Experiencing Japanese ceramics firsthand

A couple of weeks after a trip to Tottori earlier this year, I was delighted to take delivery of a small package from Tottori, but a bit puzzled and surprised by how light it was.  While I was in Tottori, I had the pleasure of visiting Hoshoji-yaki Kaikegama, a pottery studio/kiln in Yonago, where I tried my hand at pottery-making for the first time by  molding 1.5 kilograms of clay into a round plate.  This package weighed less than 300 grams–could this be my glazed and fired dish?

Sure enough, it was!

Somehow, this:


had been transformed into this:


Potter Yuzo Ando gives pottery lessons upon prior arrangement (details below).

Like any potter’s studio, the place felt like a barn or a warehouse.  There were lots of racks of un-fired or partially fired work, works in progress, and rejects.

We donned aprons and sleeve protectors and the lesson began.  First, we watched as clay wrapped in plastic (to keep in the moisture) was removed from a bucket and swiftly cut with string and weighed to confirm what trained eyes already knew.  Each student was given a 1.5 kg. lump of clay to work.  While Ando-san owns a literal mountain of clay, which he uses for his artistic and commercial work (one reason Japanese ceramics have been so successful is the ready availability of excellent clay), for lessons he uses “commercial clay”.

We were making plates, and the process began by pummeling the clay flat atop a banding wheel (small, hand-operated potter’s wheel).  Hint:  the heel of the palm works best.

For us novices, it was like being a pig on roller skates.  But for Ando-san, a master potter with more than five decades of experience, it was child’s play; he quickly demonstrated.

Next, the top of the flattened clay was sprinkled with water and scraped with a hard plastic spatula to smooth it, spinning the wheel as necessary to achieve that smooth surface.  If there were any indentations, we worked in a bit of spare clay with more water and scraped again.  Eventually we got a smooth, truly flat surface.

Of course, we needed to make the edges as smooth as the top.  For this, we used a little instrument not unlike a dental flosser (only a bit bigger), holding it beside the edge while spinning the wheel.


Okay, so now it’s a smooth, flat piece of clay with clean edges, but it doesn’t really look like a plate yet.  For that, we need to make a rim.  Ando-san kindly demonstrated how to put a fingertip wrapped in a wet cloth under the clay’s edge while spinning the wheel.  This has the effect of raising the edge just enough to create the desired rim.  Notwithstanding most of this work is truly “hand-crafting”, it would be much more challenging without the aid of the wheel!

Once the shape of the plate was to our (and Ando-san’s!) satisfaction, it was time to take a bamboo stick and draw in some kind of pattern.  I’m no artist, so I kept my design simple, attempting to reproduce Mt. Daisen, a symbol of Tottori, as I had seen it from the window of the plane when I flew in.  How did I do?

From here we left the rest to Ando-san and his team.  They will do the necessary drying, glazing, and firing, and then send out the finished product. Like all Hoshoji potters, Ando-san uses some natural glazes featuring ash from Mt. Daisen and satetsu (sand containing traces of iron) from the Hino River,as well as some modern chemical-derived shades.  Beige and aquamarine are his signature colors.

I knew my plate would shrink as it dried in the firing process, but I didn’t expect it to lose as much weight as it did!  In any event, it’s a wonderful memento of my first (but hopefully not my last!) trip to Tottori.

A pottery lesson takes about 2 hours and begins from JPY3,000.  More complicated items or advanced lessons are more expensive.  Reservations are required (phone: 0859-33-2826), and need to be made in Japanese, although since most of the lesson involves demonstration, one need not speak Japanese to have a lesson.

Kaikegama studio is located at 2-19-52 Kaike Onsen, Yonago.  It’s about a 20 minute taxi ride from Yonago Station, or take the Hinomaru or Nikko bus bound for Kaike Onsen, get off at “Yonago-shi Kanko-senta Mae” and walk about 8 minutes.

© 2018 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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