Snapshot 11: Quality, Style and Function

Quality, Style and Function
In Japan after a hot humid day, or even at the end of a bitterly cold day, most people will look forward to a bath.  The custom is to wash thoroughly from head to foot, to rinse off all the soap and then to get into the deep hot water of the bath.  After lowering yourself gently into the steaming water and sitting down, it is so relaxing to just sit and allow the water to soothe away the cares of the day.  With the water up to your chin, it is natural to let your head rest on the edge of the bath and to look up.  If you did so in this bathroom then you would see this wonderful ventilated ceiling.  Fitted in what was the guest bathroom, it is in a building dating from the beginning of the 20th century.  It is made of a wood callled Hiba Arbor-vitae (Thujopsis dolabrata), and finished with several layers of true lacquer.  To my mind, seeing it would be reason enough to take a bath!

The width of the bathroom is only a little over a metre and the “wall” along one long side of the space is actually a series of frosted glass screens with wood panelling from below waist height.  Despite the high degree of respect which the Japanese tend to afford each other, I can’t help but think that the shadowy form of a naked bather seen through the frosted glass might well have caused some merriment.  Or have the screens replaced a real wall?

This wonderful piece of carpentry also prompts me to think, why are we so obsessed with white or light colours for a bathroom and toilet facilities?  Is it simply because white will show any dirt and then it can be sanitised?

When I worked in an interior design studio in London many years ago, we fitted out a bathroom-cum-dressing room.  it had replaceable fabric covered floor panels and the same dark brown fabric on the walls.  There were also bright red panels with widely spaced stainless steel embossed tiles on them hanging on the walls, and the bath stood on a dais at one end of the room.  It was not a wet bathroom and with the addition of a comfortable chair and dramatic lighting it had an air of luxury that few of us could justify.

Nevertheless, even a small bathroom could be fitted with something as grand and as inspiring as a pyramidal, ventilated wooden ceiling like the one pictured.  Time to get out the drawing board!

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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Masao Matsumoto—Something Different

Masao Matsumoto—workshop owner and promoter
of true lacquerware.
Something Different
When explaining the method of making a piece of true lacquerware in England it nearly always raises a murmur of some disappointment.  “It’s a pity we can’t see the wood”.  This comment arises because in many cases the wooden core of a bowl or other item is completely hidden by the many layers of true lacquer, which actually makes the product so much more durable.  This fact, however, does little to assuage the feeling of disenchantment verging on frustration that many professionals and lay-people quite often share.

Twenty small dishes to show what happens as applications 
of true lacquer are over-laid, one on the other and 
the woodgrain is finally hidden.
Nevertheless, many people do grasp the importance and functional sense of the true lacquer coating and do in fact praise the wonderful finish, applauding its warmth to the touch and unrivalled sense of palpable quality.  There is, however, a much more universal appreciation of the decoration of true lacquerware, mainly focused on what is called maki-e.  This often involves the use of gold and silver powders mixed with true lacquer to render a design that may be flat or raised to a shallow relief as layers of lacquer and precious metal powder are painstakingly built up.  The hard surface of true lacquer can also be chased and then filled with fine gold powder to express a design.  Or, mother-of-pearl can be added to a design to produce a sparkle of a different kind.  There are many decorative techniques, which, along with the plain colour finishes—commonly deep red, vermilion or glossy black—make up what are regular or standard ways of finishing true lacquerware products.  There are, however, alternatives, several hundred alternative application techniques in fact, many of which were originally used to finish the scabbards of the samurai swords and sometimes simply involved mimicking other materials such as tree bark.

At Masao Matsumoto’s workshop the conversation turned to some of these techniques.  Masao has a fine display of all kinds of products that have at one time or another been produced in the workshop.  He also has a display of small dishes to explain the process of true lacquer applications peculiar to Wajima.

We might mimic marble with paint but here woodgrain is simulated with true lacquer for a lunchbox.
I found one piece with what looked like a wood grain finish.  It seems that some years ago this was a popular finish and certainly fell under the heading of an “alternative” finish or kawari-nuri.  It was then that another unusual piece caught my eye.  It was a small tray with a rough finish to its outside edge, loosely resembling the bark of a tree, although not following the appearance of any particular species.

A small serving tray with glossy interior and rough rustic outside edge…..
…..the edge up close.
The contrast between the smooth and plainly finished interior of the tray was set off by the rustic, hard and rugged exterior.  How was it made?  A puttylike mixture of true lacquer, finely ground whetstone and some water was probably applied, not with a brush but with a spatular, to create the almost stone-like impasto effect that was finished off with a top-coat of true lacquer.

This square platter has a fine cracked or crazed finish….
….to which some delicate leaf motifs have been added.
Realising how interested I was in these alternative finishes, Masao showed me two more examples.  What they both had in common was the use of some protein.  It could be the white of an egg or even some tofu—soya bean curd.  If egg white is mixed with a little water and the mixture is then applied to a drying top coat of true lacquer, it causes the surface to shrink unevenly and produces a fine pattern of random cracks—that is if the mixture is only brushed on up and down and from side to side.

This unusual tray has a crazed finish, which in detail….
….seems to resemble an aerial photograph of a river delta or some other natural feature.
Alternatively, if an egg white and water mixture is sprayed on the surface of drying lacquer and then brushed randomly over the surface, it results in a totally different crazed effect.  This slightly rough surface is ideal for trays as it is a slightly more robust finish, meaning that cups or dishes do not slip so easily.  It is also, of course, pleasing to the eye.

Both of these alternative effects are called hibi-nuri—crazed or cracked finishes, and serve to once again highlight the interesting makeup of true lacquer.  It is a natural material with strange properties and something of a mysterious chemistry.  I left Masao’s workshop very satisfied.  I had learnt something new and intriguing.  I wonder what other mysteries true lacquer is keeping secret?

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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Takashi Shinohara—Suzu Ware

Takashi Shinohara and some of the copious amounts of Japanese red pine (Pinus densiflora) needed to fire the kiln for five to six days.
Of Earth and Fire
Honestly speaking, pottery is something of a mystery to me.  I see it as a kind of alchemy, of which I know very little.  That, however, does not interfere with my appreciation of the craft and art of earth and fire.  In a sense, it is similar to looking at a starlit sky—I stand in awe and wonderment but have very little real understanding of what I am looking at and would almost prefer it that way.

Despite my lack of knowledge, I have a particularly great admiration for Japanese pottery.  It always seems to be so perfect, in the sense that it appears to be a consummate marriage of materials, the laws of physics and the creative ability of the potter, who not only can imagine how things will turn out, but is also ready to accept “happy accidents” which occur in the kiln.

Takashi Shinohara, however, really knows pottery and for him the making and firing of pots became a discipline that gave him a deep satisfaction and a way of “finding himself”.  Now he even says that his kiln and workshop are his “temple”, although things could have been very different.

Takashi usually firs his kiln twice a year.  Situated deep in the woods the smoke does not
cause any annoyance.
He was born and raised in Suzu located on the eastern shore of the Noto peninsula.  Being the elder sibling, he was destined to take over the running of the Buddhist temple, of which his father was Chief Priest.  Regardless of the fact that he was a self-confessed “naughty boy” as a child, when the time came Takashi resigned himself to the inevitable and went to Kyoto to learn the ways of the priesthood.  After graduating from university he took up a position at one of Kyoto’s prestigious temples.  He remained there for six years before returning home to Suzu and devoting himself to the day to day running of the family temple.  All was well for a time but then he found himself remembering the happy days of this childhood.  As a young boy he had often played outdoors and had been happiest when he came home hot and muddy and beaming with satisfaction.

I imagine there were some difficult times before he finally decided to leave the priesthood and to hand over his responsibilities to his younger brother.  For Takashi it was a pivotal moment in his life allowing him to re-connect with the happy days of his childhood and to begin doing something he really wanted to do.

The characteristic colouring and finish of Suzu ware as a 
result of reduction firing…..
Pottery peculiar to Suzu dates back to the mid-12th century and thrived for some 400 years.  As a utilitarian ware it found its way to coastal areas along the Japan Sea as well as north to Hokkaido.

It was storage jars and crocks that were mostly made, so Suzu ware needed to be a robust and thoroughly fired earthenware.  To 

…..and the brick red colouring generated from
a oxidation firing
achieve this required a large amount of wood to raise the kiln temperature to more than 1,200C˚.  The local clay has distinctive qualities, which are enhanced by the method of firing.  The amount of oxygen entering the kiln is limited and toward the end of the firing the kiln is starved of oxygen.  This form of reduction firing gives the ware its highly characteristic dark grey gritty finish as the iron in the clay blackens and the wood ash forms a natural glaze.  However, when more oxygen is allowed into a kiln during a firing of the same kind of clay, pieces take on a warm brick-red colour.

Just imagine how good food looks on one of Takashi’s platters.
Although Suzu ware was distributed widely and extensively used for many hundreds of years, it suddenly disappeared during the 16th century.  It was not until the early 1960s that interest in this ware was revived and then research over the next twenty years resulted in the first firing of a new Suzu kiln in 1979, to fire pots using the same local clay of old.

The simple flowing forms of Takashi’s work are a perfect 
foil to the firm, hard and gritty appearance of the surface finish.
Takashi became one of the second generation of potters to inherit the traditions of Suzu ware but he was almost entirely self-taught.  His informal training began simply by watching.  He attended kiln firings but was literally only allowed to watch.  He was not even allowed to handle the firewood and in his words “stole what I needed to know” about the techniques involved.  Finally he was ready to go it alone and in 1995 he built his own kiln named the Yuge kiln and went to work.

Since then he has managed to build up a fine reputation and exhibits all over Japan and even abroad.  He is never happier, however, than when he gets back to Suzu, his homeland and source of what he likes to do best—making pots.

Some of Takashi Shinohara’s work is on show at the Funa Asobi Gallery.  Details in Japanese at f-asobi.com.  For more details call +81 (0)768-82-3960.
Address:  41 Wakayama-machi Sutta, Suzu City, Ishikawa Prefecture 927-1233, Japan

Suzu Ware Museum
1-2-563 Takojimamachi
Suzu, Ishikawa Prefecture 927-1204

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

Do feel free to pass on the address of this blog to anyone you think will be interested.  Should you wish to leave a comment, please do so by clicking on the comment mark at the bottom left of this or any of the other posts.   If you have found this blog interesting, why not become a follower.

Yuka Funami and Takashi Shinohara at the entrance to Funa Asobi Gallery in Suzu.