Amber glow from the fires of Ohi
By ROBERT YELLIN
for The Japan Times, April 8, 2000
There are few glazes in Japan as captivating as Ohi-yaki's ame-yu. Its rich caramel color is most often seen on chawan (tea bowls) and mizusashi (water jars), and the depth and elegance of the hues draw the viewer into a very serene world.
Like Raku, Ohi is the name of a family as well as a style of pottery. Toshio Ohi, an 11th-generation Ohi potter, will be showing his traditional and modern ceramic works at Nihonbashi Takashimaya's sixth-floor gallery until April 12, 2000.
The Ohi family and its wares are indeed closely related to Raku; the first Ohi potter was the son of Raku III, Donyu, and apprenticed to the fourth Raku master, Ichinyu. In Kanbun 6 (1666), Lord Maeda established the kiln under the guidance of Urasenke tea master Sen Soshitsu in the hamlet of Ohi, Ishikawa Prefecture. The first Ohi potter took the name Chozaemon.
Click here to visit the family's web site.
As might be expected, most of the Ohi kiln output was chadogu (tea wares) in forms reminiscent of Raku pottery: high-walled, rounded chawan. Both styles never use a potter's wheel but are all made either by a coil method or a carving-out technique.
The first six generations produced wares exclusively for the Maeda clan and it wasn't until the seventh generation (1834-1894) that the kiln produced wares for the general public. Due to shifts in national politics, the Ohi family lost the Maeda lords' patronage and their fortunes took a downward turn. To ensure their survival, the Ohi family had to adopt an outside potter, Nara Rikichi.
It was Chozaemon IX who was successful in bringing the embers back up to a bright and prosperous glow. Toshio, the grandson of Chozaemon IX, was born in 1958 and makes all kinds of wares, not only for tea but also for the table, as well as large wall murals.
"When I was young I did not wish to be involved with the tea ceremony or ceramics," he writes in the exhibition catalog. "I did not want to listen. As I have aged, I have become so much more sensitive to the voices of those who have preceded me."
"I have respected and admired my grandfather since I was a child," he continues in a reverent tone. It's clear from his current work that he has listened well. I believe he probably became aware of those "voices" while he was away studying for his MFA at Boston University. Quite often we don't appreciate what we have until we step outside our circle and look back from the outside. This has happened with many potters born into traditional families, including Kichizaemon Raku XIV and the late Bizen potter Kaneshige Michiaki.
Toshio also wants to expand the Ohi tradition and he is doing this with his patchwork ceremonial vessels as well as his spiral motif tableware. He also makes some minimalistic wall plaques dotted with circles or etched with lines and points.
"Tradition," he writes, "is to receive past knowledge, break it down and use it in a creative way........Tradition shouldn't rely just on being passed down, but rather on there always being a next in line who has unreserved love for that tradition."
Toshio's love for his heritage comes out clear in his chawan and even more so in his mizusashi: big, angular, broad-shouldered, refined. We can see the famous ame-yu in overlapping rivulets on some; others have salmon-pink or ashen white bodies. They are like Monet in clay.
It's said that a potter comes into chawan maturity in his or her 50s, and I can see that truth in Toshio's chawan. They resemble his father's and grandfather's work, but in chawan there isn't much innovation that can be done. It's quite right to follow a well-trodden path.
I once asked a respected Bizen potter why he makes chawan based on Momoyama designs, and he casually replied that they are the best shapes and there's no reason to change them: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. I guess Toshio feels the same way.
You can be the judge for yourself, though, and see how a young man's respect and love for his heritage is reshaping what Ohi-yaki was and will become. Toshio Ohi will be in the gallery each day to discuss the more than 80 pieces on display for sale.
The Japan Times: Apr. 8, 2000
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