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Bringing out the flavor of the clay

 for The Japan Times, Aug. 12, 2000

Harada Shuroku is the consummate potter. First off, this highly successful ceramist doesn't put on any proud airs; he maintains a humbleness that is important when working with the earth. He shapes the clay and the clay has shaped him, so to speak, into what he is today; mutual respect at its best. 

Harada Shuroko - Award Winning Piece

Harada respects clay very much (he uses Bizen clay), so much that he processes it with a passion. To bring out the "flavor of the clay" (tsuchi aji) takes about 10 years. 

Secondly, his work is bold, without being overbearing, and fresh, even though he works in the 1,000-year-old Bizen tradition.  

To celebrate his being awarded the Japan Ceramic Society Prize, Harada will be having an exhibition in Tokyo at Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi department store's sixth-floor gallery Aug.15-20. This is a first for me, to recommend a Bizen exhibition in the heat of summer; Bizen is usually appreciated best in the fall. That season is just around the corner, though, so this will be a way to prepare by looking at one of Bizen's best.  

Harada has studied Ko-Bizen (old Bizen) for more than 30 years, including a brief time with the late Ko-Bizen scholar Matasaburo Katsura. They would dig through the old kiln sites and speculate on how the structures were built. Harada would also take home trays of shards (to-hen) which would help him to unravel the secrets of Ko-Bizen. He would sit for hours rolling shoulders of tsubo (jars) or necks of tokkuri (sake flasks) in his hands, looking for hints on how to fire Bizen as the masters did long ago. 

To get that Ko-Bizen look is the goal of many a Bizen potter (at last count I heard there are close to 600!) but only three come close: Harada, Abe Anjin and Mori Togaku; 80 percent of the rest are shallow souvenirs. These three modern-day Bizen greats process the clay and fire it -- yet, just as in baking an apple pie, there's always one person who can make it taste better, even though the ingredients are basically the same. Harada's Bizen has the aji (taste) of the world's best apple-pie-baking granny. 

Aji is, indeed, a term used to describe pots, as is keshiki (landscape). When looking at Harada's pots it's all right to say aji ga aru (it has flavor) or kore wa ii keshiki (this part of the pot has a good landscape). Harada's keshiki are the colors that grace his pots; some rare white goma (sesame) markings, an emerald-green natural ash glaze (shizen-yu -- all Harada's pots are shizen-yu), a mysterious black goma and a light yellow goma. Then there's the tsuchi aji itself with its pleasing purple tones (shiso-iro).  

Harada fires in a kiln of his own design and he understands how to get the maximum effect from it. In the current exhibition are some fabulous chatsubo (tea-leaf jars) that were fired using a technique called kabuse-yaki, in which one pot is placed over or in another, like a beer mug over a vase's neck or the lower  portion of a chatsubo in a large bowl.  

The unexposed area thus is left untouched by the swirling smoke and flying ash in the kiln and comes out with only the tsuchi aji, while the rest of the pot has a different keshiki, like the goma mentioned above. Sometimes the potter will put stalks of rice straw in the covered area, which leaves scarlet markings called hidasuki; another chatsubo in the exhibition has this keshiki on the lower half -- what a magnificent pot! 

About 60 pieces will be on display. Even though lighter porcelain or glass takes the heat off these summer days better, Harada's work is something that will leave you yearning for autumn.  

The Japan Times: Aug. 12, 2000
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