The potter's skill and the art of the flame
Formed by the hands of the potter and then transformed in the kiln, Agano ware invites one into a world of rustic elegance full of dignity.
Agano ware and the tea ceremony
The kiln of Mr Kozan Takata, a master craftsman of Agano ware, is situated at the foot of Fukuchiyama mountain in a quiet valley. Agano ware began with the patronage of Hosokawa Tadaoki, lord of the local Kokura domain in the Edo period (1600-1868). Later, of all the Agano kilns, the work of the Takata kiln became favored by the Ogasawara School of traditional arts and manners. The Takata kiln still makes pottery by appointment to the Ogasawara Family and for this reason tea ceremony aficionados visit all year round.
Even people who are not familiar with tea ceremony are pleasantly surprised to discover how light Agano ware is in spite of its sturdy appearance. The ware, in fact, has a special ambience that seems to invite the viewer into the world of traditional fine manners. After gazing at both small and large works for some time I found it hard to leave the bewitching world of Agano ware behind.
The Takata Kiln is in a peaceful valley.
Clay and glazes
Born in 1923, Mr Kozan Takata first started work at a pottery after returning to Japan from the war. He expected he would just stay two or three years before finding a "proper job." But 10 years later he finally decided to go it alone. He is now a master potter and chairman of the Master Craftsmen's Association of Agano Ware.
The making of good pottery is first a matter of finding good clay. Then, in the case of Agano ware, it is also a matter of composing good glazes with iron, copper, or rice straw ash.
Mr Takada searches tirelessly for iron-bearing clay to make good bodies and glazes. "I get excited when I find a vein of clay that has a black layer indicating oxides. Sometimes I find excellent clay in unexpected places. Sometimes a clay doesn't turn out as well as hoped when it's fired. What nature provides is all in the lap of the gods."
Mr Kozan Takata
A work entered by Mr Takata in a ceramics exhibition. Lines engraved on the lidded box make an unusual "worm hole" effect.
Technique plus fire makes art
There is no mass-produced ware in Agano. Craftsmen make their forms on the wheel using techniques handed down over many years and bring about the distinctive rustic elegance of the ware with glazing and wood firing.
Mr Takata fires his kiln in winter because the cold air causes the fire to burn more fiercely and keeps the temperature hot. He says in the summer he often has trouble getting the temperature up.
At firing time Mr Takata does not leave his kiln for two days. He watches over it, occasionally snacking on a rice ball, grabbing a few minutes' sleep here and there, and when he gets blisters on his face from the heat of the fire he knows the climax is near.
Ash glaze magic
Of reduction and oxidization firing the hardest is reduction firing. Even a highly experienced potter like Mr Takada suffers failures sometimes. But the reason he continues doing it, even at the risk of spoiling many months of work, not to mention wasting the truck load of wood that he brought from the mountains, is because of the incalculably beautiful effects that can be created by reduction wood firing.
Mr Takata used to fire 3 or 4 times a year, excited by the prospects of those ash glaze effects. Now he only fires once and when the results are good he says to himself, "The fire god has been."
Mr Takata stakes everything on his annual firing hoping for superb accidental effects.
Keep Agano tradition
Mr Takata bemoans the fact that some young potters are setting themselves up as professionals these days when they have had too little experience. He says with a traditional apprenticeship it takes at least three hard years to master the traditional techniques and only after 10 years will the master finally give you permission to go it on your own. "Only then can you express the 400-year spirit of Agano ware in the vessels you make." He says these days some young potters are purporting to make Agano ware even though they have not been put through the ropes and they make their pots with readymade clay and glazes. "You can't call that tradition," he complains.
Mr Takata did it the hard way and you can tell from the power and dignity of his work that here is the true Agano tradition.
At the Takada kiln