Finding Mashiko’s rustic eauty in this artisan pottery town

About two hours north of Tokyo, amongst the rolling hills of Tochigi Prefecture is the artisan town of Mashiko. Known for its own pottery style called Mashiko-yaki – it is simple and rustic, with brown and red as its primary coloring. What makes Mashiko pottery especially vibrant is that unlike many traditional Japanese styles with a long lineage and difficulty to apprentice into, pottery-making here is open to any interested newcomer, regardless of experience. Because the soil of the region is rich in clay, pottery in the Mashiko region dates back to the Japan’s earliest historical periods of Jomon and Yayoi.

Modern Mashiko-yaki dates only to 1853, when a potter “rediscovered” that local clay here was ideal for ceramics. But the Mashiko pottery brand name and local culture was established by a man called Shoji Hamada in 1924. The kiln culture Hamada developed in Mashiko would welcome anyone who wanted to try their hand at pottery and create their own style. Today, there are over 380 potters in this area, with about 300,000 visitors to Mashiko’s annual spring craft fair. Mashiko pottery today is not so much defined as any one style but from the clay used, though a simple look is common.

The wonderful thing about Mashiko pottery is that there are both exquisite and expensive museum-like pieces – usually large sized urns or intricate figurines. But the majority of the products are affordable and easy to use around the house. Decorative pieces can be whimsical and cute.

Tsukamoto Kiln is the largest producer of ceramics in the Mashiko area and boasts a four generation history of pottery making. Today, the Tsukamoto compound which is about a 15-minute walk from Mashiko’s main street, is a wonderful day trip from Tokyo any time of the year. There is a museum, a large shopping plaze, a coffee shop using exquisite tableware and restaurants offering the local specialty, kamameshi, a dish where rice with meat and vegetable is baked in a clay pot. But what makes a trip to Tsukamoto worthwhile is that visitors can spend a day here trying out the electric pottery wheel, shaping by hand or painting their original dishware.

I have heard that throwing (the term used for shaping clay using a wheel) pottery is incredibly healing and finally understood what that meant. It is astounding how relaxing silky, wet clay feels running through your fingers. The image that came to my mind was of former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa who was so stressed out from the bickering world of politics, he retreated to the pottery barn on his estate, churning out beautiful pieces of ceramics. It is easier than I expected. I am not particularly great at making crafts but surprisingly, I managed to successfully make a vase, a plate and a mug. My products were a bit “thick” but that is appropriate for the Mashiko’s rustic look. There are other studios that offer classes but Tsukamoto is an all-in-one destination. Other activities include shaping clay by hand which does not quite have the “relaxation” effect of a pottery wheel but there is more flexibility in creating unique objects. Painting on ceramics is also offered.

Using an electric pottery wheel:

1) Prepare by tying hair back, wearing comfortable clothes and shoes that you don’t mind getting dirty. While it can be washed out, Mashiko clay is quite stiff and sticky.

2) Sit yourself at the wheel, adjusting the height of the wheel if necessary. An electric pottery wheel is considered harder to use than a kickwheel which you can control the speed by pumping your foot on a pedal. However, with the assistance of the instructor, even first-timers will have no problems using an electric one.

3) It is important not to spin the wheel too fast. However, it is difficult to gauge what is actually a fast speed. You might unconsciously speed up the wheel. You can take your foot off the pedal and the speed is maintained.

4) The instructor prepares the clay and shapes it into an easily to use size.

5) You wet your hands liberally before you throw (the term for shaping pottery on a wheel) the clay.

6) The instructor frequently comes over to check, gives advice and sometimes fiddle with your clay. Occasionally, the clay ends up lopsided and the instructor has to cut off the ruined portion because you cannot remold the clay to be useable again.

7)The first step of throwing the clay is to make an indent in the middle of the lump with your left thumb. Once there is a small well, push down the middle with both thumbs while the rest of your fingers are placed on the outside of the lump, holding it in shape. The general motion is to press down and make a hole from the inside and hold it in place from the outside.
8) To make a plate, you loosen the pressure on the outside and the sides will collapse into a shallow dish. To make a vase or a Japanese tea cup, much more pressure on the outside is necessary to make the clay taller.
9) After you have thrown the clay into the form you desire, you stop the wheel. With the special string attached to a holder, you cut the clay at the bottom of your object with the string and then gently placing it on the side.
10) Anything on the outside of the object can be “touched up.” The instructor says it’s fine if you cut your object a bit uneven because they can always sand it down flat before it is glazed. Scratches on outside surface can also be cleaned up. What they are not capable of is fixing the inside so that part must be molded carefully.
11) There are five different colored glazes to choose from. Within an hour, a person can usually make four to five objects. It is up to you how many to purchase.

The finishing process:
1) After the clay is shaped on the spinning wheel, it is left to harden in open air for two to three days. Then all the rough edges of the clay are smoothed out into a finished form.

2) Before the clay is fully dried, it can be bent in various shapes such as creating waves of the sides, bending it into eight octagon sides or cutting small incisions around the bottom.
3) A coat of watery “dirt” is painted onto the clay to make it stronger, less porous and less susceptible to breakage.
4) It is dried for 3 to 4 days.

5) The dish is put into a gas oven to be baked at 700 Celsius for about eight hours. For larger, more delicate ceramics, the heat may be too much and they are air dried for over a month before baking.

6) The dish is dipped in a pot of glaze. It can now be painted and color can also be sprayed on using an air compressor.
7) Finally the dish is put into the kiln to be baked for about 24 hours at 1260~1280 Celsius.

8) The dishes are taken out and inspected. Some handmade products do not last through this last kilning but at a professional kiln like Tsukamoto, they have enough experience to ensure most are delivered to the creator’s home about six weeks after the dishes are made.

Tsukamoto Kiln
4264 Mashiko machi, Haga-gun, Tochigi
TEL.0285(72)3223 FAX.0285(72)1139
Spinning wheel is 2,700 yen ($30) for one item, each additional item is 1,200 yen ($13). (1 hour)
Hand shaping is 1,400 yen ($15) for 600 grams of clay which will make a mug and a small plate. (90 minutes)
Painting on pottery ranges from 500 ($5.6) to 1,300 yen ($14) (30 minutes)
Information: Call 0285-72-5151 to book appointments for pottery throwing (walk-ins are fine for the other activities)



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