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Below please read a translation I made from the French magazine, "Revue de la Céramique et du Verre." (issue 220 May-June 2018)  I was excited to find this great article about the town Bizen in Japan which features our artist Toshiaki Shibuta.

 

Bizen, The Story of a Renaissance

The ceramics produced in the small town of Bizen, in Okayama Prefecture, are among the most important in the history of Japan. Yet, at one time, they almost disappeared, surpassed by the arrival of porcelain. In the 1950s, a potter named Kaneshige Togo restored the integrity of this raw and minimal art, with its infinite nuances, and Bizen ware is practiced today by a community of over three hundred artisans.

In Japan, the trains arrive on time, and nothing can get in the way of the Ako Line’s railcar from arriving punctually. Leaving Okayama, it goes between the hills, approaching the sea from time to time, and runs towards the midland, gliding past the pillars on which the Shinkansen flies by. At eleven oh one, it enters the station.

Imbe station, the closest stop to the village of Bizen - named after one of Japan's “Six Ancient Kilns,” established in the 12th century during the Kamakura period) - seems very small. Like most Japanese stations, it has a gift shop selling regional confectioneries. However, the uniqueness of this station becomes apparent as we climb up to the second floor. There, we can see thousands of Bizen ceramic objects, in a variety of shades of brown and gray. Sake bottles, vases, goblets, sculptures; everything is for sale, and some labels reveal prices that go up to several hundred thousand yen (2,000 to 3,000 euros), according to the fame of the potter. "Nearly half of the three hundred artisans in the region are represented here," says the owner, in perfect English. 

The other artists’ works are found in the numerous galleries that line the main street, a sign of the dynamism that represents the current Bizen style, its raw and imperfect appearance contrasting with the serene interiors of the shops. It is important to note, however, that Bizen ware had started to disappear during the seventeenth century, replaced by the more delicate porcelain from China and Korea.

A Cradle of Pottery Born in the Twelfth Century

The history of the Bizen style dates back to the end of the 12th century during the Kamakura period, in which samurai warriors (with little taste for refinement) reigned. This period saw the development of Japan’s “Six Ancient Kilns,” many which produced rustic and utilitarian ceramics, all unglazed. Bizen is one of them, nurtured by a land rich in iron and volcanic sediments, harvested under rice fields. As a result of its resilience and ability to conserve water, Bizen ware’s reputation grew during the Muromachi Era (1336-1573), and even more during the Momoyama period (1573-1600), when fifty-meter-long kilns were being built to meet demand. 

The beginning of the Edo era (1603-1868) coincided with the uncovering of a kaolin deposit in Kyushu. Porcelain, having been widely used in China and Korea, now began to appear in Japan with such success that the Bizen style went out of fashion. The majority of the workshops in Bizen were converted to the manufacture of roof tiles that now cover most Japanese houses. It was not until the 1950’s that, in post-war Japan, occupied by the American army, there was a return to the traditional culture and ceramics of Bizen, under the leadership of potter Toyo Kaneshige, who was designated a Living National Treasure in 1956.

Images from their visit to Shi's studio

Images from their visit to Shi's studio

Pictures

 1.  In Shi's workshop, these three pieces illustrate the extent of Bizen ware’s contemporary register of production, from utilitarian sake carafes to more personal vases.

2. After eight days of firing in the kiln, 24 hours a day, these round vases are ready to be sent to the galleries.

3. Rich in iron and volcanic sediments, the clay is harvested under rice fields, and worked in turns by artists.

 

Meeting with Toshiaki Shibuta

 "Purely technical, Bizen ware is the result from the simple crossing of the hand, the earth, and the fire."

The road from Imbe to Bizen runs along the vast factories that now produce industrial scale tiles. At times, the tiles mimic the shimmering of the nearby inland sea, where commercial vessels cross. Further inland, a column of smoke relentlessly escapes from the high chimney of a traditional kiln. Toshiaki Shibuta, called "Shi" (nickname with which he signs his pieces), is one of the reputed ceramists of Bizen. In his fifties, Shibuta is thin and discreet, with thick brown bangs, wearing wax trousers. He speaks softly in English, "Ceramics are my life: When I hold clay, I am happy." Calm reigns in his workshop adjoining his family home, built over two hundred years ago on the side of a wooded hill which overlooks the nearby rice fields. Underneath his fingers, the clay starts to take shape, the vibrations of the wheel molding the clay into a sake bottle created by the rules of the art. "I reproduce models from the sixteenth century, and I make contemporary creations with just as much satisfaction. I like that each piece is different," says Mr. Shibuta, a former student of design at Musashino University in Tokyo, who has been shaping clay since childhood. Four years ago, Shi came to France to participate in the construction of a kiln at the Tuilerie of Pouligny (located in Creuse), delighted to share his art with others. He took the opportunity to invite the ceramist King Houdekpinkou to Bizen, and a few months later, the Franco-Beninese made the first of many trips that now bring him every year to this village of potters.

Goma, Hidasuki, and Ao-bizen

After 10 minutes by car, Shi joins the kiln that he shares with two of his fellow potters.  A Shinto deity, in the form of rice straw, floats above the kiln. Three times a year, they take turns, day and night, at the side of this long anagama kiln, to endlessly feed the burning camphor wood logs. "Cedar, pine, oak ... Choosing the essence is important, and when it burns, it will give a particular character to the object. For example, camphor produces silver reflections," says Shi. 

Placed on a box, a thermometer indicates the heat of the interior of the kiln: 1040 degrees, almost the maximum. The temperature is taken every hour, showing a slow rise in temperature, which had commenced eight days earlier. 'Our clay is delicate. You must not rush it. The results reflect on its delicacy," says Shi. This evening perhaps, the trio will stop the oven by pleading with the gods before discovering the results of the firing four days later. Purely technical, Bizen ware results from the simple crossing of the hand, the earth, and the fire. Nothing, apart from the art of placing the pieces in the furnace by calculating the passage of the flames and the falling of the ashes, interferes with the process of creation.

Of course, one can count on the Japanese to create an inventory of a thousand shades: the “goma,” a natural glaze produced by the burning of red pine wood; the “hidasuki,” and the “ao-bizen” glazes, dominated by red or blue hues obtained by the chemical reaction after wrapping objects in rice straw, or the “san-giri,” an almost metallic appearance that occurs during the cooling phase, when the embers fall back onto the objects.

The main street of Imbe is quiet on this out of season Saturday morning. The hundreds of workshops and potters’ galleries are open, waiting for the first group of amateurs who will soon step out of the Ako Line’s little train. The hundreds of workshops and potters' galleries are open, however, waiting for the first groups of amateurs who will soon arrive from the Ako line. Their knowing eyes will spot the imperfections in everything, this apparent austerity that makes Bizen so moving.