Although I have been here in Shigaraki for several weeks now, I have not yet grown accustomed to the idea of a community "wake-up" call: the Town Hall speakers loudly sounding "Edelweiss" each morning at 7 a.m. And without even cracking an eye, I am sure, even in my sleepiness this day, that I am likely one of the last to rise in this small, industrious community. Perhaps the tune's true function is wasted on me: perhaps it is really a call to the first tea break of the day, instead of a wake-up alarm with no snooze button, as I have experienced it.
Attempting to drift back into my dreams was unfruitful as the other morning sounds of this magical valley began to assail me: the trio of barking neighbor dogs, the rhythmic four-cadence "cawing" of a large Asian cousin of the North American Crow. But it was the Nightingale (having apparently forgotten what the first part of her name implied), offering her repetitive early morning "Oh -- Ohayoo....Oh -- Ohayoo", which must have pried open my sleepy but preoccupied subconscious...a subconscious which, of late, had been all-consumed with learning more Japanese vocabulary each day: "Ohayoo Gozaimasu....Ohayoo"...... "Good Morning". "Good morning indeed. How could I have slept so late on such an important morning as this?"
Leaning up on one elbow, I slid aside the rice paper shutter and had my first glimpse of the soft light on this crisp breezy morning. The opened shutter brought in the wafting fishy-wet smells from the clay-banked rice paddies below, and ushered in upon me what had been only 'white noise' in the background of my dreams: the enormous din, the chorus of croaking, from the rice paddy frogs, which only weeks ago had been clouds of black tail-whipping polliwogs....their polyphony now drowning out the resonations of all but the noisiest of the road traffic in the valley below.
The early morning transit offers a glimpse of Shigaraki's economy: stubby-nosed delivery trucks, open-bed dispatch trucks, clay-spattered dump trucks, trucks with cranes, utility vehicles, buses, refrigerated transfer trucks (perhaps delivering the as-required 'four-hour-fresh' sashimi from the seaports just hours away). In addition, motorcycles, scooters, mini vans, SUVs, (and my favorite: the foreshortened, squashed-looking mini-min van which resembles a rice cake on wheels), all whisked past my view, following the 'dot-to-dot' of utility poles which parallel the course of the road and small river, and define the meandering contour of the Shigaraki Valley. For twenty minutes in either direction they drive to reach the now-expanded Shigaraki city limits...a still-loosely-assembled and rambling town which now encompasses what had originally been 18 ancient independent villages stretched along this bounteous river valley.
Do any of these passers-by know, I wonder, of the unfolding events of this day?
Across the valley a quieter scene emerges: yellow-capped, backpacked elementary students head in one direction, marching past the homes of their neighbors and friends....down successive levels of residential streets which descend the slopes on the opposite face of the valley....each home a patchwork of blankets and futons, hanging out of the windows and from the balconies and railings and roofs -- taking advantage of the early morning breeze to air out the night things.
Traveling in the other direction are white-hatted, black-uniformed junior high school girls, all riding their basketted bicycles to school. They seem to converge at the far end of town, coasting their rides down residential routes, past tiers of tile- and tin-roofed homes which form an escalating, tightly-woven matrix into the sides of the thickly-forested hills -- hills which seem to completely enclose the valley.
And among all this, bamboo groves dot the landscape, meandering along the rice fields below, and dotting their way up the hills, past the homes and gardens, until they disappear, waving fluttering and bowing to the soft breeze, into the forested slopes above the valley.
"Shigaraki" -- literally "luxuriant forest" -- an appropriate name for these mountains full of tall razor-straight cedars and hefty red pines and the contorted bodies of the most-massive black pines.
And below all this lush beauty, an ever constant staple for both the eyes and the palate, the rice fields stretch out for as far as one can see. In the mirrored shimmer of the newly-planted paddies I can see reflections of all the activity on the other side of the valley. But this is a short-lived double vision: a myopia which will disappear within a few weeks as the voraciously growing rice plants block out the paddies' reflection at a pace inversely proportional to the declining din of the frogs (much, it would seem, to the delight of the cranes who dine on this annual delectable amphibial smorgasbord).
But what is the importance of this day which brings me to this place at this very moment? Of course, it has something to do with clay. Shigaraki, for the last 700 years has been a center of stoneware pottery-making. Heralded as one of the six "old kiln sites" in Japan, Shigaraki was, originally, an ancient lake bed.
During the Pliocene epoch of the Cenozoic era, Lake Biwa, Japan's largest freshwater inland lake, extended to cover an enormous area, enveloping for some nine million years the site where Shigaraki stands today. These developmental events....these millions of years of sediment and particulants settling to the bottom of Lake Biwa (on top of "Shigaraki", as it were)...were geology's gift to Shigaraki. This epoch produced an inimitable and high quality clay, which at a later point in time, the earth's forces lifted to form the hills and mountains of clay deposits which now surround the Shigaraki Valley, and which have sealed forever Shigaraki's place in world ceramics.
The enormity of Shigaraki's ceramic reputation was known to me long before I drove into this town several weeks ago. However not even its unrivaled status prepared me for the immeasurable amount of ceramic activity in the region. My first cursory count of clay galleries, and studios, and stores and factories -- just as I passed through town on Route 307 -- revealed more than 100 ceramics businesses. And without ever leaving my car, without entering even one of these establishments, I saw pots which numbered in the millions: pinnacles of pots neatly palletted outside factories, bunches of bins of tumble-stacked pots in front of shops, gaggles of galleries with pots galloping out their doors and into the parking lots. And all this without saddling up a single side street, without meandering into even one museum, and without pursuing, like the Christmas Wise Men of old, a single plume of smoke to a far-away hillside anagama.
The immediate view from my bedroom window reveals six large clay galleries. Among the amazing bevy of ceramic forms, both ancient and new, stands the "Tanuki", the cast-clay 'raccoon of good fortune', with its upraised paw, welcoming all Shigaraki's visitors.
These prodigious creatures bank the edges of parking lots, in ascending sizes, like bleachered fans at a sporting event: Tanuki from two centimeters in size to four meters in height. Thousands...tens of thousands of Tanuki waving good fortune and good luck.
Out of the corner of my eye I catch a movement. From the wave of Tanuki paws, to the waving of wings: I count 26 white cranes flying straight toward me and over the house. Maybe this is another sign of good luck on this important day.
Today we unload Karl Beamer's 10-day anagama firing -- a firing which took place at the invitation of and in the studio of Mr. Shiho Kanzaki. At first glance this may seem an inauspicious event, especially in a place like Shigaraki. One might safely assume that scarcely a day has passed within the last 700 years without several kilns in Shigaraki being unloaded, loaded, fired and cooled. Given the history of this site, a single additional unloading may seem a singularly unspectacular event, by Shigaraki standards. What might make this day so anticipated and so remarkable?
What might be most remarkable about this day are the unusual and unimaginable events which have preceded it: nearly 10 years ago the City Administrator of Bloomsburg, PA, USA, Mr. Gerald Depo, contacted a Japanese computer systems consultant about possible leads for developing "Sister City" connections between Bloomsburg and a Japanese city.
Further negotiations led the Bloomsburg administrator to make a trip to Shigaraki to explore this relationship with local officials there.
The original plans for the visit called for Depo to be hosted by Shigaraki Master Potter, Mr. Shiho Kanzaki. In addition to being a prominent potter, Mr. Kanzaki was a pioneer in computer networking systems, having established "Biwa Net" many years before.
Unanticipated conflicts of schedules forced Mr. Kanzaki to be in Tokyo for an exhibition during the entire duration of Depo's stay in Shigaraki. And Depo left Japan without ever having met Mr. Kanzaki.....but not without having fortuitously collected several of Kanzaki's books and catalogs.
Back in Bloomsburg, the books and catalogs somehow found their way to local professor, Karl Beamer, ceramics instructor at Bloomsburg State University. Beamer later admitted to being totally captivated by the images of Kanzaki's work. "These were the kinds of works I'd been envisioning for 20 years, but didn't know how to achieve."
In short order, and without ever having actually met Mr. Kanzaki, Beamer and Bloomsburg University extended an invitation to Kanzaki to come to BSU as a visiting artist and lecturer.
Kanzaki countered with an invitation to Depo, Beamer and the Chair of the Bloomsburg Art Department: "Before I come to America, please come to my town, to my home and studio. Come see my works and experience my life style. Then we can decide."
The three Americans agreed. Again fate intervened to nearly sabotage the visit: two days before the Americans' arrival, a tragic train wreck caused 48 deaths in Shigaraki. All the formal visits between the American delegation and the town officials and dignitaries needed to be canceled in light of the more-pressing needs of the Shigaraki community.
So the group of three were limited to some local sightseeing and many hours at the Kanzaki household.
However, Beamer's time with Kanzaki and his works had more than convinced him to reissue the invitation for Kanzaki to come to the University as a visiting artist. And in spite of the local tragedy in Shigaraki (or perhaps in part because of it), Mr. Depo was ready to attempt to finalize the Sister City relationship with Shigaraki.
In late 1991 Kanzaki made the anticipated visit to Bloomsburg. But an unfortunate sequence of intercultural misunderstandings and a series of mis-translations all-but derailed the experience for Kanzaki. He left bewildered and confused and feeling misunderstood. "Many times I tried to say, 'All my works I am making according to my spirit, which is according to Buddha and my life philosophy.' But the translator could neither understand nor translate. So I did not have the chance to tell them my true story."
So confusing was the Bloomsburg exchange that when, months later, Mr. Kanzaki received an invitation from Beamer to come build an anagama kiln in Pennsylvania, Kanzaki held back (in spite of his secretly-held, life-long wish to build one of his specially-designed anagama kilns in the United States).
A year passed and again Bloomsburg issued an invitation for Kanzaki to visit and to consider building a kiln in Pennsylvania. Still holding the invitation at arm's length, Kanzaki simply said, "I have an exhibition in Munich. I am very busy."
To Kanzaki's astonishment, Mr. Depo responded by saying, "I will be there (in Munich)."
During his visit with Mr. Kanzaki in Munich, Mr. Depo conveyed this message: "If you want to return to Bloomsburg, everybody is welcoming you."
Following the Munich exhibition, Mr. Kanzaki and his wife, Keiko, returned to Japan via Bloomsburg. This time the foibles of intercultural exchange were kept at bay. Both Beamer and Kanzaki reminisce that during this 1992 visit they both came to recognize that each others' "hearts and spirits were warm....."
Plans were quickly hatched for a 1993 anagama kiln-building project in Bloomsburg, on the property of Karl and Ginny Beamer.
"Karl's and Shiho's Dream Kiln" was built and fired by Kanzaki, Beamer and two of Kanzaki's assistants during the summer of 1993. The long stay at the Beamer's house cemented a sense of friendship and mutual respect between Beamer and Kanzaki. "Karl and Ginny's hospitality came from their heart and spirit. They provided us everything," Kanzaki reports. "As I told Karl all my thoughts and spirit and philosophy, I discovered that we have similar thoughts....a similar understanding of nature and the universe."
These unlikely and circuitous series of events were but the tip of the iceberg which eventually led Karl Beamer to be in Shigaraki on this important day in May, 1999. At Kanzaki's invitation Karl has spent from March through May preparing two firings' worth of work in Mr. Kanzaki's studio, and twice firing Kanzaki's Shigaraki anagama. These months together were yet another opportunity for Kanzaki to continue to pass along more of the Shigaraki tradition to Beamer. Today is the unloading of the second firing, in preparation for two exhibitions which are to follow: one in Shigaraki and another in the ancient ceramics city of Tamba. A friend of both Kanzaki and Beamer, I was invited to join in and witness these wonderful events.
For his part, Beamer reflected upon the unlikely sequence of events leading to this important day: "All the events in our lives, no matter how angelic or tragic, are gifts of great opportunities for learning and self-improvement. Our relationship (Kanzaki's and mine) is based simply on faith. I believe he has always given more than he has taken."
Beamer continued, "Yet our relationship is not without extreme energy: we are two 'rockheads' (hardheads) from opposite sides of the planet; two people so completely different and yet so absolutely alike."
"How can it be that I couldn't even explain my own frustrations in realizing the undefinable sense of aesthetics I was looking for," Beamer asked? "I envisioned something like this twenty years ago, but didn't know what it was. Now I am confident of self realization: not satisfied...but excited. I am content in working and need to be exhausted in satisfaction."
"I always believed," said Beamer, " in the power of the universe.....now I really believe! Kanzaki's sense of life has given me a better comprehension of what is important, and what is trivial. I am an improved artist, teacher, and person.....BEYOND VALUE. Kanzaki, his family, and his friends ARE part of the Beamer family. Simply put, he's taken me beyond the light of the sun and the moon. In the future I see this anagama taking me beyond the light of the sun and the moon."
Kanzaki adds, "Now in Karl's works, he no longer worries about the future, or strictly about form or surface. Instead he is making works only according to his mind and heart and spirit. His works are getting full of his heart and spirit."
"I think Karl does not use 'techniques' in the traditional way. His technique is following his mind and soul. These are the most important things."
And, oh yes, the 26 white cranes must have been a good omen: for the unloading of Beamer's firing (10 days with red pine wood fuel) revealed works which were his very best...works which took Beamer, perhaps like the flying cranes, through the sky and out beyond the light of the sun and the moon.
Dick Lehman is a full-time studio potter and writer located in Goshen, Indiana, and a frequent contributor to a variety of international ceramics publications. At Mr. Kanzaki's invitation, Lehman joined Karl Beamer in exhibiting at both the Shigaraki and the Tamba exhibitions.
Mail to Dick Lehman