Legacies Live on in Kingdom of Kato
By ROBERT YELLIN
for The Japan Times, June 12, 1999
In many ceramic centers around Japan a common thread in the community is not only a particular style but also a last name. For instance, if you walked into the middle of Tachikui, where Tamba is made, and shouted "Ichino-san!" almost all the houses would empty.
The same holds true in Bizen, where there are plenty of Mori and Kimura. Tradition is pivotal here and the handing down of names, as well as kiln secrets, from generation to generation is strongly rooted in the pottery world.
In the area around Tajimi and Toki cities in Gifu, where Mino wares are fired, the family name Kato is king -- one of the reasons being that the founder of the first Mino kiln in the hills of Toki was Kato Kagemitsu (1513-1585). That was in 1574.
Tokkuri (sake flask) by Kato Kageaki
and Guinomi (sake cup) by Niwa Ryochi
Many of his sons also founded kilns; his second son Kagenobu established in 1597 what some say was the premier Oribe kiln, Motoyashiki, which means "original residence." Kagenobu introduced the multi-chambered climbing kiln (renboshiki noborigama) after returning from a research trip to Karatsu in Kyushu, where Korean potters introduced the first noborigama to Japan.
Living and working within walking distance of the Motoyashiki kiln site is the workshop of a descendant of Kagemitsu, Kato Shoji (now named Kato Yasukage). His grandfather was Kato Kageaki (1899-1972) and his father is Kato Seizo (1930-1979). A retrospective exhibition showing 99 pieces by Kageaki and Seizo is on now at the Gifu Prefectural Ceramics Museum (Gifu-ken Toji Shiryokan) until Aug. 1, 1999.
Mino province was once the name of the area located in southern Gifu Prefecture and now Mino refers to a variety of pottery styles which are: Shino, Oribe (these two have many sub-styles), ki-Seto (yellow Seto) and Seto-guro (black Seto). These styles are found primarily in tea-ware forms, and that is the emphasis in the current exhibition. (Please see our Mino Guidebook for more on all these styles.)
Tea connoisseurs in the Momoyama Period (1573-1615) appreciated the thickly potted chawan (tea bowls) and the milky-white feldspar glaze of Shino. The thick walls of a Shino chawan insulate the heat from the tea and make the chawan easy to pick up while admiring the emerald green frothy beverage against the white walls.
Shino also has the distinction of being the first Japanese white-glazed pottery with iron-oxide brush markings; most decoration on pottery up until that time had been carved, incised or appliqued.
Another characteristic of Shino in general is small pinholes called suana (nest holes), which tea masters favored and termed yuzuhada, or citron skin.
Many of Kageaki and Seizo's chawan have very similar brush work like that seen on Momoyama Shino: spontaneous and free-flowing geometric patterns, reeds, flowers and trees, calligraphy, mountain ridges and Zen circles (enso). Quite a few have a yama-michi ("mountain path") drinking lip and strong, bold, rounded forms.
The red flash marks on some Shino are called hi-iro (fire color) and can be seen on many of Kageaki and Seizo's Shino pieces where the glaze has been thinly applied and the iron in the clay interacts on the body. A few substyles of Shino are also on display and those include the aforementioned e-Shino (decorated), muji Shino (plain white), beni Shino (red) and nezumi Shino (gray or "mouse-colored"). A few Oribe and ki-Seto chawan are also on exhibit, but appear lackluster next to the rich sincerity of the Shino pieces.
Other forms and styles in this exhibit include mizusashi (fresh water jars), kogo (small incense containers), sake utensils, ewers and hanaire (vases). The rare Mino-Iga style, mostly found on mizusashi and hanaire, is also on display; it tries to imitate the rustic forms of Iga ware using a toffee-colored glaze.
The two men's chawan show a contrasting temperament. Kageaki shows more restraint and dignity, while Seizo's work is full of outward charm and bolder decorations -- most likely a reflection of the times in which they reached maturity.
A grand and quiet, elegant aura surrounds Mino wares, which the tea masters of long ago obviously felt, and these two Mino potters carried on the tradition in a way that would make Kagemitsu proud. It was a great loss to the Mino ceramic community when Seizo passed away at age 50 -- he was just reaching his prime.
In the 1969 book "Contemporary Chawan," the late ceramic critic and dealer Ryoji Kuroda wrote of five great hopes of Mino: Seizo, Suzuki Osamu (now a Living National Treasure), Kato Kozo (a Gifu Prefecture Intangible Cultural Property), Kato Takuo (Living National Treasure for luster wares) and Tamaoki Yasuo. Kato Kageaki was named a Gifu Intangible Cultural Property in 1958 for his Shino and Oribe.
Pottery critics and collectors are hoping that Seizo's son Shoji will continue on in the family tradition of making heart-warming Mino wares and ascend to the 14th generation of this creative family. I've seen the family roots (at this exhibition) and I've seen Shoji's chawan (a recent Tokyo show). Accepting the baton, Shoji is running strong in front of the legacy of his family's glorious past.
The Gifu Toji Shiryokan, (0572) 23-1191, is located at 1-9-4 Higashi-machi, Tajimi-shi. The easiest way to go is take a bus from in front of JR Tajimi Station, some 40 minutes from Nagoya on the Chuo Line. The shiryokan also has four rooms of permanent displays. Admission 300 yen for adults, 200 yen for college-high school students and 100 yen for younger students. Closed Mondays.
The Japan Times: June 12, 1999
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