Potter Meets His Minka

Tucked away in a bamboo grove and rice fields in Tanba "Town near Kyoto, this farmhouse (minka) looks like the backdrop of a tale from old Japan. Tine lichen-covered thatched roof and the earthen walls of the minka blend so well into the landscape that is hard to imagine that this huge structure was brought here as recently as 1994 from its original location east of Lake Biwa. Now this 135-year-old minka is the home and atelier of potter Naoto Ishii and his wife. This new site for the house was chosen after careful consideration of wind directions and atmospheric pressure, because Ishii also wanted to fulfill his long-cherished dream of building a climbing kiln (noborigama) of the type that has been used in Japan since the Middle Ages. This type of kiln consists of several linked chambers built into a hillside, with the opening for fire kindling in the lowest section, and the chimney at the top. Most potters in Japan do not use this sort of a kiln because it is nearly impossible to control it due to the various forces of nature at work inside. However, this is exactly the aspect of working with a noborigama that fascinates Ishii, who points to his work saying. "Who made this pottery? Was it really I?"

Architect Katsumi Yasuda, an old friend of Ishii's, is quite knowledgeable about traditional homes. He believes that an architect should not impose his own ideas on his clients, but should instead facilitate the creation of a space that expresses the client's spirit. Yasuda found Ishii's minka, which had originally belonged to a wheat fanner, and had been thatched over with wheat straw. He advised Ishii during the taking of measurements, labeling, dismantling, transfer of the house piece-by-piece to the new plot, and its reconstruction. The basic composition of the house was maintained, but certain features such as a staircase and windows were added to improve its circulation and ventilation. Old fixtures were reused where possible, and the roof of the house was re-thatched with rice straw. Using traditional techniques, the walls were filled-in with wattle made of split bamboo lattice tied with rice-straw rope, and then daubed with mud. The inside walls were plastered with iron-rich mud brought from a nearby bamboo forest. The iron in this mud resulted in rust spots on the walls, making them all the more charming

Deep awe and respect for nature form the essential starting point of Japanese arts, especially pottery. When he recently climbed Mount Asama. an active volcano, Ishii was struck by the beauty of the countless rocks formed, colored and fired by volcanic eruptions, as if by God. the potter. This experience inspired him to create things that are stirring or forceful in their own way.

Ishii is dedicated to the primitive processes of making folk-style pottery, particularly Richo, a style popular during the Korean Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), He works the mud and clod with his hands, squeezing it through his fingers, and fires the shaped clay with special firewood in his nobongama -this involves burning wood continually for four-and-a-half days. Ishii spends most of his day in his studio. He takes time off for meals with his wife, to walk his dog, and to occasionally drink sake with his friends. He fires his noborigama once a year. He feels as if the age-old minka has helped slow down time for him.

Above right: Ishii crafts a wide range of pottery in this studio, ranging from vases and tableware to decorative objects. Here, the potter's wheel and the tools of his trade enjoy a moment of rest, covered with clay dust.

Above left: The black lacquered wooden rice chest is of the type used in a feudal lord's (daimyo) procession in the Edo Period (1600-1867). It was carried on shoulder poles inserted through the side handles. A bowl made by Ishii is displayed here, holding moss and grass from the garden.

Left: A creation by the potter hangs above a rustic Korean chest. The heavy wooden object, which Ishii now uses to grind clay, is actually an old Korean mortar originally used to pound steamed rice into cakes for New Year's Day.

Above: A traditional Japanese-style built-in hearth located in the middle of a room allows people to gather around it, sharing their warmth and a sense of intimacy, unobstructed by furniture.

Left: Tatami mats (ryukyu-datami) of the type originally produced in Okinawa, the southernmost island of Japan, are rougher and stronger than those made of igusa grass, which is the usual material used for making mats. These mats also have a special aesthetic effect on the room where they are used as they do not have the usual cloth border. A chest for books is seen in the background, built in Ishii's favorite style—Richo.

Opposite: Traditionally, meals in a minka home were eaten around the large hearth (iron) that formed the focal point of family life. In its new incarnation, this minka also has a Western-style dining room. The dining table has been made from boards left over from assembling the wooden floor.

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