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Without Overreaching nor Overstraining, the Pottery Pieces are Created from Days Full of Simple Joys at Akane Pottery (Urasoe City)
post : 2018.10.29 06:00
In Okinawa where it is often said to be the land of pottery, are numerous pottery studios that create unique pottery art. Every day, Tsuboya in Naha and Yomitan in the central region of Okinawa, as well as all across the prefecture, from Yanbaru in the northern region of the main island to the far outer island of Yonaguni in the south, kilns are fired up to bake the pieces carefully created by the craftsmen. For this article, I visited a pottery studio in the stylish neighborhood in Urasoe, where two ladies, Yoko Yogi and Kaori Shimoji, run Akane Pottery, a studio where they introduce their unique world of pottery art. When I visited, the season was early summer which locally known as Urizun, when Okinawa’s climate is just right; not too hot, and the breeze is refreshing. That day, the sun was shining through the needles of the Ryukyu pine growing in the gardens of the studio, and the rays were brilliantly shining in the gentle breeze.
The two ladies who warmly welcomed me have been long-time childhood friends who were schoolmates all through junior and high schools. Since starting their studio in 1997, they have continued to work well together as business partners. Yoko is methodical, precise and sensitive, who is so cautious that she’s the type to overly make sure that the stone bridge is strong enough, that she ends up breaking it. Meanwhile, Kaori is easygoing, a type who believes in “whatever will be, will be”. I got the impression that they made great partners who supported each other with their strengths.
Despite their contrasting personalities, they have a common focus “in creating items meeting every day lifestyles”. The pottery pieces created by these two ladies are mainly dishes and containers, as well as flower vases for every day use. Their pottery are distinctive in that they’re not of pronounced or over-assertive tastes, and just as a stagehand assists the actors, the pieces work to enhance the culinary creations that they are to carry. They also have a sense of adaptability to smoothly become a part of any space, occasion, and lifestyle. That said, though, the pieces have attractive, deep colorings, gentle and sensitive gradations, refined curves, and a dignified beauty that doesn’t waver in changing times or trends, just like a timeless antique.
Kaori starts, “It makes me happy to see customers imagining what type of food they’d like to serve with the dishes, or imagining themselves enjoying the food while using them. It doesn’t even have to be food. If they like flowers, they can enjoy the dishes to contain flowers.” To this, Yoko responds, “A customer who picked up a dish that we created thinking it would be nice to serve Japanese food on, said that it would look nice to serve scones on. For example, on a dish that we make in early summer, we might be thinking it would be great to serve pasta with cuttlefish and canola flowers, but for everyone, they have their own different images on what they’d like to use the dish for. We may be creating our pieces with our own specific thoughts on what they’d be great for, but their use is totally unlimited, and it’s great that people use their imaginations to enjoy using the pieces however they like.”
Kaori adds, “Our basic stance in creating our pieces is to have a specific situation in mind in when and how these pieces will be used, and that they can be used to entertain guests and family on special occasions. Like on a lovely day like today, maybe people can enjoy a nice meal on the pieces laid out on a table in the garden. When we have a scene like that in mind in the creation process, we would design cups that wouldn’t easily tip over, or create a compote dish with a base and stem that would enhance the table coordination, and also come up with a bowl to place fruits in. We often start our creation through episodes and stories we imagine, like for an anniversary, it might be nice to use a chic, dark colored dish, with candlelight and food like this, or that.”
At Akane Pottery, theirs is a style that combines the efforts from both artists. They don’t separate the worlds of their imaginations, but discuss what they envision and work on creating the inspired pieces together.
Yoko says, “Inspirations in what we want to create may change, and as we age too, it changes. In our younger years, we pursued a world of quiet simplicity, but as we matured, we sometimes wanted colorful pieces, too. There are also pieces that we were able to make easily when we were young and strong, but as we age, we have pieces that we can now make because of the experiences we have gained.” I asked if such changes clash or become an issue between the two of them.
“The changes in the pieces we want to make usually occurs at the same time for us. Perhaps our biorhythms are in sync,” responds Yoko. Kaori nods and adds, “We have a lot in common, and that includes the background details when we think about the situations for how the pieces will be used. This is why we reached and settled in our present style of combining our efforts.”
“Our relationship is equal, and neither of us are the boss. In comparison to people the same age as us, who have lived a very tight, full life filled with various experiences, we may not seem to have achieved something specific. We get up in the morning, we make our pieces, go to sleep, and we get up again to repeat the process. But we have fun in what we do, and our timing in when we want to have coffee breaks are in sync, too. We often go out in the garden for coffee, actually we have lots of coffee breaks, and enjoy ourselves. But when we get in a zone, we work non-stop.” As one explains, the other echoes or clarifies, and their message becomes one when telling me their thoughts.
As children, they both dreamt of pursuing life in the world of art, and both chose art as an elective course in high school but after graduating, each went their own separate ways.
Yoko majored in oil painting in a university in Tokyo, where as a freshman, she had the opportunity to learn the basics in woodwork, sculpture, pottery, design, and Japanese-style painting. She found pottery the most exciting and requested to the dean to change her major. She says, “Just like with wood lathes, I get completely absorbed in circular motions, like I become one with the turning of the machine, or become a tool to it. That feeling of becoming one was comfortable for me, and that still hasn’t changed…”
“With oil painting, we can get the tools together on our own somehow, and we don’t have to be in school to paint. But with pottery, we need a wheel and a kiln. The university had a number of kilns and we were blessed in an environment where each student had access to our own kiln. Taking those factors, I felt it was far better to learn pottery than oil painting and decided to change my major.” She spent her school years immersing herself in making pottery, and in her free time, visited areas in the Kanto area famous for pottery, like Mashiko and Kasama. On school study tours, she visited Imari and other places across Kyushu, as well as Bizen, Mino, and Seto. On her own, she also visited Shigaraki in Shiga. After graduating, she worked as an instructor at a pottery school in Shibuya for six years.
I wondered, what Kaori was doing at that time.
“When I was a sophomore in high school, I objectively saw my level of artistic talents, and gave up going to art school. I went on to an all-girls’ college and studied English literature, and was employed with an airline company after graduating. Because I was distanced from the world of art in work, I spent my days off visiting museums and galleries, looking at various types of work, and through magazines and books, I was always exposing myself to art. As you know, Okinawa doesn’t have many art exhibitions. That’s what made me want to go outside of the prefecture and I got my chance when I went to college in Tokyo. For me, it wasn’t really about choosing a specific school to study something specific. It was more to go beyond Okinawa. It felt liberating, the four seasons were very clear, and the world was full of things I had yet to learn, so it was fun,” says Kaori.
When she started working, she began to travel to various parts of the world, and saw the charm of every region she visited. Even at that time, she never thought that she would spend her life creating, but somewhere in her heart, she always felt the passion for creating pottery. Kaori returned to Okinawa two years before Yoko, and spent them somewhat uneventfully. When Yoko contacted her with her intention of starting a pottery studio in Okinawa, Kaori jumped on the wagon without hesitation.
Kaori says, “My father was a big Yachimun pottery fan. He interacted with the famous potter, Eisaburo Arakaki, and at our house, we had Yachimun pottery in our daily lives. I learnt the differences between pottery and porcelain at an early age, and when I was doing pottery during art class in high school, I thought I was pretty good (chuckles). Oh, and the Yachimun pottery that my father collected, they had a way of making its user smile. Like the old cup and saucer made in Tsuboya. The saucer was a little too deep and when trying to hold the cup by the handle, the saucer would get in the way a little. Despite that, my father loved that cup and saucer, and every time he drank his coffee with them, he would laugh and say ‘I’m pretty sure that the potter who made this never drank coffee’. I enjoyed watching him and hearing him enjoy himself using that cup and saucer, time and time again. I think this was when I was in junior high school, but I think this is the origin, this is what put me on the path in creating pottery.” Yoko, on the other hand, says, “For me, my tea cup was my starting point. I grew up in a family that would renew the dishes and cups every year. Every year, I remember, I was excited about the new dishes we’d use for the next year. I even chose the pieces for my younger brother. There’s something special about pottery, because they’re fragile and easy to break, we have to take care in using them. As a grown up, I now create pottery and I sometimes find myself somewhat excitedly overwhelmed about it all.”
The paths that these two ladies walked were different, and their personalities are contrasting, but they seem to share some important things in common. Like the childhood environment, the times, and culture they lived through.
“The lifestyles of our parents are similar, too. Like the Yachimun in our homes which were a part of the folk art Mingei movement, and the electrical appliances from the period of Japan’s high economic growth and onward. Even our furniture and the layout of our kitchens were similar. We’re from a generation where we refer to ‘kitchens’ as ‘daidokoro’, in Japanese (laughs). There’s that somewhat nostalgic feeling from older things, and that’s reflected in our creations too. Whenever we think of things we want to make, we don’t really have to explain things to each other with words,” they explained.
Many of the dishes from Akane Pottery closely resemble those of the mid-century style representative of the 1950s. They said that for family outings for meals, each of their families often went to places like the Pizza House and Getsuen-Hanten, establishments founded in the 50s and long loved by the locals. Perhaps their work is also influenced by the international culture known as the Ryu-Bei (Ryukyu and American) culture that flourished during the period of American occupation of Okinawa.
“When we were thinking of the location for our Akane Pottery studio, we were very comfortable in this former military housing area. The wooden-framed windows have a nostalgic feel, the aged atmosphere set by the floorings, the simple and humble exterior and the appearance. The space really met both of our tastes.”
Just from appearance, the pieces created by the ladies at Akane Pottery are not very Okinawan looking. They are simple with minimal decorations, and also without designs that remind us of anything Okinawan. Yet their stance in creating “pottery for every day life that enhances our lifestyles,” and the stories that unfold in the creation of the pieces are somewhat very Okinawan. We can also say that the ladies, born during the time of American administration in Okinawa, and their separate paths that took them to feel the allure of various cultures in mainland Japan and countries and regions around the world, are another aspect of something very Okinawan.
“The red clay of Okinawa is hard to shape unless we make the pieces thick, and because the pottery world in Okinawa is long-established and the traditions have been carried on through the generations, there are obviously certain rules. So that’s why for us, who learned pottery elsewhere, to suddenly return from Tokyo and start making Tsuboya pottery items, was just not fitting, it didn’t feel right. Besides, there really was no need for us to do so, and we’re not even qualified to carry on the traditions,” says the two of them, who also add that they can’t imagine where or what their paths will lead them to next. Yoko shares, “I don’t want to set goals. I won’t decide on specific tasks. I’ll do what I feel I can do in the way and shape I can do them. I don’t want to pursue something larger-than-life, but just us, just as we are. I want to keep creating as long as I can, even when I am an old lady.”
Kaori casually says, “There’s just so much going on in the world. There are so many things that make me feel uncomfortable. Negative things stick out like a sore thumb. That’s exactly why we need to work on finding the fun, positive things. When we exert positive things, we can sort of trick ourselves and feel happy. If we can feel positive in our every day lives, that’s really the best thing. I create with that in mind.”
Those were the thoughts they shared when I asked them if there was anything they wanted to add in this interview. Those last thoughts they shared with me, I felt, were very Okinawan, indeed.
Address: 4-34-3 Gusukuma, Urasoe City, Okinawa
Business Hours: 13:00-18:00
Closed: Thursdays, Fridays (May be closed on other days due to circumstances)
Okinawa CLIP photo writer, Nobuya Fukuda