October 1998. MATSUMOTO EXHIBITION

Matsumoto Exhibition Frannie and I have just returned from a very wonderful trip to Japan. Frannie experienced and understood the charm of the Japanese people that must have captivated Bernard Leach during the years he spent in their country. We have met their kindness; warmth and sense of humour everywhere we went. Along side those intellectual and aesthetic discussions on such things as the formation of the Mingei [folk craft] movement I feel sure the minds of my grandfather and his Japanese friends chose some light relief, in fact, one old acquaintance who turned up at the exhibition said he could remember the subject of food being talked about for an entire day!

The purpose of the trip was an exhibition of 150 pots in Matsumoto. During my first visit to Japan, Simon Piggott [an Englishman who has lived in Japan for 25 years and has very successfully helped to negotiate and arrange visits between Nagano and Devon with the cultural aim of trying to revitalise our rural communities in particular] managed by chance to meet Sanshiro Ikeda, who had been a great friend of my grandfather. Sanshiro was determined that we should bring an exhibition to his city, Matsumoto. During the 1950's Bernard spent considerable time in this city where I think he wrote ' A Potter in Japan' with the help of Yanagi, Hamada and a few others. Bernard was there long enough to have left quite an impression and it was that influence which was the key to the heartfelt invitation from Sanshiro.

During my first visit I was invited to Sanshiro's house where he pulled out old diaries of newspaper cuttings and letters about Bernard Leach dating back to the 40's and 50's. He also took me into his own huge personal collection of furniture in a fine three storey building the top floor of which housed the most extraordinary range of chairs from all around the world. He told me he sends his apprentices into polish the chairs each morning so that they can learn about good furniture. On the ground floor there was a quiet room for prayer and around the butsudan were photos of the Empress, Yanagi and Bernard. The Mingei movement had a profound affect on this entrepreneurial businessman and indeed according to his son Mitsuo. Sanshiro tried to kill himself when Yanagi died. Sanshiro started a very successful furniture making business using the hand rather than the machine wherever possible. The business is a family affair with both his son Mitsuo and now grandson Moto running the show.

There was a good deal of negotiation involved in the setting up of the exhibition. Setting prices and dates, the quantity of pots [150] and their preferences for the kinds of pots we make were all looked into. Of the 150 pots 50 were to represent our more individual pieces and 100 standard lines. They preferred the more traditional English slipware in the honey glaze rather than our Persian blue. By the end of June we had made the pots and shipped them by sea- no mean feet.

There had been some anxiety about the trip on Frannie's part not least because of the long flight to Japan and because it was the first time we had left Jesse for any length of time to cope with his medicines. On September 26th, Jesse's 18th birthday, we flew from Bristol airport via Amsterdam to Nagoya, Japan. The first three nights we spent with Simon Piggott and his wife Masako, and three girls perched up in the mountains at his home in Oshika-mura. Rather like the English summer here they were suffering with lots of rain but this did not stop us getting out and visiting some interesting people like Misau, the potter. She lives with her two brothers and her mother who is the ripe old age of 88. Their home is traditional with the cooking done on an open fire set in a sunken ashpit in the middle of the floor. The entire room is black and a charred wooden fish hung on a chain holding the kettle is there to protect them all from the dangers of the fire. They grow all their own food and the pottery seems to have joined the annual cycle of growth and harvest. Misau fires her enormous wood-fired kiln once a year in January when they stoke the kiln for 17 days and then leave it for 30 days to cool. The ware is simple and unglazed and much of it made without the use of the wheel. Decoration on some plates is made by laying rice straw between the dishes in the kiln. If she has 60% success, she is content and a very warm and friendly person.

Frannie's initiation, where to wear and where not to wear shoes, to the Japanese hot spring, to the food, to the toilet and to the language had all gone into full swing.

September 30th, and Simon drove us to Matsumoto the central part of which is still very beautiful and is dominated the very old Matsumoto Castle. This is surrounded by three moats each a little wider than the flight of an arrow and the closest moat is filled with large, colourful coy carp. The city lies in a broad plain of the Nagano Valley and is surrounded by the high peaks of the Japanese Alps [These seemed familiar from the sepia drawings of Bernard]. By chance, the Matsumoto City Museum had just released 6 more drawings by Bernard as post cards on the same day our exhibition began. I asked if it was possible to obtain a pack of these postcards for each member of my family and the director kindly donated six packs.

 

Apple Picking

Apple picking in Matsumoto 1998.

The gallery is in the furniture showroom, which is in an older street, quite narrow with shops selling antiques, pottery and the occasional restaurant.

I had known about Sanshiro's failing health and old age so it was no great surprise when we learnt that he was too unwell to meet us. We were extremely well looked after by his secretary Sekita and his son and grandson. The exhibition was a great success for two reasons. Firstly because we sold 80% of the pots and secondly the exhibition provided an opportunity for a considerable number of old acquaintances of Bernard to come and see us. An old doctor phoned unable to make the trip to see us while other people arrived with pots and a drawing seeking authentication on the artist [this was a little tricky]. And we were able to learn something of the mood of the time in the early 50's. A fine old man Nittasn who runs a teashop and guesthouse ' MARUMO' just around the corner, told us of his troubles after the Second World War. He had been badly injured and with his sight severely impaired he wondered what to do. He felt some comfort from listening to music but on meeting Yanagi received this advice.' Open a teashop with good furniture, play good music and sell Russian Cake [we never did quite get the significance of the Russian cake!]'. The spirit of that 'kissaten' still runs true today and it is a soothing retreat fro9m the bustle of the outside world.

Frannie and I helped to man the exhibition each day with the aid of an interpreter. During this time Teiko Itzumi from the Folk Craft Museum in Tokyo came out to our show to collect a coffeepot made by my father and donated by my mother to the museum.

While staying in Matsumoto our accommodation was a 20-minute bicycle ride out of the city to Ichikawasan, a hot spring inn [onsen] on the outskirts of the city. I say bike-ride because they kindly provided us with gitensha to go in and out each day through the paddyfields. The onsen was a quiet family affair run by Okamisan and her pretty daughter-in-law who just treated us so well. The hot spring literally bubbles up from the mountainside straight into the bath in the building, and so we were able to 'take the waters' both morning and evening--how relaxing! Ichikawasan had been recommended by Sekita-san who said that this water was the best in Matsumoto and should be drunk as well as bathed in. He took me to the local public onsen next door one evening which was a bit like being taken to the local pub except maybe for the matter of clothing! Frannie and I enjoyed the food so much, the style and presentation is so different. One evening at the inn we were entertained to Sukiyaki, when thin strips of tender beef and mushrooms and other vegetables are cooked at the table in a light stock. This is served with raw egg, sticky rice sour pickles and warmed sake and makes a splendid meal.

On October 6th the exhibition finished and was taken down and we bid farewell to the lovely people with whom we worked. This was not before we were paid handsomely in cash and so we had to make a quick trip to the bank. The night before the exhibition finished Mitsuo Ikeda and his son Moto kindly treated us to a memorable meal in a French restaurant. They wanted to show their appreciation for us coming; they really did not have to. During this meal we discussed the possibility of setting up an archive to document the history of Mingei in Matsumoto before all the information dies away. Mitsuo said that he would be interested when his father Sanshiro had died. Sadly our only communication with Sanshiro was via a video camera.

Simon then took us out of Matsumoto and we spent the next night with some potters I had met on my first visit near a town called Ina. Shima-san has a lovely hose in the countryside against a backdrop of high tree covered mountains. This house served as her pottery and gallery for her work. The air was beautiful and fresh and the rice was being harvested from the paddy fields. The fields are a very bright lime yellow, with a tint of orange, and they loom up brightly against the surrounding landscape. Japanese houses are very flexible in their use. Each room is fitted with tatami [rice straw mats] and somewhere in the middle a small square can be lifted to reveal the ashpit for cooking. So the room can be used as a kitchen, a living room and as a bedroom. This particular evening was very relaxing and we were treated to Sukiyaki again. Shimasan is a busy person and she not only makes pots but also has two teenage boys and runs a wholefood shop with her husband.

The next two nights we spent at Toshio Kawate's house near Iida.Toshio and his wife, Yoko, hosted my first exhibition in Japan two years previously. Their home is traditional and gracious and has been in their family since it was built. They welcomed us in style and had invited their friend from Iida to come and make fresh buckwheat noodles [ soba ]. These have to be slurped or sucked loudly into the mouth-Frannie and I both need some practice! I had my first ever Hot Spring here with Toshio and he very typically whisked us both off to his local where Frannie was fortunate enough to meet someone to bathe with. Toshio is an established potter with his own woodfired-climbing kiln. Like the world over his trade is being affected by financial jitters. His wife goes out teaching swimming to help earn some money. They have two daughters, one of them is called Natsko and she was a great help with the first exhibition.

Their home is also beautifully situated with mountains further in the distance. In the foreground steep tree-clad hills were just beginning to turn to the rich autumn colours. The local town is nearly all in the older style and can boast three hairdressers. I thought that I would be clever and buy a bottle of Sake on the second evening. My Japanese is fairly non-existent so when I produced this bottle that evening Toshio said 'very healthy' repeatedly. I had managed to buy the Japanese equivalent of Sanatogen which can only be drunk in very small quantities.

Simon had been kind enough to drive us to Toshio's house and had been incredibly helpful in every way. His understanding of Japanese culture makes him a perfect diplomat since he knows the level at which to pitch, when seeking advice and negotiating situations.

Toshio took us with very heavy bags to catch a bus to Nagoya. It had been a good visit and one day I hope that we can reciprocate their hospitality in England. The last two nights we fended for ourselves in Kyoto. Simon had unknowingly booked us into a small inn [ryokan] that just happened to be 50 yards from the main red light district. Imagine our surprise when we stepped out at 6 p.m. almost into the arms of a geisha girl!

We visited the home of the late Kawai Kanjiro now being curated by his grand daughter. Rather like the St Ives Leach Pottery, Kawai's home is almost drowned by the urban growth. The huge climbing kiln is magnificently preserved and the house is filled with his pots and carvings which are carefully looked after. We spent most of the last day exploring two large Zen Buddhist temples. They are very tranquil places even with many visitors. Some of the walkways pass through mossy gardens and raked gravel and everywhere you look there is something to consider. As Frannie said you can have the feeling of being outside when you are inside.

On our final night we ventured into Gion [our 'Soho' district] for something to eat. The architecture is old and all the windows have bamboo blinds rolled down concealing the secrets of the night. We plunged into a small restaurant which had no plastic replicas of the meals you might receive inside displayed outside. Rice, sashimi with soy and hot pickled radish, tempura and a small clay pot of sake slightly warmed-perfect. That night I tried to explain that we needed a taxi at 6 a.m. to start our trip back home to England. We both very happy and would like to return one day.