THE SPIRIT OF OKINAWA #02

FEATURE

POTTERS WHO LOVE MINGEI, AND THE SENSE OF BEAUTY THAT THEY SEEK

The peaceful atmosphere of Yonahara’s workshop. Apprentices concentrate on their work in silence. No chatting is to be heard in this spacious workshop.

Time passes slowly in Okinawa, but the atmosphere here is even calmer. In the middle of Yachimun-no-Sato, a spacious area covering nearly 10,000 square metres, are two long buildings. Kita Kiln, where nearly twenty young people single-mindedly focus on making pots, seems just like a school.
At this site, chosen as a hub for traditional crafts by Okinawa prefecture’s Yomitan Cultural Village Plan, four potters − Yoneshi Matsuda, Kyoshi Matsuda, Masataki Miyagi and Masamori Yonahara − received guidance from a master potter. With big dreams in their hearts, they became independent and set up their own pottery in the spirit of yuimaru, or assisting one another. There is no specific leader at their pottery, which they set up on the north side of their teacher’s kiln. They have an unspoken agreement in which each contributes their opinion and, after some discussion, they all work towards the same goal. Equality itself is wisdom.
‘Well, in the beginning we were quite poor. We thought we should buy better quality equipment and raw materials one at a time, and that was the beginning of our pottery cooperative,’ said Yonahara as he reflected nostalgically on the pottery’s beginnings.
A special feature of the pottery is the climbing kiln, the largest in Okinawa and there isn’t another exactly like it. The kiln, which has thirteen chambers, is built on a slope. During the firing, the flames and heat are drawn upwards by convection. This is the traditional way of firing Okinawan pottery and is considered the ideal. But firing such a kiln can be difficult. It begins with stoking wood in the main firebox at the lowest part of the kiln. After continuing this for eighteen hours, heat from the accumulated ash and embers begins to circulate, and wood is stoked into the side of the chambers moving up the hill to complete the firing. No temperature gauge is used to measure temperatures inside the kiln. The only method relied upon is learning from the results of past firings and testing any new ideas gathered from firing kiln after kiln. The experience and skill of a craftsman, which cannot be acquired overnight, is needed. If this final stage of firing the kiln by manpower is not precise and accurate, pieces can break during the firing. Although not extremely efficient, the quality and finish of the pots fired in a climbing kiln cannot be achieved in gas-fired or electric kilns. This ensures the desirability of pots fired at Kita Kiln.
Kita Kiln, which uses only Okinawan clay, glazes, and techniques, has grown over the past twenty years through the guidance and support of the kiln’s original founders. They have accepted the important mission of carrying on traditions to the next generation. Pots made by the original four potters of Kita Kiln are well known throughout Japan. The reason that these four potters don’t stamp their pots with their names and sell them for higher prices is because they know from the teachings of their master, and from the steady accumulation of nature’s blessings, that the present situation is viable.
 ‘Yachimun, or Okinawan pottery, is a craft product made by the ordinary people of Okinawa, not works of art by individual artists. Kita Kiln is not a brand name, just the name of our pottery,’ stated Yoneshi Matsuda, seemingly admonishing the Kita Kiln members, himself included. ‘In the old days, families all gathered around one big pot and ate together but now the number of family members sitting at a table is different. As the various kinds of side dishes eaten with rice increase, the number and size of pots that people need will differ too. It is true that changes in the Japanese diet have brought about changes to the shapes and forms of Okinawan pottery,’ said Yonahara. The remarks of these two carry a weight that makes one question the meaning of Mingei (Japanese folk art) in today’s world.
Mingei-style products must include the following elements: practicality; the ability to be produced by hand in large quantities; represent the regions in which they are produced; be inexpensive in price; be made by anonymous craftspeople; and have artisanal rather than artistic qualities. After the Meiji Restoration (1868), people’s lifestyles became similar to what they are today, and with the development of industries, Japan’s folk kilns suffered a decline. At that time, Soetsu Yanagi and his coterie founded the Mingei Movement. They praised the healthy beauty of crafts, giving them a new set of values. But Yanagi and his coterie are no longer here. It is now up to those at Kita Kiln to promote and maintain the yachimun spirit that has a healthy and natural beauty.
‘No matter how good a pot is, if it is not used it just becomes a piece of rubbish. If something disappears, no matter how regretful that is, it means there was no demand for it. If there is a demand, I will make anything so long as it conforms to a traditional sense of beauty,’ says Yoneshi Matsuda.
This magnanimous attitude is reflective of Okinawa itself. As long as the pots of Kita Kiln keep on satisfying people’s desires and lifestyles, the climbing kiln will continue to be fired.

Words: Masayuki Ozawa
Photography: Jun Hasegawa

This L-shaped building is the workshop of Yoneshi and Kyoshi Matsuda, and Masataka Miyagi. The area in front of the workshop is spacious like a schoolyard and is a good place to dry pots in the sun.

The climbing kiln with thirteen chambers is the largest in Okinawa. Although some sunlight shines through to the kiln, it is slightly dark and creates an awe-inspiring scene.

An apprentice works hard at decorating pots with pigments. This design of bold broad stripes shows individuality. The white clay used by Yonahara is his own unique style.

This L-shaped building is the workshop of Yoneshi and Kyoshi Matsuda, and Masataka Miyagi. The area in front of the workshop is spacious like a schoolyard and is a good place to dry pots in the sun.

The climbing kiln with thirteen chambers is the largest in Okinawa. Although some sunlight shines through to the kiln, it is slightly dark and creates an awe-inspiring scene.

An apprentice works hard at decorating pots with pigments. This design of bold broad stripes shows individuality. The white clay used by Yonahara is his own unique style.

Karakara is a traditional Okinawan container used for serving alcohol, and often has small matching cups. There is something charming about the shape of this karakara. The way in which three different glazes have melted gives a modern twist to the design created by Kyoshi Matsuda.

Masamori Yonahara, one of the founders of the Kita Pottery. His original style based on traditional techniques is distinctive.

Small square plates made by Kaori Nakazato of Fukabaru Kiln. Small round plates made by Ken Sugawara of Ogimi Kiln.

Plate made by Ken Sugawara of Ogimi Kiln.

Right: Plate made by Yoneshi Matsuda of Kita Kiln.
Top: Plate made by Ken Sugawara of Ogimi Kiln.
Below: Plate made by Hitoshi Noborikawa of Yachimun Nakadomari Kiln.

Both pitchers made by Yoneshi Matsuda of Kita Kiln.

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