Explore one of the most traditional Japanese Pottery Houses

July 4, 2017 Irwin Wong

It’s only a two hour drive from the endless sprawl of Tokyo, but the sleepy town of Kasama could not seem further removed from the frenetic hustle and bustle of Japan’s largest city. When Hamish and I pull up to Kuno Pottery in the early hours of the morning, it’s still deserted. The pottery workshop itself feels like its own little time capsule and in the morning light the atmosphere is absolutely still, as if the dust motes themselves are holding their breath, marking time.

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Under the squat building stretches the ancient and enormous terraced kiln that once formed the heart of this place, back when pottery was an indispensable industry. Now it lies cold and unused, partially in ruins from the massive earthquake in 2011. Stacks of firewood for firing the kiln reach up to the ceiling, untouched for years upon years. Of the many artisan’s workshops I’ve visited over the years, Kuno Pottery seems to carry the weight of its years most visibly. Keiko Ito is the 14th generation heir and operator of Kuno Pottery. When she arrives in her truck with her friendly dog Gabu it seems like time has been jump-started back into motion. She’s a soft spoken lady, intelligent and humble as most artisans are. The is an air of melancholy about her that maybe I’ve imagined. She is the last heir to a one of the most important traditional pottery houses in Japan. Several hundred years or so ago, the town of Kasama was one of the major centers for pottery production in the Kanto region.

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As you might expect, back in the day pottery was an indispensable industry due to the cheapness of materials and ability to mass produce. Pottery met the needs of common households and fief lords alike, and the terraced kilns – or noborigama – of Kasama were capable of firing hundreds and hundreds of items at once, making it one of the region’s most prolific earthen-ware producing towns. Nowadays, there are still roughly 300 pottery artisans living in this small town of 70,000 people – a lingering reminder of the pottery boom days – and a tradition that started right here at the Kuno workshop.

Pottery in Kasama was said to have begun in the 1770’s when a fellow called Kuno Hanzaemon met a traveling potter from a different part of Japan and learnt the craft from him. Along the way they built the first kiln in the region – a kiln which can still be seen today at the Kuno workshop. ‘It hasn’t been fired in about 50 years’ Keiko says. Understandably so; the demand for pottery has decreased and the trouble of stoking the hulking kiln, once capable of firing thousands of clay items at a time, is just not worth the effort. Added to that, parts of it were damaged in the great earthquake of 2011; here and there the ancient bricks have caved in, remaining unrepaired to this day. Keiko jokes that she can finally see what the kiln looks like inside – a question which has eluded her since she was a child growing up around the place. There’s a stone plinth outside commemorating the kiln as the birthplace of Kasama pottery.

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Inside, the workshop feels like part of the very earth itself. A patina of age, dust and clay has settled over the shelves holding racks unglazed pottery and the ancient machinery that keeps the wheels turning. It’s a special place with an atmosphere unlike any other workshop I’ve visited. Gabu the big friendly dog lounges in his spot with the occasional canine yawn. A massive exposed driveshaft running down the middle of the workshop turns at a sedate pace, connected to the pottery wheel that Keiko is using. In the space of thirty minutes she transforms a hunk of clay into several dozen teacups to await firing. ‘A more skilled artisan could have done this in a fraction of the time,’ she tells me. She looks skilled enough to me.

Towards the end of the day the talk turns towards the future. ‘I have a daughter,’ Keiko says, ‘but she didn’t want to become a potter.’ The truth was that Keiko herself wasn’t interested in pottery until her later years, upon which she returned home to assume stewardship of her ancestral home. She doesn’t have any apprentices. ‘This might be the last generation of Kuno potters’ she says. ‘But as long as people are interested in coming here to take workshops and buy pottery, I will keep doing what I can.’

 I don’t think about the future too much. I prefer to concentrate on what’s right in front of me.

Keiko Ito

 

Gabu the friendly dog saunters up for an ear scratching. The Kuno Workshop – so large old, once filled with numerous craftsmen creating ware by the hundreds – feels like a cozy and warm place.

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Gear Used

Stills: Sony A7rII
Video: Sony A7s + Atomos Ninja Flame 4K Recorder
Lenses: ZEISS Loxia 2.8/21, Otus 1.4/28, Otus 1.4/55,  Otus 1.4/85 + Lens Gear

This is the first time I got to use the three Otus lenses on a shoot and HOLY COW are these the most perfect DSLR lenses or what?? The quality comes with weight, but I have never had so much fun editing full frame photos – each of them made my jaw drop with their clarity, beautiful bokeh, focus falloff, micro contrast – the list goes on! I should also mention that the Otus lenses also seem quite well engineered for video of course – generous focus throws, minimal focus breathing, stunning wide open performance. I am in love with these lenses for the simple fact that they produce jaw-dropping image quality – without a doubt best in class. Ask me to pick a favorite and I couldn’t. The 28mm is perfect for reportage and environmental portraits. The 55mm focuses insanely close and is great for picking out details. The 85mm is a bokeh-lover’s wet dream. I don’t even get that excited about bokeh but these lenses do it for me. f/1.4 across the board – what’s not to love about that? In short, if you’re looking for full frame lenses for any camera, just buy these 3 with a lens adapter and never have to upgrade again.

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