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The tiny treasures of Shimamura Hikaru

for The Japan Times
 First Published Dec. 9, 2000

The great 20th-century Japanese potter Kawai Kanjiro (1890-1966) marveled at items that were small and most people overlooked: a stone, a leaf, a box of  matches. He would toss them over and over again in his hands. 

"A box of fire! I marvel at the match," he once said. "We can put fire in a box and put it in our pockets -- what a wonderful thing!" 

In the world of Japanese pottery many traditional items are indeed small: kogo (incense boxes) or hashioki (chopstick rests), for instance. Most potters make these small sakuhin (works), yet most don't deviate outside the standard potter's path when it comes to form and function. 

That holds especially true if you happen to be a Bizen potter. It seems that most shapes were perfected centuries ago and the Bizen world has been spewing them out ever since.

Shimamura Hikaru (left) in New York

Bizen potter Hikaru Shimamura (left) with Michiko Shimura in New York

Enter Bizen ceramic artist Shimamura Hikaru (b. 1942). Looking like a hip jazz musician with  his scraggly beard and laid-back demeanor, Shimamura makes wonderful and fanciful Bizen works. After a three-year hiatus, he is back in Tokyo at Shibuya Kuroda Toen until Dec. 13, 2000. 

Like Kawai, Shimamura appreciates the "world in a grain of sand," as William Blake wrote, and this exhibition is aptly titled "Chiisana Takaramono -- Aki Kara Fuyu e (Small Treasures -- From Autumn to Winter)." Shimamura usually has a theme for his exhibitions, like the time he showed in New York and took a dozen Bizen apples to delight his Big Apple exhibition viewers. They sold out. Now, with the seasons changing and the last leaves of autumn touching the ground, Shimamura has decided to make some stocking stuffers that will delight the child in all of us.

As can be expected, orange and brown-tinged Bizen leaves can be found scattered here and there at the exhibition, as well as leaf-shaped koro (incense burners).

Pieces by Shimamura Hikaru

Toy tops make nice little gifts


Spinning tops (koma) always fit snugly into a Christmas stocking and Shimamura has made some of these as well. Back in the 1940s and '50s the Bizen potter Yozan Isezaki (1901-1961) made the prototypes for these little dreidels, but I don't think anyone ever appreciated them; it was just too serious a time. 

Small animal figures, like the tortoise chasing after a hare on one of Shimamura's tops, are known as saikumono ("sculptured things"), and Shimamura excels with them. The Bizen tradition has a long history with saikumono and ones are often seen of Shichifukujin (Seven Lucky Gods) or eto (Chinese Zodiac figures: rat, ox, tiger, hare, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and boar). However, the saikumono tradition in Bizen dwindled after the Meiji Era and only a handful of Bizen potters (Kaneshige Toyo, Nishimura Shunko and Uragami Zenji) carried the torch into the Showa  Era. 

Pieces by Shimamura Hikaru

Masu-shape sake cups

Shimamura has picked up the dropped, dimly glowing saikumono baton for us Heisei folks, and like the tortoise on his tops he's running at his own pace. Following in the saikumono tradition, he has chosen to essay the 12 eto figures, plus one. Legend has it that the cat wanted to get in the eto group but arrived too late and missed the cut. Shimamura, being a cat lover (he has a dozen or so at home), allows the cat in, and has some charming renditions of cats as well as eto figures in the current exhibition. 

One cat is stretched out on its back with one paw facing up; a small bell hangs on its neck. It's a bunchin (paperweight) and on a desk I'd bet one would get the urge to stroke its chin.

Another fun piece with a cat is the merry-go-round-like saikumono that also has all the eto figures chasing one another's tail. One can never say that Shimamura doesn't have an asobi-gokoro (playful spirit).

In fact, asobi-gokoro is alive and well in many other works in the exhibition, as seen in the appropriately small-sized catalog that was published for the exhibit. Small fiddles sitting on a Paganini LP would also serve well as hashioki. Three small square nesting masu (measuring cups) wait patiently on an old book, anticipating being picked up and filled with sake; these shapes were inspired by similar works by Toyo Kaneshige.

Shimamura is an enigma in the stiff world of Bizen pottery. He can be compared to the proverbial protruding nail, but one that none dares to hammer down. We should thank our own Shichifukujin for that.

Shibuya Kuroda Toen, (03) 3499-3225, is located on Meiji-dori  on the first floor of the Metro Plaza, a three-minute walk from JR Shibuya station.

The Japan Times: Dec. 9, 2000
(C) All  rights reserved

Shimamaru Hikaru and His Sake Vessels


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