The Where and Ware of Hagi

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The Where and Ware of Hagi

Message par Tsubo » 01 Mai 2018, 21:19


Amanda Mayer Stinchecum is a writer and a specialist in Japanese textiles who is based in New York.

Published: July 3, 1988

JAPANESE connoisseurs have an old saying: ''One, Raku; two, Hagi; three, Karatsu.'' They have long ranked the most precious ceramic wares made for the tea ceremony in this order. The charms of Hagi ware's rough clay and rich, pockmarked surfaces, laced with cracks in the glaze, take on character and deeper tones with age and use. Its blushing, soft reddish and creamy white glazes, displaying the voluptuous warmth of living flesh, are often described in feminine terms. (Raku, known for the assymetrical, hand-built, low-fired tea bowls in a bold, direct and ''masculine'' style, is said to have been originated by Japan's most famous tea master, Sen no Rikyu, who died in 1591. Karatsu ware transmits a tradition, originally Korean, of freehand painting in dark-brown underglaze iron on a sandy-brown body.) Before you set out to see today's Hagi-yaki (Hagi ware) in and around this port city about 60 miles west of Hiroshima, you should first look at some Old Hagi ware (defined as pre-1770) and the Korean rice bowls that formed the base of its tradition. A good place to do this is at the Ishii Chawan Bijutsukan (Ishii Tea Bowl Museum) in the Minami Furuhagi-machi section (open from 9 to 11:30 A.M. and 1 to 5 P.M.; closed Tuesday and the month of January; admission about $2.40; telephone 2-1211). A visit there will give you an idea of Hagi ware's history and also some standards by which to evaluate the work of contemporary potters.

The cult of the tea ceremony, developed in Japan during the 15th and 16th centuries from its origins in Chinese Ch'an Buddhist temples, reached its zenith at the end of the 16th century. Until that time, tea masters had chosen the bowls they used in the ceremony primarily from imported Chinese, Southeast Asian and Korean ceramics that had made their way to Japan by way of often roundabout trade routes. Sen no Rikyu valued the roughness and irregularity of Korean pottery, and developed the esthetic of wabi cha - the tea of subdued simplicity - under the patronage of the military dictator Toyotomi Hideyoshi and his predecessor, Oda Nobunaga. The earthy bowls so admired by Japanese connoisseurs were originally made for eating rice and for dedicating foods at Buddhist temples. In Japan, the preparation and serving of powdered green tea by an accomplished host came to be known as the tea ceremony.

Hideyoshi's invasions of Korea in 1592 and 1597 created opportunities for more direct contact with Korean ceramics. Warrior-lords brought skilled potters from Korea and established seven kilns, including Hagi, in Japan's western provinces. Hideyoshi himself ordered Hagi lord Mori Terumoto to bring back two famous potters, Yi Sukkwang and Yi Kyung. They and a number of other potters accompanied Terumoto to Hagi in 1604. Terumoto had the Yi brothers establish kilns in Hagi and nearby Nagato, and also revived some of the older kilns that had fallen into disuse. Although pottery had been made in Hagi for many centuries, it was not until this time that Hagi-yaki blossomed and achieved the prominence it retains today (to the tune of $25,000 for a tea bowl by Hagi's Living National Treasure, Miwa Kyusetsu).

Recently moved to its present location in Minami-Furuhagi-machi, the Ishii Tea Bowl Museum is now in one room of Mr. Ishii's stucco cottage. His collection of about 300 pieces, of which 138 are on view, include Korean bowls of the Koryo (916-1392) and Yi (1392-1910) dynasties and Old Hagi tea bowls.

The Korean pieces, on the right side of the room, are breathtaking. A deep, rounded bowl for altar dedications features the pink-blushed spots (due to iron in the clay), known as momiji or maple leaves, that became characteristic of Hagi's pottery. Smoky brown shadows cloud another bowl originally glazed white. But when transposed from Korea to Japan, it is the rough, gritty reddish bowls, known as Ido chawan, that become the most highly prized type of Hagi ware. These bowls are characterized by walls that retain the stepped planes left by working the bowl on the potter's wheel and the high ''foot'' ringed with pockmarks.

On the opposite side of Mr. Ishii's museum, the Old Hagi bowls lose a bit of luster in comparison with their Korean prototypes. Making bowls for the tea ceremony, Hagi potters transformed the spontaneous imperfections of the simple Korean rice bowls that appealed to the early tea masters into self-conscious roughness and assymetries of form, texture and color. They encouraged and treasured the accidents of color and texture resulting from changes in the clay and glazes during firing.

To show you the range of contemporary potters' work and help you decide which kilns to visit, stop next at Saito-an, a gallery in Gofuku-machi at the corner of Kikuya-yokocho (open daily from 9 A.M. to 7 P.M.; 5-3110) that carries the work of 16 Hagi potters, from the Living National Treasure, Miwa Kyusetsu (whose kiln is not open to the public), to unknown artisans. Prices range from about $2.40 (at a rate of 126 yen to the dollar) for a sake cup and $6.30 for a teacup to $23,800 for a tea bowl by Miwa Kyusetsu - an irregularly shaped, rough, reddish clay body incompletely veiled by thick, opaque white glaze. The dark gray glaze overlaid with ivory and rosy tan on a rough dark red clay body used by Tahara Tobei and Sakakura Shinbei, two well-known potters in the neighboring town of Nagato, appealed to me greatly, but I was unable to fit the extra trip into my schedule. In addition to tea bowls, there are also vases, teapots, plates and dishes for everyday use.

The more expensive pieces are by potters (most of whom prefer to refer to themselves as artists) whose names are well known in the world of contemporary tea ceramics, and are usually signed by hand with the potter's personal mark. The less expensive pieces are usually made by craftsmen working under the direction of one of the artist-potters, mass-producing pieces often formed by hand but fired in a gas or electric kiln instead of the old-style wood-burning kiln. These are usually marked with the seal impression of the kiln, and do not bear the signatures of individual potters. The master potter exhibits and sells his work at one-man shows in Tokyo and occasionally at a select shop in Hagi like Saito-an. Almost all of the kilns in Hagi follow this system. If you are especially attracted by the work of a particular potter at Saito-an and want to see more, Saito Takeo, the proprietor, will telephone the kiln for you. (It is basic courtesy to call a kiln before visiting.)

HUNDREDS of kilns make so-called Hagi-yaki, but only a few - 10 or 20 according to Mr. Saito - fire the old-style wood-burning nobori-gama, or climbing kiln, a long, narrow structure built on a hillside consisting of several consecutive firing chambers. The fire is built in the first chamber, and the flames rise during firing through each chamber in succession. Results are unpredictable, and often the potter will discard a high percentage of the firing. The other types of kilns use gas or electricity, which, because they burn evenly and can be controlled thermostatically, produce more predictable results. Very few of these pieces must be thrown away because of flaws.

The following places fire climbing kilns and are worth a trip into the countryside (preferably by rented bicycle), but they are by no means the only kilns of interest.

Senryuzan, the kiln of the Yoshiga family, is located on Highway 191 in Mae-obata (Chinto 4404, Hagi; 2-2448). The size of the parking lot across the road from the kiln gives some indication of the size of the business. Unlike the Miwa and Saka families, descendants of the Korean potters who came to Hagi at the beginning of the 17th century, the Yoshigas do not have a long history of making Hagi-yaki. Yoshiga Hatao, the third generation of his family at Senryuzan, explains that his grandfather bought the kiln at the beginning of the Taisho period (1912-1926). Because of his training at Tokyo College of Arts, his father, Yoshiga Taibi, now in his 70's, was always a ceramic artist rather than the ''unknown craftsman'' celebrated by folk art enthusiasts. Nationally famous, his work brings high prices - from $80 for a small cup to almost $16,000 for an Ido-style tea bowl.

Senryuzan's climbing kiln has four firing chambers (the uppermost one is used for bisque firing), each about 8 feet high, 8 feet deep and 15 feet long. According to Yoshiga Hatao, it is the largest in Hagi. Ido tea bowls, he says, are fired only once - the glaze is applied directly to the raw clay. They are placed in the back of the firing chamber, where the temperature is lowest and most difficult to control (sometimes not a single acceptable Ido bowl comes out of an entire firing). Other Hagi-yaki is fired twice, first without glaze (bisque fired), then glazed and fired again at higher temperatures. Vases and large jars, for which the Yoshigas are known, are fired at the front of the chamber, where the flames are hottest, and show the most contrast in texture and color. Hatao makes large exhibition pieces covered with an opaque white glaze blushed with pink, sometimes streaked with black. These sell for $6,350 to $7,936, but in the retail shop at the kiln, teacups begin at about $2.80, a teapot and five cups at $68.

Down the road apiece at Naka-obata (less than a mile away), a peninsula curving around a small harbor, you can take a break at a coffee shop called Mermaid, right on the waterfront. It offers little in the way of fare beyond undistinguished coffee, Coca-Cola, a deep-fried pork cutlet with rice and gluey curry sauce, a lunch special of mainly fried things and coffee for about $5 - but there is a fine view of the humpy green hills, steep but not very high, rising across the bay, stands of paler green bamboo and pines darker in the hazy flat noontime light.

Farther along in Mae-obata is Kaneta Masanao, one of Hagi's younger potters working within the limitations of the Hagi tradition. On the morning I visited him, Mr. Kaneta was up at 5 to prepare for his bimonthly firing. He built his three-chambered kiln (Tencho-gama, Mae-obata, Ichiku, Hagi; 2-2468) 10 years ago. Above the entrance to the first firing chamber, small heaps of salt and a pristine wooden tray with offerings of salt and sake invoked the gods' protection of the kiln's work. An old man threw carefully aimed logs onto the orange flames. Kaneta makes not only tea-related pieces (bowls, water jars and flower vases), but also dishes for everyday use and large, nonfunctional sculptural pieces. He works with his wife and parents, an assistant and another craftsman, and sells his work at galleries and department stores in Tokyo and Osaka as well as at Saito-an in Hagi. His large deep bowls and jars ($555 to $635) utilize the white slip glaze seen in traditional Hagi-yaki, but ornamented with brown-black stripes. Kaneta's prices range from $48 for a teacup to ,032 for larger pieces.

Although he wants to explore the possibilities of clay sculpture, Kaneta believes the tea ceremony, and the tea bowls that are an essential part of it, will always retain a special place in Japanese culture: ''In today's apartment-oriented life style, practically everything people use is machine made. But the heart can't rest content with concrete and plastic. Once in a while you want to use something real. That's why I think the world of tea will continue to exist.''
ON the road to Tencho-gama, stop off at the Okada kiln to see the work of one of Kaneta's contemporaries, Okada Tasuke (5-3737).

Hamanaka Gesson stands apart from other Hagi potters both in his work and in the location of his kiln, Oyagama, which is a couple of miles south and west of Higashi-hagi Station (Oya, Hagi; 2-97390). Coming from a family of doctors, Mr. Hamanaka says that he preserves the Hagi tradition more than most Hagi potters, deriving his inspiration from the simple Korean wares of the Yi Dynasty. He trained at Senryuzan for seven years before opening Oyagama, where he works on a small scale, firing only twice a year. Three artisans work under him, producing the pottery bearing the Oyagama mark sold in town. In the showroom that is part of the elegant Japanese-style house that he himself designed, there are plates of various sizes, from a great round platter to condiment dishes, and vases and bowls.

Mr. Hamanaka's work is sometimes described as folk art, meaning that he works outside the Hagi tradition, using glazes he finds elsewhere, like the clear green (bluish in sunlight) derived from ashes he received from a nearby farmhouse. ''This is the kind of accidental meeting I make use of in my work,'' he said, and it is most effective in a series of platters, including a rectangular one with waves breaking across the surface, the clear green of the glaze contrasting with the reddish clay at the unglazed ends of the platter ($1,587).
For Hamanaka Gesson, the important thing is to bring out the qualities of whatever clay he uses, so if the clays in the Hagi area eventually run out, it will not be a disaster for him. A set of dessert-sized plates made of reddish pink clay, shading to pink in some places and painted with bands of brownish black show off the qualities of the clay. Mr. Hamanaka exhibits his works every other year at the Seibu Museum in Tokyo; his prices at the kiln range from about $80 for a teacup to about $1,600 for larger pieces.

In Nakanokura, northeast of the Shoin Shrine, the Saka Kiln (2-0236) continues the tradition of the late Saka Koraizaemon, descendant of the Yi Kyung who brought the art of Korean ceramics to Hagi.

As Yoshiga Hatao said to me: ''You have to live with Hagi-yaki to see its beauty. It takes time, but it is the time you give it that makes it worth the price.'' Whether or not this accounts for Hagi's high prices, perhaps more than any other of Japan's pottery, Hagi ware acquires what Japanese connoisseurs call ''aji,'' literally, flavor - a richness of texture and color that comes only with age and use. After you buy a piece, you still have a lot to look forward to.


From Tokyo take the bullet train to Ogori (the trip takes 5 hours and 19 minutes and, at a rate of 126 yen to the dollar, the fare is about $150), then the JR Bus, Bocho Line (1 hour and 35 minutes; $14.28) to Higashi-hagi Station.

Where to Stay

Hagi has about 40 minshuku (boarding houses) as well as hotels. The biggest bargain is the Joen near Shizuki Park (Kokuminshukusha Joen, 83-8 Horiuchi, Hagi-shi, Yamaguchi-ken; telephone 08382-2-3939), a hotel with both Western- and Japanese-style rooms in Shizuki Park.

Rooms are $36, including dinner and breakfast. Limited materials in English are available from the Hagi City Tourist Bureau, 433 Emukai, Hagi (08382-5-1750); and the Tourist Information Center, Tokyo (03502-1461).

Where to Eat

For a quick lunch of buckwheat noodles (soba), try Fujitaya (Kumagai-cho; 2-1086). The place is full of local color. Cold soba with hot tempura (tenzaru) is $5 but aficianados eat cold noodles (zaru soba) straight for $3.88. Fujitaya is open from 11 A.M. to 7 P.M., closed the second and fourth Wednesday of each month. - A. M. S.

Photos of Kaneta Masanao, a potter, in Maeobata near Hagi; a vase by Miwa Eizo; a tea bowl by the master Miwa Kyusetsu; a vase by Saka Tatsuo (Fred Seidman); map of Japan showing location of Hagi (NYT)