Encounters in Tokoname I: Shôryû: “My teapots are my treasures.”

After visiting Banko-yaki potters in Yokkaichi before the 2014 shincha season began, it seemed only reasonable to continue the fun with a trip to Tokoname. There, I was able to meet Shôryû, and visit the Takasuke factory.

For those who aren’t familiar with it, Tokoname is a city in Aichi Prfecture, near Nagoya, overlooking the Bay of Ise. Tokoname-yaki is one of the Six Great Ancient Potteries of Japan, and dates back 1000 years. However, Tokoname-yaki as we know it today began developing only around the end of the nineteenth century, when red shudei 朱泥 clay began to be used in accordance with a technique based on the teachings of a Chinese potter from Yixing.
Today, this is the leading kyûsu production area in Japan. While we may find teapots of the lowest grade, we also find the finest works.
It is also the birthplace of the Inax company, a major ceramics manufacturer, in particular of sinks and toilets.
However, let’s go back to traditional crafts. Umehara Shôji 昭龍, alias Shôryû, is one of the sons and students of Hokuryû 北龍, another famous artisan potter specializing in kyûsu teapots. He will soon be 69 years old, but he is fit as a fiddle, and full of enthusiasm and passion for arts and crafts (not only his own). He received me with warmth, and an unstoppable flood of words.

P1160828For him it is essential to take pleasure in working. The joy he gets out of making his teapots is transferred to the user because you feel the quality and this makes it a pleasure to use them. It is impossible to make fine objects without enjoying it, without deeply loving the work. This is perfectly consistent with what Tachi Masaki told me in Yokkaichi. In fact, there is another point on which Shôryû and Masaki probably agree: prices. Shôryû also prefers not to charge too much because he likes to see as many of his teapots as possible used, rather than preserved lifelessly on the shelves of collectors.
Taking pleasure – this seems to me to be the central notion, or what should be the central notion, when we are in the world of tea. I think that taking pleasure in preparing tea is a condition even more primordial than the temperature of the water, the steeping time, the type of water, or the teapot!

P1160810

This little piece of clay is enough for him to make a relatively large teapot.

P1160813“My teapots are my treasures,” Mr. Umehara admitted to me. Of course, he was not talking about their commercial worth, or even about their emotional value, but their social contribution. It is because he makes these teapots, with talent, I have to say, that he has been able to meet so many people over the course of his life, and make so many friends, both in Tokoname, naturally, but also everywhere in Japan, with people involved in ceramics, tea and all sorts of arts and crafts. His teapots are a means of meeting people that always works. He has even managed to meet a Frenchman (me, in fact) and a Chinese woman who sells puerh tea in Hong Kong and is interested in his work.
This says a lot about the personality of this renowned artisan.

I indeed said “artisan,” not “artist,” because Shôryû himself makes the distinction and considers himself as an artisan, a craftsman, a shokunin 職人 in Japanese. Artists make unique works that they are unable to reproduce, while an artisan is able to take a few pieces of clay, without measuring anything, and reproduce the same form with virtually the same dimensions.

P1160850

Spouts, handles and various types of lids.

P1160843 P1160848Shôryû works with the classical variation of red clay (oxydation, 1200°C (2192°F), 8 hours of firing at approximately 1250°C (2192°F)), black clay (reduction and smoking, second firing of red clay, 4 hours at around 700°C(1292°F)), yôhen (two types).

P1160791

After firing, an essential task is “futa-awase”: adjusting the lid to the body. The lid is attached to a rotary axis, and a kind of fine sand is applied to abrade it to fit the body. It is a very delicate operation.

He uses a mixture of clay that has a matte finish that I like a lot. The teapot below is what made me a fan of Shôryû (but when I met him I became even more of a fan!). In fact, this teapot is a relatively old work and not really a good example of the most remarkable feature of Shôryû’s work today: its lightness. It seems that his kyûsus are the lightest in Tokoname (and perhaps in Japan since Banko products are heavier, except for the exceptional teapots by Shôfû). The very great lightness is made possible by the thinness of the walls, thus very great mastery of the wheel, but also by the mixture of clay itself, which has taken him several years to perfect.

P1160977 P1160980 P1160984His teapots are very round, “feminine,” as he says himself.

Finally, a truly unique feature, the technique known as “Shôryû Tenmoku.”
Here is an example of it on Thés du Japon, and below another example in a different colour, on a teapot that Mr. Umehara gave me.

P1160990 P1160995 P1160999He invented this technique. Naturally, there is no point in asking me how it is achieved: Shôryû keeps the secret very carefully. It took him two or three years to develop it. The artisan’s goal has been to recall the interplay of shadows on a teapot through curtains awash in sun.

The visit’s secondary purpose was to talk about the kyûsus that I wanted to order from him for Teas of Japan. I am not sure whether it will be possible to put them online before the shincha, but there should be 4 teapots very similar to the black one that I like so much (200 ml (7 oz) when completely full): one each in red and black clay, and two types of yôhen!

After lunch with his wife and one of his sons, Takeshi, who will probably be his successor one day, Shôryû accompanied me to the Takasuke workshop (of which the artisan himself paid homage to the qualities!) before bringing me back to his home to show me a different part of his work (video here), and even to get me to try my hand on the wheel so that I could make a vain attempt at giving a shape to a piece of clay. It was a valuable experience that let me get a concrete understanding of how difficult it is to work with clay and the incredible control that master potters need. When you watch a potter work, the shaping is fluid. It looks easy. The clay seems to melt, but in fact it is very very hard. Giving it a shape requires strength. It has nothing to do with the images we have of pottery workshops in films. (The scene with Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore really was just a dream!)

The next time I meet him, I have to persuade him to make me some smaller teapots. Many potters do not appreciate that very much. It’s more difficult and they don’t sell well in Japan.

I will describe Takasuke a next post.

Some works (kyusu tea pot, yuzamashi) by Shoryu in the Tokoname-yaki section of Thés du Japon online shop.

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Categories: Coverage, Tea ware and works by artisans

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2 replies

  1. Beautiful! Perhaps one day I can visit Tokoname. Does Tokoname have to be red coloured or can they also be black? Or is anything that is produced in that city called Tokoname by default?

  2. I’m confused, i just noticed you comment ! Sorry.
    I think pottery produced in Tokoname city is Tokoname-yaki. Of course they can be black (red clay reduce and smoke fired). Actually there is a lot of style of Tokoname-yaki ware.

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