Scorched in the fires of Iga
By ROBERT YELLIN
for The Japan Times, March 11, 2000
The influence on contemporary Japanese pottery from medieval kilns is still profound and deep, even though we have one foot into the 21st century. These high-fired unglazed stonewares can be found in potting centers commonly referred to as the Six Old Kilns (rokkoyo) -- the only problem is that this term is out of date and in a sense not true. At least 77 other ancient kiln sites belonging to the Sue tradition (5th to 12th centuries) have been discovered, leaving the "six old kiln" theory in the shard pile.
One great kiln not on the original six list is that of Iga. The Iga kilns, located in Mie Prefecture, are said to have been established during the Keicho Era under the guidance of the Tsutsui and later the Toda daimyo families, with the most famous kilns being the Makiyama and Marubashira.
One of the most celebrated mizusashi (water jars) in all Japan is the Iga "Yaburebukuro (Burst Bag)" which was most likely fired in one of these kilns. It has a highly distorted form with a large gash on its front; a light green glaze covers the entire body. Quite fittingly, it has been designated an Important Cultural Property.
After viewing "Yaburebukuro" one fateful day, Shuhei Fujioka decided to become an Iga potter. Such is the power of certain encounters in life. Since I don't want you Iga enthusiasts to miss his Kyoto exhibition that begins March 16 at Tachikichi, I'm letting you Kansai readers know now. Go, he's that good.
Iga is fired in Mie Prefecture not far from its more famous neighbor Shigaraki. These two medieval kilns have much in common, including pitted bodies and natural ash glazes. Yet, where Shigaraki has quite a few dozen potters and an internationally known museum, Iga has only a handful of potters and no famous anything, other than the only thing that matters: magnificent pots.
In the early 1970s there was in fact only one potter working in the grand Iga tradition, Kosei Tanimoto, who became Fujioka's master in 1974. Whereas Tanimoto makes very traditional shapes, Fujioka wanted to break away from age-old forms and create something vigorous and up to date.
He has succeeded in a bold fashion. His Iga has more of a sculptural quality than his teacher's, and yet retains the "three landscapes (mittsu no keshiki)" found on both potters' works.
The mittsu no keshiki are biidoro, hi-iro and koge. Biidoro is from Portuguese vidro (glass) and is a natural flowing, vitrified glaze which sometimes stops to form a globule called a tonbo no me (dragonfly's eye). On Fujioka's pieces these tonbo no me are an emerald green and highly prized.
Hi-iro literally means "fire color," and this is where the potter brings out the natural beauty of the clay (tsuchi aji) in sunset oranges or muted browns. Fujioka particularly excels in this "landscape."
The burned or scorched areas on the pieces are termed koge, and do look like the casualties of an overzealous toaster. Fujioka often places his works on shells in the kiln so the natural ash glaze (shizen-yu) can have a free thoroughfare around the shoulder. Shell imprints are left on the pieces and this is called kai-me, another decorative effect.
"I usually lose about half of each anagama [tunnel kiln] firing," Fujioka told me on the phone the other day. He said he fires for three days.
"As a matter of fact," he continued, "I'll be firing one more time before the Kyoto exhibit. It's not an easy life being an Iga potter. That's why compared to other potting centers we have so few full-time potters here."
On the exhibition announcement card is a stunning large platter with a light green glaze and three roundels of orange tsuchi aji. Other pieces include a massive mountain of a vase, dynamically carved, some fine sake utensils and a small, rugged kogo (incense container).
All in all about 100 pieces will be on display for sale and I'm writing this now rather than later so you'll never say I told you too late.
Works by Shuhei Fujioka, March 16-30 (closed March 22) at Kyoto Tachikichi Kogei Salon (075) 211-3143. Fujioka will be in the gallery March 16-18.
The Japan Times: Mar. 11, 2000
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