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 kyushu

yongatsu 24 (apr)
The town of Hagi lies on the Japan Sea, near the western tip of the main island. The lonely train, only one car, chugged along through tiny mountain towns, following the coast at the very end of the journey. Misty rock islands appeared and disappeared in after-rain gray skies. My room at the ryokan (Japanese inn) was large with a big picture window facing tiled roofs.

I walked west, stopping at ceramics galleries along the way. Hagi-yaki (ware) is a lighter clay body with creamy or thick glazes, often white or in pastel colors, sometimes crackled or crawled. The local potters were not particularly friendly, although in one gallery, a kindly woman brought me tea and candied fruits and chatted about potters and travels. The Hagi Uragami Art Museum had an exhibit highlighting two well-known father and son potters and some lovely old woodcuts. In the west end of Hagi is an old samurai town. Japanese tourists milled about with maps to find the residences of men of former glory. Further west is the old castle town - only walls, a moat and some partial structures remaining. Beyond was the Japan Sea, a grassy beach with rugged rock piers jutting out. Korea was out there just beyond the horizon.

I thought that my last stop, on Kyushu island, would be the most remote and provincial, but Karatsu is a thriving city - the women are fashionable and it's a bit of a resort town. Several school children called out 'Hello, how are you?,' giggling while they tried out some English. My hotel was on the Niji-no-Matsubara peninsula, right on the beach, and surrounded by a dense, wind-blown, 400-year old pine forest, trunks twisting away from the sea. The Japan Sea tossed and turned the stormy afternoon I arrived, rugged and churning, yet there was a windsurfer out there keeping above water.

Although the rates at my lodging weren't those of a luxury hotel, the service was, and I was treated like a visiting dignitary. Dinner at the hotel was one of the best I've had in Japan, with a sea view. After it grew dark, I could still see the lines of white of the breakers rolling in to shore. Small, absolutely delicious dishes, were elegantly presented on Karatsu-yaki. The sea bass sushi was garnished with a tiny sprig of maple leaves. A graceful young waiter described some highlights of the all-Japanese menu for me using an English cheat sheet. He crouched on the floor next to my chair as he spoke, to show deference by looking up rather than looking down at the customer.

Learning that I was interested in ceramics, the friendly hotel manager took me on a tour, starting with a drive up a nearby mountain to take in the view. He noted that the trees were wearing their spring colors, and there were 16 curves or switchbacks in the road. His friend was a potter so we went to his workshop. The potter wasn't in, but his wife welcomed us. There were several people working: two people trimming pots, one by hand and the other on a kickwheel; two mixing clay and one tending the area behind the kiln. Drying pots were spread along planks of wood and balanced on ceiling beams; wooden tools, some handmade, were arranged along one wall. We walked along the length of the kiln he had helped build as he described helping his friend during firings, throwing wood in, keeping watch. He encouraged me to crawl into one of the side openings and imagine how I would load pots into the kiln. I'm afraid that few would have survived the loading process! After the studio, he left me at Arpino exhibit hall, where he and an employee mapped out some other places for me to stop in town that afternoon.

On this journey, I came to a greater understanding of the concept of
wabi-sabi, a Japanese way of thinking - appreciation and contemplation of beauty in the imperfect, the simple, the humble and modest, a connection to nature. The sabi part refers to that which becomes more beautiful and flawed with age. It's a philosophy that I will try to keep in mind as I wade back into the stressful work world for the next few months.

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