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 mashiko

jugatsu 30 (oct)
I first became interested in Japan in my college days, when, along with a generation of hippie potters (of which I was one), I was inspired by the works of Shoji Hamada. Declared a National Treasure, Hamada and his 20th century contemporaries created functional stoneware pots, heavier than traditional decorative ceramics, in simple but graceful shapes, often decorated with brushstrokes, not for the wealthy or for museums but for everyday use, sparking a renaissance of folk art. I have always dreamed of visiting the place where he shaped his forms.

I had checked the tour books before I came and found some towns specializing in more traditional pottery far away from the Tokyo area. Then I found Mingeikan in Tokyo, the Japan Folk Crafts Museum, with its exhibits of ceramics, textiles, wood and metal works. Through the museum, I learned that Hamada's workshop and many other modern day folk potters were in the northern town of Mashiko, a doable day trip by train and bus.

One of my first stops was to a small pottery in a country style home. I fell in love with a little white bowl, intentionally misshapen, with modest brown brush strokes evoking birds. I met the potter, a woman working alone at what appeared to be a home workshop/gallery, and she seemed almost as delighted as I was. She bowed low to the waist in thanks as I left.

The Mashiko Sankokan, or the Mashiko Reference Collection Museum, is a group of picturesque thatched-roof houses that include Hamada's home, workshop and several other buildings that display his works and collections. Behind the houses stretch the hill kiln, climbing up the rise to lead the heat upwards, and several other small kilns. Wood and straw were stacked as if ready to fuel the firing. You could almost smell the wood smoke.

Small potteries and galleries lined the country streets. I'm sure I didn't get to half of them in the hours I spent there. In one open area, shelves after shelves of bowls, plates, mugs, cups, tea bowls, etc. were piled for sale. There were thousands of pots to look at. In the Imashita pottery, I was the only one who wandered in, and the aging potter motioned me in and showed me around his workshop. He let me peek into both his hill kiln, open but full of newly fired brown-glazed pots, and into the peephole of a tall, red hot brick kiln just fired yesterday, still too hot to open all the way. The shapes of the pots were barely visible in the orange glow.

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