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.

1 comment:

  1. Greetings,
    I apprenticed in Mashiko. We lived there for 10 years. Nice to hear about your visit.

    Lee Love
    Minneapolis, MN


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