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April 19, 2013

Tokoname and the Pottery Path

About the Author
Shannon Payton

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Shannon Payton is a teacher currently residing in Nagoya as part of an exchange program. A native of South Philadelphia, she brings a local perspective to her travel encounters – including how to make spaghetti out of soba noodles. Join her as she stumbles on art and other adventures at her blog, The Wanderista.
[My husband] Brett is a pottery maniac. He started up quite a collection of teapots in China and Korea, and now he has gotten his sights set on Japanese pottery. Knowing this, we planned his birthday around adding to his collection. We visited Tokoname, a small city close to Nagoya that has Chubu International Airport within it. When we arrived in Japan and passed through the seemingly nondescript landscape riding the train from the airport, we never thought we might set foot in the town itself.
The Pottery path was lined with old shochu and sake jugs fired in local kilns.
Turns out its one of the historical ‘Six Kilns’ of Japan, where pottery and ceramics originated in the country with influences from China and Korea.
So, in fear Brett would start buying ceramics right and left, I gave him his birthday gift early so he didn’t get himself a sake set.
But I entered the town thinking this was more a trip for Brett, that I would just enjoy a walk through an old preserved town, looking at old brick kilns and quirky cafes and galleries. I left Tokoname today with the start of my own collection.
After stopping for a bite, we wandered into a little gallery. The woman (Mari) spoke amazing English and we had a great time talking to her about the different styles of pottery and purposes for some of the pieces we didn’t recognize. They had a matcha (powdered green tea) tea ceremony demonstration and tasting on the second floor. While waiting, we realized the entire second floor was full of beautifully glazed and colored ceramic bowls and picnic baskets. Seeing us looking, the owner (Toshifumi) came over and explained they were matcha bowls. Here, after matcha is prepared and whisked, people traditionally drink it from a bowl instead of a tea cup.
Each bowl was crafted with a particular scene from nature or slice of a season in mind. To Japanese, the colors, shape, patterns and make of the matcha bowl has a personal meaning and connection, a certain imagery that comes to mind when the user prepares matcha in this special bowl. Mari and Toshifumi explained that in the West, there are often only categories of four distinct seasons. A saying in Japanese is that Japan has more than 24 seasons, as to Japanese each phase of a season has a distinct quality, fragrance, aesthetic and nostalgia attached. These perceptions are both personal and cultural among Japanese. So when choosing a matcha bowl, a special connection and meaning is made between creator and artwork, between user and tool, between artist/user and nature and among the four.
I was pretty entranced with the idea of the particularity of the passing of each season and the memory that could be contained in a meaningful piece of art. I watched in awe as Toshifumi sat before Brett and I, a cream-colored matcha bowl in front of him. He set two tiny square earthen plates before each of us and with wooden tongs placed a small candy (wagashi) wrapped in soft-pink colored paper. As the sakura-shaped sugary sweets melted on our tongues, Toshifumi scooped two tiny wooden spoonfuls of vibrant green powder into the bowl. He doused it with steaming water and began to slowly whisk the water. As it turned green, the whisking became quicker until the water and powder became creamy matcha. He turned the bowl 180 degrees and then offered it to Brett. I got to watch again as my matcha was prepared.
I was hooked. We talked more with Mari and Toshifumi and spent about an hour choosing bowls that we could see images of nature and nostalgia in ourselves. Apparently, we are supposed to give a name to our bowls to symbolize the meaning it has for us. This process is very spiritual, old, and meditative, so a lot of importance is placed on the meaning and memories between the user and the matcha bowl. Brett and I left today with promises to return to see the owners and knowing we would be back for a summer matcha bowl soon.
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