic assembly of varied and interesting bowls, cups, and plates adorning the same dinner table.

Kakuyuki Watanabe is a fourth generation local potter who deeply understands this Japanese aesthetic sensibility. “We live in a modern ‘push button’ culture that puts great emphasis on speed and convenience,” says Watanabe. This over-rational way of life, he believes, can lead to a sense of monotony and emptiness. “I strive to make pottery that customers can profoundly enjoy,” Watanabe points out. “A simple tea cup, which is made to last for hundreds of years, can bring a feeling of depth and lasting comfort into our daily lives.”

What Watanabe and many like-minded Japanese potters strive for is a sense of “wabi-sabi,” a term that is difficult to adequately express in English, but is central to the aesthetic sensibility of the traditional arts of tea ceremony, haiku, and pottery. Watanabe explains: “When we are young we are naturally interested in playing around and having new experiences. But as we grow older we desire more comfort and familiarity in our lives, a cozy chair, for example, or a favorite cup to drink from. And a ceramic tea or sake cup, cherished over the years, can be a means of reflection to bring an extra sense of depth into our daily lives.”

Serendipity is a term Watanabe uses when describing his pottery style. Every time he fires new pots in his kiln he seeks the unexpected. By experimenting with new clays, glazes, heating temperatures, or whatever the opportunity provides, he aims to create functional pieces of pottery, each with its own unique and lasting beauty. “Pottery is a way to explore the elements of nature and discover new things about the world around us,” he adds. “Even if I make a mistake, there is so much I can learn about the elements and myself. If we don’t make mistakes, it is difficult to make new discoveries and find out what works best for ourselves individually.”

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Local bridge wall made of ceramics
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For anyone who desires to learn more about Japanese ceramics, a visit to the ancient pottery center of Seto is an opportunity for new discovery. Located near the EXPO 2005 AICHI site, the town of Seto is home to the Aichi Prefectural Ceramic Museum, housing one of the world’s finest collections of Japanese pottery. Here one can walk through 12,000 years of Japanese ceramic history, as well as view notable pieces from pottery traditions from around the world.

The town of Seto itself enjoys a 1,300-year history of pottery production. Local potters created fine imitations of Chinese masterpieces that were in great demand in Kyoto in the Heian period (794–1185). Today, Seto is commonly known as a center of mass-produced “Seto style” porcelain, which draws on the abundance of local silica-rich fine white clay. Assistant Curator Kazunobu Sato of the ceramic museum points out, however, that the image of Seto as just a porcelain maker is not the whole picture. “Historically Seto potters worked with a surprising variety of clay types and pottery-making styles,” he explains. “This diversity of techniques is what most accurately typifies Seto-style pottery even today. ”

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Pottery on display at Aichi Prefectural Ceramic Museum.
(Photo courtesy of Aichi Prefectural Ceramic Museum)
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A visit to one of the many local galleries selling work by local ceramic artists brings this point home. The variety of styles and price ranges is surprising. Beautifully crafted bowls can be had for as little as a few thousand yen, while seemingly simple works by master artists can command prices in the thousands of dollars. “Pottery typifies the Japanese sensibility toward art,” Sato explains. “It is something not only to be looked at, but to be used and appreciated in daily life.”



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