Exploring Japanese Ceramics

… Better Late Than Never

It’s annoying to write a travel blog 4 months after a trip but hey, I got busy. Really busy, making pottery until my fingers bleed, moving into a new house, and most importantly getting Kevin the Cat resettled in his new home. (Kevin is doing great, by the way…)

Here is the set-up: I visited a small town called Seto in central Japan (near Nagoya) for a 1-month pottery extravaganza. I was to live in a pottery studio and spend my days learning the craft of Japanese ceramics, which is beautiful, meticulous, and really hard to do. The Explore Japanese Ceramics tour was arranged by a lovely gentleman whom I never met named Mr. Nagamine, and due to a combination of language barrier and my own laziness the ‘tour’ agenda was never really clear to me. I was told to show up at the Owari Seto train station at 10:00 am on November 20th, and that’s basically it. I put my fate in the hands of the Japanese pottery gods. Luckily for me, the Japanese pottery gods seem very cool and I had the time of my life.Untitled

Why We Should All Live in Japan

Before I delve my adventure I’ll free-associate an obnoxious listicle called ‘Why We Should All Live in Japan’. In no particular order, here it is:

  • The Japanese excel at bathroom technology. It’s been said many times, many ways but it is so true it has to be said again. American bathrooms suck. Terribly.
  • Cats, cats, cat!!!!!
  • Craft in Japan is heartbreakingly beautiful. I want 5 lifetimes so I can apprentice in all of the country’s handicrafts.
  • Japanese old people are super human. They never get cold and can survive on a thin trickle of green tea.
  • Japanese children are adorable and do chores, seemingly willingly.
  • Japanese grocery stores are a treasure trove of amazing products. In this post alone I reference the grocery store APITA 3 times.
  • Soft serve ice-cream spirals counter-clockwise in Japan, which means you have to lick the cone clockwise or it falls off the cone. Maybe may not be relevant but I wanted you to know…
  • Cats!

I had an inkling from my Tokyo Detour  that I’d love this experience, but man I love Japan. It’s wonderful.

The Road to Seto

Jeff and I had a month back home in Salt Lake City before I left for Japan, and I thought it might take some time to get my travel legs back. Within 3 hours of arriving in Nagoya I was eating peanut butter out of a jar and hang-drying stockings in a capsule hotel, so yeah, I got back into the ‘Asian traveler’ swing quickly. This is what one does when one’s luggage is lost in Hong Kong AGAIN (it feels personal now).

Nagoya is the third largest city in Japan but is often overlooked by travelers since there isn’t much to see. I found Nagoya pleasant, and enjoyed eating noodles and exploring the Nagoya Central Train station. That sounds pathetic, but the train station is impressive and you could shop in the stalls for days. After two days in Nagoya, it was time go meet Sensei, the pottery master who would be my guru and babysitter for the next month.

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This noodle place was the BEST! I ate there 3 times in 2 days….

As per my instructions, I arrived at Owari Seto train station at 10:00 am sharp and was met by Sensei’s young apprentice, a woman named Megumi. (side bar: Megumi is an amazing teacher and I feel so lucky to have met her.) Sensei happened to be away at an international pottery festival in a mountain village called Sasama, and it was suggested that I could go meet him if I could manage a many-tentacled train route solo. Take a byzantine train journey to meet a stranger in a remote part of a country I don’t know? How could I resist? Megumi pointed me in the direction of Sasama, and I was off. With all due respect to the impressive Japanese train station, this journey was not efficient. Seto to Sasama involved 3 local commuter trains, 2 subways, a bullet train (Jaynie’s first shinkasen) and an honest to god steam train.

Sasama

Sasama is known for two things: ceramics and green tea, both of which were on display in glorious abundance. Over the years, the town’s population has aged and dwindled, and the bi-annual SASAMA International Ceramic Art Festival was organized to bring awareness to the region’s rich traditions. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this experience given the remoteness of the locale, but the Ceramic Festival was a surprisingly international affair, with participants from Spain, Russia, Singapore, France, and even a few Americans. All of the participants had lovely pieces on display, and there were several interactive pottery exhibits that were a real treat.

After wandering around the festival stalls for a bit, I crossed paths with Sensei, and was delighted to meet an incredibly warm, friendly, and excitable man. Sensei Hiroshige Kato has been doing pottery for over 40 years at his family studio, Kasen Pottery Studio, but he insists he’s still learning and hasn’t yet reached mastery. Sensei took me to the incredibly legit guesthouse he’d arranged for me, and I spent the rest of the next two days hiking the hills of Sasama, eating stolen persimmons (shhhh), soaking in communal bath water, and even confronting a wild boar (possibly a piglet, but it was scary).

My Seto Kazoku and so Much Pottery

After the festival wrapped up, Sensei and I made our way back to Seto. I admit that I was relieved to make the return trip by car rather than train…

Back in Seto I settled into the studio and had major fun exploring the local grocery store APITA . Sensei and Megumi told me that 3 other ‘guests’ would be at Kasen Pottery Studio during my stay: a Brit named Rachel, a Brazilian named Paola, and another American named Leslie. I waited like an over enthusiastic kid who had weirdly arrived at summer camp too early, and over the next week my new kazoku (family) trickled into the studio. Together, we settled into the routine of learning Japanese pottery. I cannot overstate the utter loveliness of my Seto Kazoku. Being surrounded by such kind, interesting, and fun companions made this a once in a lifetime experience.

At this point in my Japanese-pottery-narrative, I don’t have much to say (weird, I know). It’s an unusual thing to be entirely engaged in a process and I’ve never experienced it before. I slept, I threw pottery, I slept, I threw pottery, I ate persimmon, I threw pottery. Every morning when I woke up, I was delighted that I got to spend another day in the studio. I was completely and wonderfully consumed with the process of pottery making. Sure, I got frustrated with things (trimming on a chuck is just unnecessary), but I never got sick of throwing pottery, not even a little. The experience of spending such a span of time on one thing was unbelievably satisfying and I am lucky to have had this time.

When we weren’t throwing pottery until our fingertips bled, the Seto Kazoku and I explored Seto and had great adventures around town. We visited Seto’s museums, made several visits to a great soba shop (that I still dream about), and scared lots of elderly people on the public busses. Oh, and we made lots of trips to APITA. Lots and lots of trips to APITA. Megumi and Sensi were great hosts, and put together several wonderful evenings of hotpot as well as a surprisingly frightening cooking adventure making takoyaki.

Farewell Kasen!

As our time at Kasen came to an end, Rachel, Paola, Leslie, and I decided to make a special ‘thank you’ meal for Sensei and Megumi. We ruled out British food (disgusting), Brazilian food (way too expensive to buy meat in Japan), and any American dish that needed an oven (that is to say, most American dishes). That left us with fajitas, which are American-ish, and a delectable no-bake Brazilian desert called brigadeiro (sweetened condensed milk + butter = happiness).

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Fajitas and sake. Best farewell meal ever.

It was bittersweet to say farewell to Kasen Pottery Studio. I didn’t want to leave, but I felt grateful to have had such a genuine and rewarding experience. I left with a renewed commitment to seeking meaningful travel opportunities and to keep time in my life for ceramics and craft. Also, I kind of missed Jeff and the kitties so I guess it was time to go home.

Leaving Seto, I was homeward bound for Salt Lake City until the next adventure.

P.S. Look at what I left with!!!!!

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So many bowls!!!! Hummm, now I think I need to make some plates. Japan 2019???

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