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yongatsu 20 (apr)
This was a long planned trip, a potter's pilgrimage of sorts, to three historic pottery towns in the west where contemporary potters, many descended from old masters, still produce mingei, or artful folk pottery. For a week, I alternately traveled a day by train then spent a day walking around each town, gallery hopping and sightseeing.

The Bizen Ceramics Museum was closed on Monday, my one day to explore Bizen, so when I arrived by bullet train in Okayama, way out west on the main island of Honshu on the inland sea, where I had booked a ryokan (inn) for the night, I doubled back on the local train for the half hour ride to Imbe, the stop for Bizen. I caught the last hour of the museum, admiring old and some new tea bowls and jars made explicitly for the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. The museum held pieces from the famous six historic kiln families, including artists who have been declared a national treasure.

Bizen-yaki, or ware, is made with local clay and fired bare to a warm brown with no glaze, in long wood-fired hill kilns called anagama kilns. Various techniques are used to naturally create subtle and often unpredictable effects in color and texture, with straw which burns off, small pads of fired clay placed on the piece, or effects caused by ash. Many pieces are asymmetrical or altered, but retain a natural feel. It was a joy to be in places where these earthy arts are so revered.

When I came out of the station the next morning, I was entranced immediately by the smoke billowing out of a tall smokestack with vertical kanji (Japanese characters) on it, just off the main road. A kiln was being fired! It drew me like a magnet. I stepped into the gallery next door just as a short man, a cloth tied around his head like a cap, came in a side door, wiping his hands. I asked him in my broken Japanese if that was his kiln firing. He was pleased that I noticed and was interested and, after exchanging some brief introductions, motioned for me to follow him.

Drying clumps of local clay were stacked on the outside of the kiln building facing a courtyard work area. He pointed to the surrounding hills to indicate the clay's origin. Inside, the anagama kiln was roaring, watched by a younger man. The potter pointed to a stack of wood nearby and explained that it had been firing for 10 days and it was soon time to add fuel. The assistant opened the kiln door and let me peek inside at the bright orange heat and the carefully stacked pots glowing inside, shapes barely discernable in the glow. He tossed in some logs from the pile. They laughed at my excitement when the fire surged.

Amatsu-jinja shrine, up on a hill overlooking the town, was lovingly adorned with clay works: sculptured animals, interesting tiles and lots of pots. So many works of art outdoors in one place, with no one there to attend them. The Japanese are so trusting. This small shrine was as much a tribute to the gods of clay, earth and fire as to the many other gods of the Shinto religion.

Since my trip took me through Hiroshima, I arranged my train schedule to allow a few hours stop to bring my peace wishes to the Peace Park. It was a sobering morning. The A-Bomb Dome monument is a shell of a building left standing at the bomb site, once surrounded by devastation, but now in a lovely park with memorial sculptures and monuments. It was especially moving to see a group of school children give speeches and bow at the Children's Memorial. They added their paper crane constructions to thousands that were already there, hanging in streams of all colors.


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