A City That Has Become Synonym For Bonsai Pots
When departing from Tokyo to the west, which is best done by Shinkansen, the "bullet train", you will pass by Fuji-San or "Mr Fuji" on the way to Nagoya. During the winter he will be more likely to show his head without the clouds that cover him on almost 200 days during the rest of the year. From the train you can see the southern side, which is the front side of the volcano, covered by white snow well into the Summer. And like the Fuji, or like our bonsai, the Japanese islands have a front side, which is open to the Pacific Ocean, and a rear side. The most important cities, especially on the main island of Honshu, are located on the sunny side like a string of pearls, and the Shikansen connects them every 7 Minutes during the rush hours.
Once you arrive at Nagoya, you switch to a train of a private railway company and continue for about 30 kilometres southwards down the Chita peninsula along the Pacific Ocean. Palm trees and other tropical plants along the way are an indication of how close the ocean is.
About two and a half hours after the departure from Tokyo you will reach Tokoname, a city that, starting in the Meiji era, grew to be one of the most important centres of pottery. It will be no surprise that the entire town is about pottery - not only bonsai pots are produced here, but everything made of clay, from water pipes and copies of Italian flower pots to the legendary Tanuki, the Japanese symbol of success. Earthenware is stacked in every yard of the many manufactories. Ceramic bottles, bricks and tiles - everything is built into the walls and houses, which makes some streets look like ceramic patchworks.
But it's not the picturesque architecture we are looking for; among bonsai lovers, the name Tokoname has become a synonym for high grade bonsai pots. One of the reasons for its popularity is the existance of a very active marketing association which organizes the sales for around 50 potteries. The association also publishes a catalogue which is distributed world wide. This catalogue showing a wide array of pot colours and shapes is a great source of inspiration for each bonsai lover, whether or not you're not you're going to actually purchase one of these pots.
The manager meets us at the train station and takes us to a factory, where we meet Mr Hinagaki, who himself comes from a potter's family and was the manager of this factory until a few years ago. As it is custom in Japan, we are first served a welcome drink of green tea. The first minutes are a bit stiff due to the language barrier - Japanese people often speak English quite well but are still reluctant to use it in conversation. This effect wanes after a while, and the communication starts, often using gestures and sign language. Still an interpreter will be useful if you want to get into matters more deeply.
The green tea also helps us over the initial hesitation, but we are reduced to silence again when we are led into the large showroom under the roof. This room contains all kinds of pots that you could imagine, and some that you couldn't - some of the pots have the size of a children's bath tub, and weights that can hardly be lifted by two people.
But we should not just focus on the extraordinary here - there are all kinds of quality levels, from the basic ones to the most elaborate and expensive ones. A hand-made mame pot of 5cm diameter may very well reach a price level for which you would also get a more basic 60cm pot. I try to focus on the colours and structures the most - the confidence with which every pot is made into a harmonic unity of shape, colour, size, structure and ornament is admirable.
And of course we also came to Tokoname to get to know the potters that create these pots. Mr Hinagaki already made the arrangements, and so we are first taken to the Yamaaki kiln, a factory with twelve employees. It produces high quality pots, which are called "Shosen" in Japan. But whoever imagines an older Japanese craftsman working away in his shed filled with antique tools would be very mistaken and maybe also disillusioned by the more prosaic reality. The factory manager receives us in an matter-of-fact, grey factory hall and leads us up to the first floor. In the centre of the hall there is a huge kiln, which is covered with dust like everything that is not constantly in use. When it is fired during the summer, the temperatures must be unbearable. But now in November there is a calm and busy atmosphere among the plaster moulds, rack trolleys filled with raw wares, lumps of clay and machines with inscrutable purposes. Here on the first floor, the employees fabricate the raw pots and treat them up to the firing, on the ground floor they are glazed, fired and made ready for shipping.
In Tokoname the main technique used to create pots consists in assembling strips or slabs of clay in a plaster mould. First of all, a large piece of clay, about 50 x 70 x 50 cm, is sliced into slabs that are about 1 cm thick. One of these slabs is put into the mould as bottom of the pot, and the walls are created from strips that have been cut from the slabs.
Then the hollow spaces for the pot's feet are filled with clay.
This step is performed with special care. Then the walls and the bottom are joined together with a thick strand of clay and smudged together. The walls are finished with another strand of clay at the top.
Excessive clay is cut with a wire. Then a template for the rim is put onto the mould and the rim is shaped by pressing from inside against the template.
Finally the walls and the floor are finished with a putty knife.
After that, the mould rests for one to two hours, during which the plaster extracts humidity from the clay, making it easier to remove the clay from the mould. With additional support from the inside, the pot is removed and put away for drying.
After that the plaster moulds can be reused, but at most for one day until they become too moist and need to be left to dry again for a certain period.
When it has dried for a while, the raw pot is being refined.
The clay which is processed here comes in parts from Shigaraki, in parts from the Kiushu island. Tokoname itself used to have large clay deposits, which is why the development started here in the first place, but today the demand can no longer be met with local clay. The yellow clay from Kishu turns grey after firing, and the leather-coloured clay from Shigaraki turns dark brown. During processing the clay shrinks by around 13%, so to obtain a pot of 60 cm after firing, a mould of 69 cm should be used.
When the clay is leather hard, the holes in the bottom are cut with a device similar to a cookie cutter.
The potter's mark is added and the pot is refined for a last time.
Unglazed and particularly small pots are only fired once. The larger unglazed pots and the glazed ones are fired for the first time at around 800°C (bisque firing).
The final firing at 1200°C then brings out the great colours in the glazes. The kiln is fired with gas and is large enough to be loaded with rack trolleys.
Altogether, about 20% of the pots crack during production.
After these insights into the details of pot making, we were introduced to another factory, a smaller family business. The general way of production is the same as described above. Much effort is put into the detailed finishing. This is why the fabrication of more complicated shapes is very time consuming, even with the plaster moulds. The senior principal and his wife are busy with this work, and this provides us at least with a glimpse of a more romantic image of pottery.
During our return to Tokyo we are still impressed by the kindness of the people and the sense of pride that they take in their work. Even though they are a mass product, one can see that every pot is given the undivided attention of the person working on it. It seems to me that this is one of the reasons for the success of Tokoname bonsai pots.
Glazed pots before and after firing.
Text: Michael Exner
Photographs: Michael Kros
Our sincere thanks to BONSAI ART for kindly granting the permission to publish this article.
Translation: Stefan Ulrich