In the workshop of two masters.
A Japanese pottery-making experience.
Take an express train 45 minutes or so up the coast from Kanazawa and you’ll find yourself in the beautiful Japanese countryside of the Noto Peninsula. Today’s excursion took me to Notojima Island, just across the Nanao Bay from the internationally renowned hot spring town, Wakura Onsen.The view from the Notojima Bridge as it rises up over the Nanao Bay can be breath-taking, and the view along the island road, as it winds past rice fields and small fishing villages, gives a genuine feel of rural Japan and makes even a casual drive to the island worthwhile. But, aside from the scenic beauty Notojima Island has to offer, there are a handful of attractions on the island that draw Japanese and international visitors alike. The small, but surprisingly well-executed Notojima Aquarium is perhaps the most well-known of them, and the Notojima Glass Art Museum is truly fascinating and highly-recommended, but my destination this day was of a rather different sort. I was bound for Doppo-en, the workshop of Japanese pottery master Hirofumi Fujii, where it was my privilege to experience pottery-making for the first time.
Published: June 13, 2011
I may not be a learned connoisseur, but I am very fond of Japanese pottery and porcelain...
Here, in Japan, there is a deep appreciation for pottery and porcelain. Just take a look at any Japanese pottery or porcelain master’s work and you’ll see why. There is such an amazing variety of expression and beauty they achieve with the humble clay and glaze they employ. And yet, despite the high prices they often earn, most Japanese pottery-ware is meant to be used and can be found in just about every household here. In my own home, for example, we have pottery cups, bowls, plates, pots and flower vases—though not all the works of masters, each piece has its own character and unique appeal. I may not be a learned connoisseur, but I am very fond of Japanese pottery and porcelain, and so I was particularly excited at the opportunity to experience pottery making myself for the first time. Having had a good look at the Doppo-en website and the amazing pottery and exquisite porcelain works there, however, I admit I was also rather nervous.
Hirofumi Fujii began his career as a designer for a design consulting company in 1985, coming to head up the division overseeing Japanese pottery and porcelain. He went independent in 1992 as a pottery artist in his own right with the distinct artistic sense of someone with his design background. He has since returned to the neighborhood he was raised in on Notojima Island where he set up his current workshop in 2002 with his wife, Sachie Fujii, an accomplished porcelain artist. Both masters, his pottery and her porcelain come together in a unique harmony of two very different styles.
As I came up the steep drive I got my first look at the workshop building and the smaller kiln building next to it. Both were lined with large works of impressive pottery art, and of course the smoke stacks from the three kilns were sticking up through the roof of the kiln building. My first step inside and I was surrounded by the distinctive Doppo-en pottery and porcelain on display on the shelves around me. And then there they were, the two masters I’d been waiting to meet. My first impression of the Fujii’s was of somewhat quiet reserve. But they were kind and soon made me feel welcome.
There are various stages involved in taking the base clay and turning it into a finished cup or bowl.
While Mrs. Fujii brought us coffee in cups that they had of course made themselves, Mr. Fujii, my pottery sensei for the day, sat me down to talk about what we would and would not be able to do in our two hours together. See, there are various stages involved in taking the base clay and turning it into a finished cup or bowl, and due to time-constraints and the need for the clay to dry before the final stages can be done, I would have to leave a few of the important ones in the more than able hands of Fujii-sensei. It was, however, up to me to first choose the type of object I wanted to make (cup, rice bowl, dish, etc), and then also the type of glaze—which would give the object its color and much of its personality. When it came time to decide on the glaze, I was slightly overwhelmed by the sheer number of variations to choose from. Several trays of small finished tea cups each with a slightly different color and design were stacked together near one window—about 150 variations altogether. But it wasn’t simply a matter of choosing which color I liked, Fujii-sensei explained in detail about how the different color variations were achieved depending on the kind of clay and glaze used; how in-glazes were used to accent the design with a brush stroke here or a line there, etc.
There was one technique that I thought was particularly interesting where an object with one kind of glaze is placed close together with an object of a different type of glaze in the kiln so that during the firing in the kiln the flaring of the one colors the other. It was all truly fascinating.
Having decided on a cup and a bowl to make and having chosen the glazes I wanted, it was time to get my hands dirty. Kneading the clay—or wedging it as it is more properly called—and centering it on the wheel are extremely important tasks that will have a great impact on the success of a project, and as you can imagine they take practice. Anyone serious about taking up pottery would naturally need to spend the time and effort to improve these skills, but this was more of a one-time experience, geared toward familiarizing the guest with Japanese pottery and porcelain and sparking their interest with a hands-on experience. So, Fujii-sensei gave me the chance to knead the clay, to see for myself what it was like, but then let me use the wedged cone of clay he had prepared while showing me how it was done and explaining about the importance of the wedging process.
Fujii-sensei centered the clay on the wheel and began to demonstrate how to create the desired shape by what is called throwing the clay—using the fingers to stretch the walls of the piece higher and thinner as the clay spins on the wheel, and otherwise use the fingers to alter the object’s shape. As you would expect from a master, his manipulation of the clay was effortless and magical, and I have to say that simply watching him work the clay was one of the highlights of my experience.
When it came time for me to try it myself, I sat before the clay on the wheel feeling rather clumsy but also determined do to the best I could. Fujii-sensei stood close by, instructing and encouraging me: Wet the clay, cup your hands. Use your thumb to create the hole, and widen it. Place your fingers inside and outside at the 7 o’clock position, apply gentle pressure, work the walls higher. Keep your elbows stable on your knees, and your thumbs crossed. Gently, now… A compliment here and there making me feel surer of myself as I went along. I’ll tell you, I was so absorbed in the throwing that I don’t really remember the pictures being taken of me. Sitting before the potter’s wheel it was just my hands on the slightly wet clay and Fujii-sensei’s voice in my head guiding me.
I had met two down-to-earth Japanese pottery and porcelain masters, taken a close look at a number of their amazing works...
Overall, it was an exhilarating and satisfying experience; all the more so because I got to shape two pieces, and not just one. Fujii-sensei explained that he purposely has one-time guests do two pieces because the second time around people are less nervous and can enjoy the experience more. And that was definitely true for me.
It wasn’t long before my cup and
bowl were cut loose, shape set,ready for drying. No great works of art, but mine, shaped with my own hands. Naturally, the steps of cutting the bottom, glazing, and firing will be done by Fujii-sensei, but it’s a nice feeling to have shaped them myself and as I’m sure you can imagine, I can’t wait to see the finished products. After all it’s not every day you can collaborate with a master craftsman like this.
Since arriving at Doppo-en, had met two down-to-earth Japanese pottery and porcelain masters, taken a close look at a
I number of their amazing works, learned a lot about Japanese pottery and porcelain in general, tried my hand at pottery throwing, and gained a new appreciation for this wonderful art form. Not bad for a short couple of hours. Pictures taken, phone numbers and farewells exchanged, I got back in the car and set off. As the car meandered along the island road making my way back toward the Notojima Bridge and the Noto Peninsula across the bay, I couldn’t stop thinking about pottery throwing and what I would be making next time.
Mark-Edmond Howell came to Japan in the year 2000. He lives with his wife and son in Nanao City where he works primarily as an English instructor.