Sunday, November 22, 2009


Mashiko is a small town located in the Tochigi Prefecture, about 2.5 hours north of Tokyo. It is known for it’s rustic, utilitarian pottery and became famous when Hamada Shoji settled there. He became a National Living Treasure here in Japan and was part of the Mingei movement (see previous blog entry on the Japanese Folk Crafts Museum). I had the opportunity to travel with a group from the base, and unlike my previous trips I did not do my homework before getting on the bus – I pretty much went to Mashiko blind, not having a clue what to expect. Boy, was I in for a surprise.

As we left the Tokyo area behind us, there was a distinct shift – the concrete buildings faded away, more traditional Japanese houses were visible and there was much more breathing space. It became more rural and quite lovely. Once we left the highway and started to wind our way towards Mashiko, on very narrow roads, there were photo ops galore. Beautiful Japanese homes surrounded by lovely gardens and fields; a Bamboo grove; a Persimmon tree with all the leaves gone but the brightly colored red-orange fruit was still dangling in contrast – this was the first time since arriving in Japan four months ago that I realized this is what I imagined Japan would look like. We arrived in Mashiko and our bus parked in the center of town. Our guide (who is another Navy spouse and has traveled extensively throughout Japan) provided us with a map of the area and set us loose with a 3-hour time frame. There are over 400 pottery studios in Mashiko and unlike my trip to Seto (see blog entry) we were there during the middle of the week and there was not a pottery festival going on. It was a cool, overcast Fall day and the streets were fairly empty – so with map in hand my friend Ami and I started to make tracks, knowing 3 hours would barely make a dent in all there was to see.

The plan of attack was to head down one side of the main street and when we hit the 1.5 hour mark start to head back. Well something caught Ami’s eye and she crossed the street and I followed – what great luck, because if we had headed down the original path we may never have reached the Daisei-Gama pottery studio and kiln within our deadline. Instead it was one of the first places we went into and I fell in love. Most of my photos are from this studio and the work there clearly spoke to me. I hovered over Sake sets and bowls (still not sure which are for rice and which were for miso soup) – but with not much time and this only the second stop on our whirlwind tour, I decided I would wait and see if I saw something else making note to allow enough time to come back.

There were many shops, some with similar work, and with my very limited Japanese it was hard for me to know if they were just a shop selling many different artists work or if their work was by a resident potter. Like in Seto, I favor buying work from the artist – I like to look back on my purchases and remember the artist I bought the work from, the piece then has so much more meaning to me.

At the very end of the street there was a building tucked back from the street that is an indigo dyeing shop. Here is where I kick myself for not having done my homework … it is Higeta Cottage and shop and you can take workshops explaining the traditional indigo dyeing technique. Sadly for me, when I arrived they must have been taking a lunch break because there was no one to be seen. But now that I have their name and number I will have to go back before my time is up here in Japan.

With time ticking I made my way back up the street, determined to get back to the Daisei-Gama Kiln. I am not a potter, and truthfully I know very little about the process – I certainly appreciate the craft though, having watched Greg, one of my studio mates at The Hermitage, create like magic, art out of clay. But even someone as unfamiliar as I am with the process would be able to see the beauty in the work at this studio. The lady who was helping me make my selections was very helpful and thankfully spoke English. They take a lot of time and care in wrapping their packages and while she wrapped mine I wandered around the store, kicking myself for not having brought more Yen with me. The next thing I knew I was being offered some tea and was sitting at a small table with 3 Japanese Nationals – who I gathered spoke about as much English as I spoke Japanese. So we just sat and smiled at each other while the shop owner acted as our translator. After they had made their purchase and left the shop I asked about a beautiful Sake tray (or she said I could use it as a cheeseboard) – but as lovely as it was I explained I was out of Yen. She uttered the magic words – “oh, we take Visa!” Yes! With time now ticking and with much help I selected 5 bowls for us, each slightly different. And with help from her son, who spoke flawless English (he had spent some time in the states as an exchange student) they quickly wrapped things up and I hurried to make my bus in time.

Once home, I told Jeff about what a wonderful experience I had had that day and how I wanted us all to go back to Mashiko and in particular to the Daisei-Gama kiln and studio. Through some help from one of his co-workers who is fluent in Japanese, we found out the name of the artist - OTSUKA, Kuniyori (I hope I have that spelled correctly) - and that it is a family run kiln. This particular kiln is the last wood-burning kiln in the village of Mashiko and has apprenticed many world famous potters. The colors of the pieces from this kiln are complex, and it can take up to a week to complete the glaze process. If I understood correctly, they have a firing (?) 2 to 3 times a year – I hope that we can come back to see that – especially after being shown 2 pieces with the same glaze but they looked quite different because of their placement within the kiln. I am quite intrigued.

It was a great day and the pieces I purchased that day I will treasure. Mashiko was definitely one of the high points so far on my journey here in Japan.

Till next time, sayonara.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

International Quilt Week Yokohama 2009

This week was one of the largest quilt shows in Japan. I knew about the Tokyo Quilt Show, it’s already on my 2010 calendar, but I was not aware of the Yokohama show. Thank goodness my friend Kathy, savvy Gaijin that she is, not only knew about the show but had planned an outing to attend. Sign me up!

Upon exiting the subway we had a fairly good idea which way to head but it became obvious as we followed the masses. It was like a slow flowing river with all these side tributaries feeding in, flowing in a steady stream towards fabric, buttons, and lots of inspiration.

I’ve mentioned in previous blogs about the Japanese attention to details, so it should have come as no surprise upon entering the exhibit hall you immediately saw these huge patchwork balls and then looking up with out a doubt the largest quilt I have ever seen (see slides). The message was clear – this was not going to be like any quilt show I’ve seen in the U.S. (just in case any quilters out there get all riled up – no, I have not been to Houston – but I have been to quite a few nationally ranked shows, Mancusco does a nice job but they should come here and take some notes). The quilts are displayed like a real exhibit (not hanging on what is basically curtains), with exhibit walls and proper lighting – now maybe that sounds a bit picky, but all my fellow quilters out there will know exactly what I’m talking about. It makes a HUGE difference in how the quilts show.

We enjoyed the quilts immensely. As usual, I was fascinated by the many different techniques and stood there wondering, “now how did she do that?” My photos are of the entrants, none of the professional quilts nor the special exhibits were available to photograph. The octopus quilt you see in the slide show was one of the three grand prize winners. It was drop dead gorgeous. The attention to detail was amazing.

After feasting our eyes on the quilts and getting high on inspiration we headed over to the vendors. When we turned the corner it was like … oh, boy – maybe we should have come here first! It was packed – solid. I was getting my daily work out just trying to get through the crowds. There were so many great vendors there it would take me quite a while to get through them all so I’ll give just give you the cliff notes (an aside – did you know that cliff notes are now passé and that Sparknotes are “in” – I discovered this doing research for one of my books for bookgroup. They are great and you can go online – just FYI for any of you out there with kids who need to understand the importance of books like Catch-22, like we had to do this summer.).

Purses and more

OMG!! The Japanese appear to really be into making purses. And I have to admit, I could see getting sucked into this. There were vendors selling nothing but handles – all kinds of really cool handles – like nothing I’ve seen back in the states. And weaving, there were vendors selling tools to help you basically stitch fabric and weave purse bottoms – sort of like those placemats we used to make when we were kids. But way more sophisticated. Now I stood for quite a while watching a demonstration and it was very cool but the one thing that was holding me back was I put my sewing machine in storage for three years. Why? Well I knew my space here would be limited and I figured it would force me to focus on hand stitching – exploring new areas fiber art. My mom said I’ll never make it three years with out caving in and buying myself a sewing machine. I have to admit, standing there watching the endless demonstrations – it seemed like nearly every booth had a demo going on – I was starting to think she may be right. But for now, I purchased a few items I could make by hand and if I really can’t control myself I might just have to hit up one of my unsuspecting sewing friends here and ask to borrow their machine.

It was a great day, I loved seeing the many different techniques. From what I understand, this is just a warm up to the Tokyo show in January. I can hardly wait.

Till next time, sayonara.

Azamino Shibori Exhibit

This past week has been a fabulous week for getting off base. I had several opportunities to learn more about this fascinating culture, to see an exhibit of some beautiful shibori work and finally to go to the Yokohama Quilt Festival.


One of the things I really wanted to do while here in Japan was to have the opportunity to teach English to Japanese students. O.k. before any of you Grammarphiles out there suck in your breath in horror and think “How could she? She writes with run on sentences, she breaks grammar rules left and right, using dashes and ellipses with abandon.” Just chill – I am not passing myself off as someone who has a Masters in ESL. I am looking for students who are interested in practicing conversational English and exchanging cultures. As luck would have it I have recently acquired three new classes of students. One of those students has a family member who has been studying shibori for the last two years and as it so happens this week they were having an exhibit of their work in Azamino, a suburb of Yokohama. It was my very good fortune that two of my new students offered to take me to the exhibit to see the work and introduce me to the sensei (teacher). A train ride with a transfer to the subway system finally brought us to Azamino – all in all about 1.5 hours from my house. We all laughed about how if they had not been my guide I never would have gotten there – it would have been “Jane lost in Japan … again.”


For those of you who have no idea what the heck I mean when I say “shibori” – it is a technique that manipulates fabric through folding, stitching, twisting, binding or a combination of and then the artist dyes the fabric, sometimes multiple times to achieve the desired look. The process is very organic – for all your efforts at control you never really know what you will unfold. There are many variables, the type of fabric, the tightness of the binding, the intensity of the dye – these are just a few that come to mind. For the last two years I have been a studio artist at The Hermitage Museum and Gardens in Norfolk, Virginia. This was an opportunity for me to continue my self-taught journey into the world of Shibori. Two of the essential books to a Shibori artists library are Shibori: The Inventive Art of Japanese Shaped Resist Dyeing by Yoshiko Iwamoto Wada and Memory on Cloth: Shibori Now also by Yoshiko Iwamoto Wada. I found these two books to be indispensable. Shibori by Karren K. Brito was also a book I never had far from me with Americanized ways of practicing shibori.

It was through these three books that I experimented and tried the many different techniques of Shibori. The positive results ended up in two of the gallery shows that The Hermitage Foundation Museum and Gardens had show casing the studio artists. But as wonderful an opportunity as it was to have my own studio I also realized that to be able to study in Japan with a shibori master would be the chance of a lifetime – something I really never dreamed I would have. Moving to Japan was not even on our radar screen. Go figure.

Japanese Shibori

The Japanese are known for their beautiful Shibori work, primarily dyed in indigo. Not having had the opportunity to learn indigo dying yet, I really wasn’t sure what to expect but let me tell you that when I walked through the door of the exhibit I was speechless. There were gorgeous shibori works hanging from the walls in all shades of indigo blue – some intensely dark, some light. There were many of techniques I had seen in books but never in person. There was a demonstration area where I had the opportunity to meet the sensei and she showed us some of the techniques. I am not sure they quite knew what to make of a tall, blonde American woman walking into their exhibit … but once they found out that I knew a bit about shibori they were very happy to share their knowledge. As I was walking out my door that morning I had stuffed a few samples of my work into my backpack, not really sure what I was going to do with them but figuring why not. I am so glad that I did – I was able to share them with the sensei and I guess I demonstrated enough interest in this art form that it was agreed that I could join the monthly class, taught by the sensei. If I understood the translation correctly, it is called 100 Shibori Ways (or Techniques). She has a strict curriculum that must be followed – if your technique does not pass, you cannot move to the next level. With less than 36 months to go before we leave I am not sure if I will be able to make it through all 100 – but as those of you who know me, know I love a goal and a challenge!

Proper lunar alignment

Was it luck? Were the moons properly aligned? Fate? Serendipity? Happenstance? Who the heck knows … all I know is that because I met a woman named Kathy (my Yoda), who introduced me to Diana (gift giver of Japanese friends), who gifted me a group of her students, where one of them happened to have a family member studying Shibori, who happened to be having an exhibit, who happened to introduce me to the sensei – I now have the opportunity of a life time to study shibori here in this amazing country full of surprises at every turn.

Was is a good week? Oh yes, it was a very good week.

Till next time, sayonara.

For those of you who would like to follow me on my shibori journey you can also check out my blog This blog is geared toward my love of all things shibori and interesting fibert art I encounter while here in Japan.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Japanese Folk Crafts Museum

Last week I had the opportunity to visit the Japanese Folk Crafts Museum in Tokyo, also known as the Mingeikan Museum. The museum, built in 1936, has over 17,000 items made by crafts people. The term Mingei (folk art), was coined by Yanagi Soetsu who used it to refer to common crafts that had been brushed aside by the industrial revolution. Yanagi “sought to counteract the desire for cheap mass-produced products by pointing to the works of ordinary crafts people that spoke to the spiritual and practical needs of life” – this came to be known as the Mingei Movement.

To celebrate the 120th anniversary of the birth of Soetsu Yanagi, the Mingeikan Museum currently has an exhibit of 400 works selected by Yanagi that reflect his philosophy of finding beauty and art in everyday items. In his words he described the beauty of Mingei as “wholesome, honest, natural, innocent, free, simple, and pure.” The works on display had to meet the following criteria in order to be considered Mingei – made by anonymous crafts people; produced by hand in quantity; inexpensive; used by the masses; functional in daily life; representative of the region in which it was produced. Photography was not allowed inside the building but I would encourage you to take a few moments to check out their website -

The photos on the slideshow are from the grounds and exterior shots of the 2 buildings. One is the museum, the other is the Nagayamon (long gate house) which was built in the 19th century in Tochigi Prefecture and moved to this site in the 1930’s. Sadly, we were not there on the day the long gate house is open for tours but I plan to go back. In December, they have an annual show called the New Works Competition where craftspeople are asked to submit their work – and I have already spied some shibori work from previous shows. Like a moth to flame … shibori calls me to return.

You will notice from the photo with the basket of slippers that once again, I had to take off my street shoes and tour the building in surippa (slippers). If you are planning to visit Japan, making sure you always have a pair of socks with you is highly recommended – especially in the summer time, sticking hot, sweaty American feet into the provided slippers is sure to offend someone! Of course, the Japanese are probably way to polite to ever say anything – they’d just discreetly whisk away the contaminated slippers. If you can find some easily compactable slippers to put in your backpack or purse – that would be a good idea. Most places provide slippers but the problem I seem to have is my big American feet hang off the back of the slippers and I end up shuffling along like some sort of degenerate.

My friends and I lucked out on another glorious Fall day, and after leaving the museum (with countless creative ideas swimming in my head after the beautiful and inspiring works) we stumbled on a park and decided to take a detour as we wound our way back to the train station. The park, Komabano, was at one time used as a hawking area during the Edo Era and during the Meiji Period the first military review was held there. With history crammed into every nook and cranny here the Japanese appear to take great care of their public spaces. Over and over I will probably continue to share my astonishment at how clean everything is here – there was not a single piece of trash, candy wrapper, cigarette butt, water bottle to be seen lying on the ground throughout the park. Nor walking down the numerous streets we were on that day. I am also impressed with all the details – the lovely iron gate for instance that led into the park. It seems that everywhere I turn here, there is opportunity for eye candy and inspiration.

Till next time, sayonara.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Chozubachi Stone

This weekend Jeff and I had a Sunday morning trip planned to the Machida Shrine Sale. This sale is on the first of each month, except January. Figuring that this would be the only chance Jeff would have to go for a long while (May and August are the only two months in 2010 that fall on a weekend), he was a good sport and agreed to set out on another adventure outside the gates. We left early, map in hand hoping to score a few hits with some items I hand in mind.

There is a center here on base called the Fleet and Family Support Center that offers some great classes, information and among other things directions to some of the more popular destinations within driving distance. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am grateful that they even have directions at all … it’s just well, somehow every single time we follow the FFSC directions we manage to get lost. And this outing was no different. The hopes of getting up and back to the shrine sale in a timely manner were soon dashed as we tried to decipher what “turn right after 7-11 5 minutes” exactly meant. Finally realizing we must have missed the turn and were now 20km passed where we thought we should be we turned around, hoping if we retraced our steps we would stumble on the Shrine Sale. Finally, matching the Kanji we found the location for the sale … but there was nothing there. After all of that, it turns out that for some reason it was not being held that day. Sigh.

Not to be deterred from having a total loss of an outing, Jeff decides to pull into a stone shop that we have passed by probably a half dozen times – usually on a way to one of the children’s sporting events, that we are already late for because … we got lost. Each time, he hears “ooooooh! Look, there’s that stone shop, I sure wish we could stop there sometime … it looks like they have some really cool things for a garden.” I guess he figured with no children in the car, no sporting event that we were trying to make, now was as good a time as any. He squeezes our car into a teeny, tiny parking space (there was only one) that is just inches away from the main road that has cars and trucks whizzing by at top speeds. We step out to discover there is a beautiful Koi pond, with a stone bridge crossing over it and a waterfall with a moss covered frog that the water spills out of. It was an unexpected treasure! I walk around seeing many items I would love to have, while I think Jeff was checking his pulse rate as he went into sticker shock. I had warned him and said that these stone pieces were expensive – maybe he and I need to have a discussion about what the definition of expensive is. Clearly we have a different price point! I finally settle on what is probably the least expensive item on the lot, a stone water basin – and the older gentleman who was helping me guides me into a little building and offers me a seat at a table and then promptly disappears. I think to myself, “well, this is different. I figured I’d point, pay and go but no this is clearly not the way a business transaction is handled in Japan.” My cultural education continues.

While I am seated at the table, wondering now what? Did they misunderstand, and where is Jeff? Jeff pops his head in to see what is going on, and why is it taking so long to buy a “rock.” Next thing we know we have tea being served to us and Jeff is now seated next to me and Mr. T. Ebisawa starts to pull out several books. I’m thinking “uh, oh … something just got lost in translation and he thinks we want him to create a Japanese Tea Garden or something like that” - but no he is actually taking the time to show us a garden book that has the flower that the stone chozubachi is modeled after! “Wild Beach Chrysanthemum” Asteraceae Heteropappus hispidus var. Arenarius, is a coastal flower, and best as I can tell native to Japan.

I found this photo off of the Wild Beach Chrysanthemum off of the mitomori website .

Mr. T. Ebisawa then pulls out a few more books, one of which is The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura – which to Jeff’s surprise I said “oh, I have that book!” This book is considered a classic essay on “tea drinking, its history, restorative powers and rich connection to the Japanese culture.” The granite stone water basins, chozubachi, or crouching bowl, were designed by Japanese tea maters for guests to wash their hands and rinse their mouth as a symbol of purification. These low crouching bowls were meant to humble the guest and create the right state of mind in the tea garden before entering the tea house. Often these bowls are fed with water from a bamboo spout called a “kakei.” Mr. T. Ebisawa, proceeded to pull out a kakei … but we would have to save that purchase for another day.

As we were wrapping up our transaction Mr. T. Ebisawa gave us the brochure for the Ishino Yoshidaya Company – beautiful shrine lanterns for me to save my penny’s (or Yen?) for. Jeff and I both noticed at the top of the business card attached to the brochure it had “Since 1592” – we pointed to this and Mr. T Ebisawa proudly stated that their company had been in business for more than 400 years. Jeff and I just started laughing, talk about cultural history! (The closest American company I could find was J.E. Rhoads and Sons, 1702 – they make conveyor belts today, but started as a tanner and harness maker.)

As we rode back home, with our chozubachi carefully wrapped in the back of the car with instructions to “not scrub off the moss,” we talked about how much time and care Mr. T. Ebisawa took with us – even though we were probably his lowest sale of the week, you would never have known it. He treated us like we were buying the most expensive shrine lantern on the lot. He was patient, treated us like guests in his home by offering us tea and took the time to educate 2 Americans on one more aspect of this very rich culture. This outing turned out to be one of my favorite memories so far, and it reminds me that just when you think you’ve had a bust of a day, if you open your eyes and your heart life’s happenstance will reward you greatly.

Till next time, sayonara.

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