Two go potty in Japan.

In 2007 I went to the Leach pottery in St.Ives, they were showing a video there called ‘Potters at work’. I thought at the time wouldn’t it be nice to see that , so 7 years later we did.

Parrafin budgie bound for Japan

Parrafin budgie bound for Japan


The potters in the original film would be all grown old or dead, it was filmed sometime in the 70’s, but hopefully the pottery village would still be there. We had planned other things as well so if we didn’t get there all would not be lost. The village was called Onta on the most south western island of Kyushu

Firstly we flew into the night 12 hours and arrived in Tokyo in the morning we had been awake for many hours. We were doing the whole thing on the railways on a JR pass, which turned out to be fantastic value. Tokyo was huge and very futuristic . We liked the fish market, Tokyo tower and the shoguns park. After two days we had our first experience of the Shingansen ( bullet train ). They are always on time very clean and very fast, 200 mph. 7 hours and two changes we found our hotel in Hita on the isle of Kyushu. The nearest place with a hotel, to Onta pottery village.

We found out by a crappy tourist map where the village was ,it was just a little bit up the road after the motorway, so we got a taxi, we watched with alarm as the mileage and the price whizzed round on the meter, sometimes you can’t trust a map .At vast expense to our spending money ( pot fund) we made it.IMG_1404


Onta is in the mountains and the main road is the only road and the family potteries were situated on this.We went to the top of the village, the first thing to see were the clay crushers that pound the local clay into powder, the hard yellow clay has to be pounded to make it usable. The stream is used for this the heavy beam has a hammer on one end that crushes the clay in a pan, the other end is hollowed out like a spoon, water is directed onto the bowl it weighs it down and it angles upand spills the water, the beam drops down and hammers the clay, this goes on unattended except for moving the lumps to go under the hammers.

clay hammers

clay hammers


All the clay preparation is done by women, next the clay is wetted down in tanks to be made into slip a creamy mixture that is sieved to remove all the stones ( bit like my custard ).

drying  in the sun after sieving

drying in the sun after sieving

steaming clay

steaming clay

drying the clay

drying the clay

all the scrap wood being used

all the scrap wood being used

many finished bowls some slipped

many finished bowls some slipped

It is then slopped into a suspended hammock like rush mat where it partially dries in the sun, when we were there it was very warm and sunny. Next, the clay is put into big clay pots to dry further, then finally slopped onto a cloth draped over a drying kiln, just an arch of bricks with a fire inside. When all this is done the clay is wedged or kneaded ready to be made into pots, the women get the hardest job.

Pots are thrown on a traditional kick wheel sometimes with an electric drive band. This bit is done exclusively by the men. Outside in the yard we saw plenty of pots drying in the sun, these are attended to by the women, moved around and looked after .IMG_1393



The decoration of the pots is with different coloured slips a white clay slip and other colours made from minerals found nearby, this is also done byu the women. The slip is brushed on and  various patterns are made by dabbing, turning, chattering and pouring or a combination of all. This decoration is what makes the ‘Yaki’ so distinctive.

When all that is finished the pots can be glazed and put into the kiln to fire.

nine chambers

nine chambers

looking up to the chimney

looking up to the chimney



smaller kiln

smaller kiln

each family pottery had a kiln fired by wood, the fuel was stacked everywhere in the village. the climbing kiln ( noborogamy ) has up to nine chambers ,using the fact that heat rises and a chimney drawing at the top. There were no firings going on, but what an investment, thousands of pots in one go.


ware and the typical Japanese throwing bat

ware and the typical Japanese throwing bat

We stayed all day had a traditional lunch and found a bus that went back to town, a twelve seater dropping off kiddies from school. We had a lovely day bought some pots, not too many though, we had ten days to carry them around.









The next day looking round the

showroom and Bernard Leach

showroom and Bernard Leach

town of Hita the pots were following us around every shop it seemed sold them, I bought a Japanese wood saw they work on the pull stroke only .





Time was up for Hita, two trains later we were in the ancient capital Kyoto, about four hours up the lines. There was masses to see here ,there are ancient areas where you see masses of people some dressed traditionally, ceramics are everywhere with lots of what I think are remainders shops.IMG_0475IMG_1501 IMG_1502


After much searching we found the Raku museum, most museums and temples in Japan do not allow photography, so no photo’s of the Raku pots.The display was very minimalistic but superbly done with plenty of space around each pot so your eye is not distracted. It was rather a strange museum in the middle of a suburb, you really had to work to find it.


The raku pots were also different from what i’d expected too, they were mostly oxidized and made from earthenware clay and contrasting from very decorative to plain black, lots of tea bowls of course but some very lovely boxes so straight and true . Will have to insist that everyone make a tea bowl at my raku firing next year, so we can have a tea ceremony, but with tea bags not green tea ( I did try, but didn’t like green tea ). Some of the pots were 300 years old.IMG_1310


Our last stop was to be Mashiko in the Tochigi prefecture , we had two changes, one at Tokyo for a  swap of Shincanshen to Utsunomiya, where we got on a weeny bus, we were the only fares to Mashiko station. Then taxi to our wonderful Mashikokan hotel. It was a ‘Japanese’ hotel, with our own water butt bath tub and beds on the floor, the hot water was thermal.



Mashiko is the home of studio ceramics in Japan, the famous potter  Hamada Shoji settled here , we went to see his house on our first free day. His house and workshops are open to the public and are serene and peaceful, maybe because we had missed the festival by two days ( oops ). Anyway it didn’t matter it was much quite r . Mr Hamada had collected many pots and many old buildings to use as workshops. The garden was really lovely too, we spent ages there.

Hamada's house and workshops

Hamada’s house and workshops



















In the grounds was the Noborogami kiln that Hamada used , the kiln was slightly different from the ones in Onta it didn’t have a chimney , just vents at the top. After some lovely time spent .we left and went walking to the village desperate for a cup of Kohi , we found our caffeine in a caff in a pottery.






Next up was the pottery museum and gallery where the was another kiln for the college to use ,a copy of the Hamada kiln. The weather was fantastic for just ambling about in the beautiful grounds. There were some stunning pots in the museum, we were getting a bit tea bowled over so we went to the café for more refreshment, you could choose you own cup and saucer.


The village has ceramic shops everywhere, we bought plenty without any thought of how we were going to get it back. The day was all too quickly over and a taxi ride took us to our hotel and a twelve course dinner including strawberry flavoured liquer which went down nicely ta.


Mashiko is very near the home of Honda we had a day off from ceramics and a day with bikes,cars and robots in Motegi. On the way back to the hotel on our last real evening we found what I thought was the nicest pottery in the village, we could just fit in one more yunomi, well you know me.



Then two days travelling back to the UK,



Bognor next year it might not be as exciting,



About timbartell

I was born in a flat in Lambeth the name of which was, Wedgewood house,China walk estate.I'd forgotten this until recently,it dawned on me the significance of the names after I had become interested in pottery/ceramics.I think of myself as a potter in the most practical sense,making pots for people to use.I have never had any formal training,I took it up when the table tennis class was full.My first flat was in the same road as a pottery centre, Elmwood pottery, the best in London, 18 sessions a week and a real community. I love my craft and bore everyone with it, so am grabbing this chance to bore more people via this blog.There may be the odd interesting item, here's hoping.
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