Sunday, May 07, 2006

Arita Pottery Tour

March, 2006

While Fearless Husband was away, I tried to mix freelance work and unpacking with forays into the neighborhood and beyond. I took a day trip to the Arita pottery area, where they've been making porcelain, pottery, stoneware and earthenware for over a thousand years. Our little tour group toured a porcelain factory, which looked like a larger version of the ceramic-tile-roof houses one sees everywhere in Japan. If not for the brick smoke stack jutting up, with the name of the factory, one might just think it's a very large house, or perhaps an old fashioned school.

We watched women painting the peach-colored bowls, vases, plates, cups and platters (even porcelain "finger holds" which one puts into the ubiquitous Japanese sliding doors) with what looked like watery black ink. After the pieces are fired, the porcelain turns white, and the black painted parts turn the classic cobalt blue. Each brush seems really big, with a fat bristle end the size of a small plum that tapers very quickly into a point as fine as a single hair--it looks like a giant tear-drop. The women were mostly freehanding their designs, with perfect arches and amazing straight geometric patterns. Another group worked on landscapes and florals. They sat on small stools around low wooden tables, with thick blankets wrapped around their lower bodies (it was chilly in there!) so they looked as if they had grown up out of the floor. The "master painter", the only man painting, sat cross-legged on a raised wooden floor in one sunny corner by the window away from the mere women, surrounded by heaps of the pieces he was painting. The women smiled shyly at us when we trooped through, but "the master" ignored us entirely, bent to his work.

We were shown the two different ways the pieces were formed at this particular kind of clay is soft, like toothpaste, and is extruded into molds, which are removed after the clay has had a chance to harden. Another kind of clay is much harder, and is packed by hand into part of a mold, then the other part of the mold is put on and it's squeeeeezed to form the piece. We were shown the "new" kilns, big brick boxes with doors like safes on the front. There are rails like train tracks sunk into the floor, and the pottery is stacked on special shelves on rolling platforms--put pottery on a shelf, add some cement blocks, put more shelves on the blocks, fill those shelves with pottery and more cement blocks, until the rolling platform is stacked high. Then it's wheeled into the kiln via the tracks, and the door is shut, sealing the kill, with the rolling platform as the floor. These kilns are gas-fired.

Then we were taken outside and up the hill behind the factory to see the "stepped kilns". These are very old--we were shown one that has been in use for over 400 years! They look like fat worms coming down the terraced hillside, a long, lumpy brick structure coated with something like plaster or adobe. Each "hump" is a different level of pottery and earthenware--I think the pieces that need hotter firing are at the low end, and the pieces that don't need quite as much heat are at the upper end. At the very bottom is an oven, surrounded by huge stacks of wood cut into small pieces. The kiln is filled and sealed--the openings are bricked up, then plastered over. Then a very hot fire is built in the bottom, and fed for days, round the clock. The heat rises up the stair-stepped rooms of the kiln--if the long structure was not on an incline, the heat would dissipate before reaching the far end. Two or three months later, the finally cooled kiln is opened and the pieces removed. These pieces are very expensive--not because they are particularly delicate (they're mostly rustic stoneware and earthenware) but because they are made in this labor-intensive, traditional fashion. Our tour leader (the factory foreman) paused for a moment before we left the stepped kiln and thought. Then he smiled and said "This kiln was fired in December. It is ready, I think...would you like to see?" And he chipped away the plaster and mortar around two bricks in one arched opening and pulled them out. This was a really big deal for us to be allowed to look inside--usually a kiln opening is a little ceremonial!

Unfortunately, we couldn't see anything, because it was so dark. So, before he could put the bricks back into place--I stuck my hand inside the dark opening and snapped a photo, counting on my flash. It worked! Everyone gathered around to see the dark cave filled with earthenware, the walls glazed from years and years of heat and smoke and pottery exhalations. I felt kind of like a future alien explorer as we looked into the LCD screen on my digital camera at an image that's stayed the same for hundreds of if I'd taken a photo of the past. I guess in a way, I had.

Afterwards, we headed (of course) to the factory's shop, where most of us bought at least a couple of pieces of porcelain. It's NOT cheap, but it's beautiful. One woman asked about "seconds" and we were told that if a piece came out with any imperfection at all, it was broken on the spot...they didn't sell flawed pieces--or even allow the flawed pieces to survive. Glad they don't feel that way about people! The grounds outside the factory were decorated with a mosaic of broken pottery, so at least some of the flawed pieces (or at least perfect bits of them) didn't end up in the trash.

We left the factory, and headed to the Japanese Ceramics Museum, which was fascinating. I was too slow, reading cards and looking at each piece, so I think I saw less than a quarter of the museum's collection...but what I did see was wonderful. There were pieces for every taste, from very ornate and colorful plates to the simplest of white rice bowls. I tended towards the simple, as I love the shapes (I really fell for some dishes shaped like simple rowboats, some plain teal oval dishes, and an abalone-shaped platter!) and my friend J and her mother R were fascinated by some plates painted with peacock colors. Many of the white pieces are glazed with a green-blue tint, which the Japanese seem to always refer to as a "mysterious green-blue" color. I am not sure what makes it "mysterious", but it is really beautiful, with the hint of color pooling a little thicker at the bottom of each bowl or cup. There was also a huge modern ceramic clock, about 8 feet high, which pulled apart and had a big show of "dancing" pieces with beautiful music every half hour. The dancing figures are children, and there are different figures for each season of the year. The three seasons not currently "in play" are displayed in cases beside the clock. I took far too many photos here, but am only including a couple. For those who have a fascination with this stuff, let me know and I will send you more, individually.

The final stop before we headed home was an amazing, cluttered place, filled to the brim with pottery, porcelain and china of all kinds. There were some beautiful pieces and some real junk, all heaped on table after table after table, and on shelves covering every square inch of the walls. It was really overwhelming! In the back of the store was an area similar to the "paint your own pottery" places in the US, but with six potter's wheels to one side. Each of us on the tour were given the choice beforehand to either paint a piece of pottery or make a piece of pottery. I've painted before, so I chose to make a piece, as I'd never sat at a potter's wheel before. Our teacher demonstrated how the wheel worked, and from his fingers flowed a spherical vase, an elegant bowl, a thin and beautiful scallop-edged plate. He made it look so easy!

I made two misshapen Frisbees that drooped into unworkable masses (I was aiming for that delicate plate!) and even though the teacher had no English and I have only "excuse me", "sorry" and "thank you" (all of which I'd used a lot already) in Japanese he let me know kindly but firmly that my third try was also going to be my final try. Period. So...I made a little flared dish that I decided afterwards was a candle-holder for a small pillar candle. Or maybe it's a ring dish for my dresser. Or...well, you get the picture. Our pieces were glazed with a really lovely clear glaze that turned the warm terra cotta to a slate color, with a tiny film of pale blue...not really an irridescense, more like a tint or a veil. They were fired for us, and sent to the base--I picked up my whatever-it-is last week. I have a whole new respect for potters, and now I desperately want to take a class!

My favorite "take-away" from the whole experience was a brochure put out by one of the factory owners. He provides it for free to all the pottery factories and shops to give to tourists...his niece, from a neighboring city, did a school report on the pottery area, and he was so proud of it, and thought it so educational, he printed it as a booklet to give away. It's in Japanese, with an English translation alongside. The language is flowery and wonderful with the stilted prose of an earnest 14-year-old, and it's both educational and interesting--more so, I think, than if it had been written by a professional looking to "sell" the area to tourists. The proud uncle's introduction as he talks about his surprise at the scholarship and dedication of "these two innocent young maidens, who walked unflagging through the heat to discover the heart of Arita" is part of the charm, as you can almost picture him with tears in his eyes and a hand over his heart, the national anthem playing in the background as the camera zooms in on a young girl's sweet face...It's funny, but charming, interesting, and very human.

Check out the geometric pattern on the spherical vase waiting to be glazed and fired--it was painted lines drawn before she just took brush in hand! It was amazing to watch!

The Angry Snowman and Sunshine Boy

February 25, 2006

Another short post with some more trivial stuff I found interesting! Most of these photos are from a walk Fearless Husband and I took before he left, through Nimitz Park and Albuquerque Park--all except the shot of my friend 'Bama Gal (we share a birthday, and celebrated together!) in her new apartment, which I took last week.

The two mosaics I just found interesting. I want to know the story behind the angry snowman! What a funny little cartoon character to be so carefully set into the paving stones! And "sunshine boy" is a custom that made me laugh. The day before our "field trip" with the Indoc class, Erikyo, our Japanese instructor, hung a little tissue paper ghost in the window, similar to what we made in elementary school at Halloween. You've seen them, I'm sure...a wadded ball of tissue is covered by another tissue, and the covering tissue is tied below the ball to make the little ghost shape. Well, in Japan, this character is called "sunshine boy" and is created and hung in the window in order to assure a sunny day the next day. Cute custom, I thought, then forgot about it...until I found sunshine boy set into the pavement! I guess he was there to offset the angry snowman? Who knows?

The Japanese lantern I simply found pretty (though the crescent moon made me think of out houses!) This one is in the park, but I have seen these in many, many private gardens and yards in my neighborhood. I think they are lovely--but I'm afraid that if I get one, it will put our household goods over the weight limit when we go back!

The public toilet photo I took to show any prospective American visitors. Public toilets tend not to have doors, whether in the park or beside a busy street. Though urinals are simply lower than their American counterparts, toilets themnselves tend to be holes in the ground. Porcelain holes, certainly, with flushing mechanisms, but holes nonetheless--and rarely is there tissue. I carry a packet of kleenex in my handbag, just in case. After taking this photo, I was so embarrassed though!!! I did not see the gentleman in the toilet (barely visible to the left of the door), and he was (luckily!!!) simply on his way out when I snapped this photo. He gave me a pretty suspicious look though, and I felt like such a klutz! So be prepared--public toilets are clean, but very different from what we expect in the US, and not for the very modest or the faint of heart.

The last photo attached is of my friend 'Bama Gal's new house. She got an apartment in a new building that has a Rental Partnership Program with the US Military. It's clean and relatively large, but really not my scene. In the photo, she is standing at the door to the balcony, unsuccessfully trying to get a wireless signal for her laptop. It's all shiny linoleum and cinderblock, in a complex with other Americans, and reminds me strongly of a modern school building with the heavy doors with automatic closing arms, and fluorescent lighting. Her place may be warmer, with less chance of scary bugs, but I'm thrilled with our very Japanese house in our very Japanese neighborhood. Besides, we're at least 15 minutes closer to the base than she is! I just included this photo for a different perspective on military life in Japan. Can you tell her household goods have yet to arrive? I'm very lucky, and have it very easy--our stuff is all here already.

Japanese "Fast Food"

February 21, 2006

Just as 7-11s in the states have hot boxes with hot dogs and sausages, the 7-11s here have hot boxes filled with steamed buns (but the Japanese versions are MUCH cleaner, and the counter people serve you rather than the general public reacing into the boxes.) These are light, fluffy, hand-sized buns of creamy white steamed bread dough (they look sort of like a mound of whipped cream), each filled with something different. Sometimes, the bun is "branded" with kanji. I don't know if the kanji is a brand name, or if it indicates the kind of filling inside the bun. Since I don't speak or read Japanese, I've had to guess at what each one contains. I've had one with beef, and one with a mixture of roasted pork and some sort of pickled vegetable. They're good, and filling, sort of like a sandwich.

Lunches in Japan tend to be packed in special, compartmented boxes called bento. A good Japanese wife and mother makes these beautiful boxes for her husband and children to take to work and school, usually packed in lovely lacquered containers. Some restaurants specialize in bento, and most mini-marts have plastic-wrapped versions for sale, freshly prepared that morning. I've attached a photo of the one I bought a couple of weeks ago, complete with plastic dividing tray and balsa-wood sides. I know, it looks very strange to American eyes, but it was quite good. The rice was sticky and had indentations to separate it into bite-sized lumps. The dark stuff in the lower right corner was a slightly sweet and salty seaweed salad. The upper left corner was a marinated salad of pieces of chicken, carrot, green beans and shiitake mushrooms. The only thing I didn't care for was in this salad, at the very upper was a square of some sort of grey gelatin with little black flecks. I assume it was some sort of seaweed gelatin, but will have to ask my Japanese friend. The taste was bland, but I didn't like the texture. There was also a teeny container of potato salad (left side, center), a piece of smoked fish, a piece of tamago (omelette), two different pieces of breaded chicken (one with something like mayo on it), a piece of Chinese sausage similar to salami, a piece of breaded shrimp, a piece of burdock root tempura, and a very small, hard, salty and sour pickled plum as a garnish on the rice. Look at it this way...with something so varied, you're bound to find something you like in it!

There are other pre-packaged meals to be had at the mini-marts. The round bowl in the picture was a noodle soup. One takes out the upper tray, with the pink and white fish cake (simliar to our fake crab but more fluorescent), the scallions, the kelp and the strips of fried burdock root. (I thought at first the strips were some sort of fish!) and puts the lower bowl in the microwave to warm the noodles. Beneath the noodles is a gelatinized puddle of broth that, when warmed, becomes a delicious savory soup base for the noodles. Then one puts the toppings into the soup, and slurps away! It was a good lunch, filling, but not too salty, and obviously freshly made that morning. I ended up with leftovers for dinner, as it was pretty large, and I'd gotten an o-nigiri to go with it...lots of food!

The triangular thing is an o-nigiri, or a rice ball (yeah, I know, it's triangular, not ball-shaped!) O-nigiri are a favorite Japanese snack, sort of a comfort food. An o-nigiri is a chunk of warm and sticky rice wrapped in crispy nori (the seaweed used in most sushi rolls), usually with one of several different fillings tucked in the center. Again, I get to be surprised, since I don't read Japanese! The fillings range from sweetened or spicy/vinegary cooked greens, sort of like collards, to a mayonnaise-y smoked salmon salad, to a dark and savory seaweed pickle. There are about fifteen different colors on the round seal at the front of the package, and I am trying to remember which color is which. I haven't tried all of them yet, but an o-nigiri is one of my favorite lunches, so I'm bound to try them all eventually! I'm a big fan of the vegetable-filled ones, and the shrimp salad ones (I can now recognize the kanji for shrimp, called ebi, and the various shades of green seals seem to be the different kinds of sweet or hot or sour cooked greens).

The packaging is fascinating, as there is a sheet of plastic between the nori and the rice, to keep the nori from getting soggy. When you unwrap the package, you pull a strip of plastic from the tip of one point of the triangle, all the way down and around. Then you pull off the two newly-separated pieces by the other two corner points, and that action pulls off both the outer covering and slides out the inner separating piece, leaving the neatly-wrapped rice ball sitting in your hand. I'm in love with the umeboshi one right now...the filling is a very sour, vinegary, salty, soft, pink pickled plum (watch out for the pit!)

I know, this post may seem a little trivial...but the little differences are more startling and interesting to me than some of the bigger differences! More soon....