WORKING IN MASHIKO
I had met Warren and Nancy MacKenzie a few times previously in Minnesota. I had a ticket on Northwest Airlines to go to Japan and find a pottery apprenticeship, but really no idea of how to do this other than just to go there. I told Warren my plan. He said, Well, let's see. Who takes foreign apprentices in Japan? Kawai used to, but he's not around anymore. Shimaoka takes apprentices in Mashiko. Why don't you try him? Nancy chimed in, Gee Warren, a letter from you would really help Greg out, don't you think? I wrote a letter to Mr. Shimaoka later when I returned home that day, describing how much I admired MacKenzie's pottery and of my interest in finding an apprenticeship in Japan. I departed for Japan a week later. In Japan I received his very short reply:
Dear Mr. Gregory Miller,
It Is fine for you to come and study in my workshop. It is very difficult work and I hope you can do it. Please call before you arrive.
With my future wife Alyne Delaney we got off the bus in the middle of Mashiko and walked a mile through the snowy town to our destination. Mr. Shimaoka welcomed us into his living room. The "interview" was a series of questions revolving around what I would do to support myself, where 1 would live, etc.,and conducted entirely in Japanese, which Alyne translated. I understood nothing, but it seemed clear it wasn't going to work out. In about an hour Mr. Shimaoka turned my way and broke into a big grin, saying in perfect English, Where are your bags? Aren't you staying?
I started working at Shimaoka's two weeks later. The first six months were rough, and I was a bit lonely, because I couldn't really communicate with anyone. Darice Veri and Masa Miyajima were kind enough to invite me to their home for English and pizza, for which I am still grateful.
I began my days in Mashiko waking at 5:30, going running, having breakfast, and then going up to the workshop to sweep the grounds from 7:30 with the other Japanese apprentice,Hamada Hidemine. I helped throughout the days with anything that I could understand to assist with, wedging clay, splitting wood, moving pots. Shimaoka runs his studio like a well-organized clock, or the conductor of an orchestra. If you don't understand Japanese,and don't have much experience in ceramics, it can be difficult. This is where the workers and older students help to make sure you do the right thing and don't get in the way.
In mid-April two new apprentices arrived, a woman from Kyushu named Fukuda Rui, whose father was a potter, and a man from Ishikawa named Kawakami Shingo. Along with Hamada, they made up the cohort of students who I was there with throughout my time at Shimaoka's. We all worked hard, six days a week. The big workshop was full then, with the two new students. I was selected to work in Shimaoka's own studio, next to his wheel. I always suspected that this was because I was so enthusiastic about wedging, and I ended up doing a lot of it.
Of course, even though Shimaoka wasn't yet a Living National Treasure at that time, he was incredibly busy with various commitments, travel and exhibitions. Nonetheless, he still managed to keep up a rigorous schedule of throwing and making new work. When making big work, Shimaoka would have Hamada pull up a cylinder for a vase, and once that was done, he would step in himself to shape it. I wedged all the clay for these vases, and almost everything else that Shimaoka made. While it was a lot of hard work, when I wasn't wedging I was sitting making pots at the wheel next to Shimaoka himself, and this is an opportunityI am forever thankful for.
When I first left Mr. Shimaoka's, people would say that my work was very Shimaoka-like, and I would get embarrassed and apologize. But I don't do that anymore. If someone thinks my work looks like Shimaoka's, I'm honored these days, flattered really. I think Shimaoka is making some of the most interesting work around. It is fascinating to look at the progression of his work in the several retrospective exhibitions which have been held lately. For a long time, I didn't use ropes on my work, but I do lately. I think I have enough distance now that I can use it as a technique, and not have my work turn into a copy.
The time I spent in Mashiko at Shimaoka's remains the springboard and foundation for all of my work in ceramics. It would be impossible to overestimate its impact on my life as well. I have exhibitions of my work on an annual basis in Japan, and it gives me an opportunity to check back with Shimaoka. He is kind and welcoming on my visits there. I have lived in a lot of places before and after my time at Shimaoka's, but apart from my parent’s house, somehow Mashiko always feels the most like home.
SHIKOMA AND NOBORIGAMA FIRING
At the turn of the century, Mashiko pottery was fired almost exclusively in large noborigama kilns. Mashiko kilns at that time were all producing very similar ware, and there were rotating squads of kiln workers that moved from kiln to kiln, loading and firing the ware for consistency. In the early 1920s, a young potter named Hamada Shoji returned from a three-year sojourn to England to establish a pottery in the town. The impact of Hamada and the Mingei folk craft movement he would help to establish on the town of Mashiko, nation of Japan,and world in large, was profound.
Shimaoka Tatsuzo first made contact with Hamada Shoji just after graduating from high school in 1939. The Second World War interrupted his study at Hamada's studio, which he resumed in 1946. Shimaoka worked in Hamada's workshop for three years, and then set up his own studio nearby in the following few years. He is still active within the Mingei Movement his teacher helped found. In 1996 Shimaoka was designated a Japanese Living National Treasure for his work on preserving Folk Craft Pottery traditions, and the technique he employs known as Gagman Zougon (rope impressed inlay).
Noborigama is a very traditional type of kiln in Mashiko. It is thought that this type of kiln architecture either was imported from Korea around the time of the Momoyama period or arose spontaneously from the kilns in the Tamba Area. A noborigama consists of a series of rooms which force the flame to rise and fall, extracting its heat far more efficiently than an anagama. Given that noborigama are traditional kilns in Mashiko, and that Shimaoka is a Living National Treasure, it might be tempting to think that Shimaoka fires his kiln as people always have in the town. In fact, the noborigama Shimaoka designed and used is one of the most unusual kilns in Mashiko, and his mastery of this kiln allows him to produce a tremendous range and variety of work from a single firing.
Shimaoka fires his noborigama for about three-and-one-half days. He gets a wide variety of pots out of his kiln primarily by using different rooms for different effects, and also by taking advantage of atmospheric and temperature differences within individual rooms. The front firebox of the kiln produces fly-ash-covered pots with effects similar to those found in Shigaraki and Iga. In the second small chamber, directly after the firebox, charcoal is introduced at the end of the firing, and this produces heavily-reduced ash-covered work called yohen (lit. kiln change effect). The third chamber produces higher temperature glazed work, about cone 10-11, primarily feldspathic glazes, and this is where Shimaoka’s copper reds are fired as well. The fourth chamber has slightly lower temperature glazes, in the cone 7-8 range, and these are primarily glazes traditionally associated with Mashiko ware, such as khaki, seiji, nuka, and kuro. The fifth chamber of the kiln is salt-fired. There is a sixth chamber, but it is always fired empty to ensure draft through the salt chamber in front of it.
From early 1992,1 spent almost two years working at Shimaoka's studio and assisted in more than a half-dozen firings. Each of these firings was unique, as were the pots which resulted from them. Kiln firings are not just about that three-and-one-half days. Clay, glazes, working environment, tools, and rhythm all enter into the firing success or failure. The following sections are a glimpse into the multiplicity of dimensions Shimaoka Tatsuzo explores each time he begins a new cycle for firing his kiln.
ALL IN A DAYS WORK
For students at Shimaoka's, the day starts at 7:30 or earlier, with opening the studio, sweeping the grounds, lighting the stove, and any other tasks to get the studio ready for work. At about 7:50 most of the workers and their wives arrive and gather in the main studio around the stove, and then at about five-to-eight, Shimaoka comes out from the house and warms himself by the fire, chatting with the workers and students about what is going to happen on that particular day. There are two tea breaks of thirty minutes each, ten and three o'clock, and lunch is taken at noon for an hour. On a normal day everyone at the studio works on producing pots, mostly independently, throwing, turning, impressing with ropes, applying slip, moving work in and out of the sun to dry. When there is a kiln to glaze pots for and load, everybody works together on this. Work on packing up pieces for an exhibition, moving firewood, or any of a number of other jobs is frequently done as a group. In moving pots or wood or whatever, lines are formed, and objects are passed along the line to get them to where they are going.
At five o'clock the town chimes ring and officially the day ends. Typically the workers leave first, and the apprentices and students linger on, making their own work on into the evening. Sometimes the workers will stay around, a bottle of sake will be produced, and stories and banter will be exchanged for a while.
Shimaoka uses three day bodies for his own work. The standard studio body, used by all the workers and students as well, is a red stoneware. This clay is not mixed at the Mashiko cooperative, but rather at a private clay maker up the hill out of town. It is a combination of Mashiko cooperative sara clay and local red clay from the area north of Mashiko. It is used for a broad range of work and is easy to throw. When impressed with ropes, the dark clay background helps the pattern stand out easily, even under thicker glazes. This standard studio body is almost always fired as glazed ware, but occasionally a piece or two is fired in the fly ash areas for effect.
Shimaoka imports clay from Shigaraki for almost all the work that goes into the first two chambers of the kiln. It comes in two types, one being very coarse, and the other fairly fine powder, probably the stamped version of the first clay. These two clays are mixed up as slip, and the water is drawn off as the clay settles. Because the constitution of the clays changes over time, they are mixed up batch by batch. Sometimes Shimaoka begins to work with the Shigaraki clay but finds it too short to throw because of the heavy amount of particulate matter in it. It's taken back, made up again with more of the finer clay. Even then, Shimaoka still picks large chunks out of the sides of pieces as he throws. Taking a rock out, he then inserts a bit of clay, smooths it down, and keeps throwing. Shimaoka is an extremely deft thrower, and can work with almost anything resembling clay on the wheel. In order to get the flame response and color he wants, he is willing to work with clay that is just on the edge of throwability.
The salt ware for the final chamber of the kiln is a combination of three clays. The first is sara clay from the Mashiko co-op. This is their best Mashiko clay, and it is possible to make large forms and plates with it without concern for cracking while drying or bloating during the firing. Shimaoka then adds the lowest grade of porcelain available in Mashiko and a clay that comes in a powdered form called dosembo clay. The porcelain addition gives the salt clay a finer particle size, which keeps the sodium fumes on the outside of the piece. The dosembo clay is typically used as wadding and in kiln construction and is a very coarse body with up to six mesh or so silica particles. It adds character to the work, as well as helping it stand up to the demands of wood/salt firing. The only other person at the studio who uses either the Shigaraki clay or the salt body is the oldest worker, Kamiya Fukuyan, who makes all of the hand-molded forms.
Recently, Shimaoka has been firing his noborigama three or four times a year. For each firing, he makes a series of forms in each type of clay. Work from the studio is also fired in a gas kiln every month or so. All of the pots fired in the gas kiln are done in the red clay, and many are then treated to a third enamel firing with red, green and yellow overglazes. The making cycle for the red clay is considerably longer than the others, because many of them go into the gas firing. Only the best of this work makes it into the noborigama.
A CYCLE OF PRODUCTION
A lightweight wheel is the mainstay of thrown work at Shimaoka's pottery, and typically the head and flywheel are made out of a solid piece of keyaki, a Japanese hardwood that resembles an elm in appearance. The head and flywheel are about the same size and thickness, maybe sixteen inches in diameter and four in thickness.These two disks are connected by four wooden stays,
the wheel turns on two bearings which rest on an iron pole planted in the ground. The wheel is not actually powered by kicking, but rather by using foot pressure to pull the wheel toward oneself. Most work is thrown off the hump, and having the weight of that mound of clay is important for creating momentum while work is being made. Almost necessarily, the clay that is used needs to be fairly soft, although not so soft as that which Hamada used on his hand wheel.
Shimaoka always begins by making large- and medium-sized vases, which he completes over a period of about two weeks. He first makes the bases of the large work. In this, he is usually assisted by a senior student who throws a cylinder which Shimaoka then moves in and alters, and another student who wedges and prepares the clay. On the second day as the bases for the large work firm up, he works on medium-sized pots. Then on alternate days he works on adding additional height, altering forms, and completing necks, rims, and openings. On these pots he impresses the work before he turns the form, as the tops dry more quickly than the lower portions of the work. Some of the pots are altered, and made into squared or ovaled forms.
The next groups of pots Shimaoka works on are smaller forms, and he usually starts making them in the middle of completing the larger forms. He always works in an order and makes a set range of forms. He starts with teabowls, a board of this form, a board of another. Then yunomis, then sake cups, then sake bottles. A whole series end up being a total of 256 pieces each time, which I once saw him make easily in a day, almost without effort, while entertaining guests, taking longer than usual tea and lunch breaks, and leaving early for a massage.
The oldest worker, Kamiya Fukuyan, has been with Shimaoka since he established his own studio. Apparently, Fukuyan was also at Hamada's when Shimaoka was studying there as a young worker. Fukuyan has never been a thrower, although he can if necessary. Rather, he takes care of making all of the slab forms, such as square plates, bottles, and other non wheel forms. All of these forms are made by hand, pressing clay into plaster molds. He is also Shimaoka's right-hand man at firing the noborigama and prepares all of the glazes that the studio uses. Another worker of Hamada's also went with Shimaoka when he became independent, a man with very solid throwing skills known as Ogeyan. The workers always said that he could throw 400-500 pots in a day on his hand wheel. In contemporary times, there is one main thrower, Ohtsuka Mitsuyan, and he is responsible primarily for plates, teapots and cups, although there have been as many as four workers at any given time. Mitsuyan is supported in throwing by the students and apprentices who rotate through the workshop.
Apprentices at the workshop start training on the wheel in the gray Mashiko clay known as sara clay. They always begin by imitating the studio yunomi, and moving on to more advanced forms can take from one month to over a year, depending on the skills the student comes in with. They might then be able to make tea sets or sake sets, before moving on to the zougon clay when Shimaoka says they are ready. Apprentices will work on many of the smaller forms while they are training, and often become specialists in a particular form: this student does plates, this student does bottles, this person does vases...In the past, the workers wives completed most of the trimming away of the slip to reveal the patterning of the ropes. All these women have retired since my time there, and a Chinese student has joined the studio specifically to do this work.
Shimaoka is best known for his work with rope inlay, a technique which is known as gagman zougon. It is this work for which he received the Living National Treasure designation in 1996, as well as for "folk pottery." Shimaoka was interested in studying with Hamada from a young age and first traveled to meet his future teacher in Mashiko when he was just out of high school. Duty as an officer in Burma during the Second World War and time in a Thai prisoner-of-war camp interrupted in his study at Hamada's. He returned to Japan in 1946, and moved to Mashiko with his parents. After a three-year sojourn at Hamada's, he started working for the prefectural ceramics institute in Mashiko, making molds of Jomon work. He began experimenting with cord impressions at that time. Shimaoka's father was a highly respected professional cord braider. Having a father who could make all sorts of patterns, and with encouragement from Hamada, he began his lifelong investigation using these techniques.
For impressing his pots, Shimaoka has more than a dozen ropes and cords that he uses regularly. These include dots, lines, herringbone, and other patterns in various scales. Most of these ropes are made of natural materials, primarily silk or cotton, although he does have a couple of ropes made of synthetic materials. Shimaoka also uses stamps, paddles, and incising to create the marks which are inlaid on his work. While Shimaoka's early work often relied on a single rope irhpression all over the piece, as his work developed it began to incorporate multiple inlay and slip work on a single piece.
First he chooses a rope for the particular piece he is working on, and then he dips it in water to prevent it from sticking to the work. The ropes are usually rolled from lip to foot, and the pattern naturally matches up as he moves around the pot. On any given pot he may use different ropes in decorating. Often, windows will be left on the work for either incised inlay, iron, copper, cobalt, or enamel brushwork later on.
The timing of when to impress a pot is important. If it is done too early, the piece will distort or the pattern will show through to the interior of the vessel. If the pot becomes too dry, then it is difficult to make the impression deeply enough to have the inlay work show well, or else the pot can crack. Pots are carefully monitored for dryness, and sometimes work is covered in plastic so that it dries evenly, especially plates and platters. Work often is inverted before it is really stiff to prevent the rim from drying too fast and to allow the foot to dry sufficiently to turn. Except in the case of large vases, the ropes are rolled after the work is trimmed. If the upper areas of the work are too dry, Shimaoka will sponge or dip them in water at intervals throughout the day until they are soft enough to impress well.
Shimaoka has a wide number of neutral and colored slips to work with. He has about twenty made up, but in practice rarely uses more than a half dozen or so. White is the most common, followed by blue (with addition of impure cobalt called gosh), and red or brown (addition of Spanish iron). For work that is fired in the salt kiln he will apply the blue slip, or a white slip that turns deep brown in salt (addition of alumina). These are kept on hand in gallon buckets and taken down when needed.
Shimaoka applies almost all of the slip to his personal rope-impressed work using brushes, often applying multiple colors on a single piece. With brush application, it is important to apply at least three coats of slip to the work. While it might seem easier to apply just a single thick coat of slip, this invariably leads to cracks in the inlay work which often come through to the surface of the piece when fired. Another problem with a single application is that the slip can dry too fast and will just fall off when the inlay is trimmed. Much of the standard studio ware produced by workers and students is done only in a single color slip such as blue or white. In this case it is possible to dip the whole piece in slip rather than having it applied by brush. When this is done the rim, foot, or handle of the work is wax resisted or, in some cases, wiped off with a sponge immediately after application.
While Shimaoka is best known for his rope inlay work, he has an enormous variety of other techniques that he uses to decorate with slip. If he wants to comb or sgraffito, he will dip the entire piece in a bucket of slip. Combing the work will be done immediately, but if he is working on sgraffito, then he will put the work aside to set up for a time before incising the pattern. Shimaoka uses a variety of woodcarving awls to incise and carve with. The thickness of the slip and dryness of the work are very important in dipping pots. Too thin, it will run right off the pot and make a big mess. Too thick, so much water will soak into the pot that it will just fall apart.
Hamada was well known for his use of hakeme brushes in applying slip to his work, and this is a technique which Shimaoka uses as well. A hakeme brush is one which is typically made from rice straw. In order for the pattern of the straw brush to stand out, it needs to be done with fairly thick slip quickly and directly. Often Shimaoka will use the hakeme studio work which is done in the zougon clay also has white slip applied, typically with a regular brush, not the hakeme.
GLAZING AND LOADING PREPARATION FOR THE NOBORIGAMA KILN
The date for firing the noborigama at Shimaoka's is set far in advance, because Shimaoka's many commitments dictate this. Much of his personal work is biscuit-fired in the noborigama, including the zougon, salt, and Shigaraki clay pieces. While Shimaoka could biscuit-fire his work in a gas kiln, using the noborigama at this stage I also serves to dry it out and get it ready for the glaze firing. For biscuit-firing, the work is loaded loosely in the second and third chambers, and then the doors are bricked up and sanded shut. The kiln is first fired from the lower part of the firebox slowly for about six hours, only about the size of a campfire. From then the kiln is stoked from the grate area of the firebox. Finally, one moves back to stoke the individual rooms. At this stage it is very important not to stoke too much all at one time, as the rapid temperature rise would cause cracks in the larger ware. The biscuit kiln is fired only until all of the room is barely showing color. Then the kiln is sealed off and cools for about two days.
Preparation for the final firing has begun prior to the biscuit kiln. The workers get out the glazes and see to it that they have sufficient quantities of those needed. If not, there are always sufficient materials on hand to make up a new batch, and these are usually tested in one of the gas kiln firings. Often these get hard at the bottom, and it falls to the students to break them up and get them mixed, the kaki being particularly difficult because it is made from a single stone and settles quickly. At this point everything else is also being set out for glazing. Wax and kerosene are set up in a double boiler for resist work, an iron and red clay mixture is prepared for Shimaoka’s brush work, and other glazes, such as oribe for shinsha red is also set out. Thick versions of the standard black, nuka, and seijiglazes are made available for glaze trailing. Boards are also washed and set out, and space is cleared at the loading zones of the kiln.
When the pots come out of the biscuit-firing, the ash is brushed off and they are separated by type of clay, and form. The kiln itself is vacuumed from top to bottom for ash, and especially the cracks between bricks in the ceiling to prevent any mortar or sand that may have come loose from dropping on the work. Only the zougon clay pots are actually glazed, and all of them are wiped with a sponge immediately before glazing to prevent pinholing. A student wipes the work, Shimaoka then adds any brush pattern, such as iron, to the work, then the pot moves to Mitsuyan, who glazes everything. Once the glazes set up, one person wipes off the foot ring, and another applies a thin layer of alumina hydroxide to the exposed clay of the foot. Then the pots are hustled off to the kiln, where Fukuyan is waiting to load them.
Typically, the lower glaze chamber is loaded first. In this room go all of the higher temperature glazes, usually feldspathic ones. The front of the chamber has plate saggars, and the rear set shelves. All of the iron brush-work goes in this chamber, as does the copper red. Shimaoka's copper red work is first coated with clear feldspathic glaze. Any bumps or irregularities are than shaved or rubbed off. Next, windows are wax-resisted onto the work, sometimes to leave a blank space for enamel overpainting, or to let inlay work show through from below. Shimaoka then mixes up a thin wash of copper, cobalt, or iron glaze, and brushes it on the work. Once this has dried, he adds a thinned-down version of the base glaze over the top, also applied by brush. The final type of work to be fired in the second chamber is an ash glaze called erabo, which is a mixture of wood ash, Mashiko kaki, and ocher. Erabo is applied on the upper one third and then sponged thinly on the bottom of the piece. Still, all the erabo work has to be stacked on wadded shells and clay pads, because it is a glaze which runs markedly in the temperature of the front glaze chamber. Once the shelves are loaded with smaller ware, with vases on the upper shelf, the plate saggars are loaded and then vases stacked on top of them.
The upper glaze chamber is fired slightly lower in temperature, and most of the glazes used in this chamber are traditional Mashiko glazes, such as Mashiko kaki, Mashiko black, nuka and seiji, and a clear lime-based glaze. While most of the pots are in the zougon clay, in the lower back portions of th'is kiln the teacups students have been struggling to master will take up space here and there. Here, most of the decoration Shimaoka adds to his pots is done by glaze trailing. The piece is often glazed completely in nuka, then trailed with seiji and black. Another frequent combination is black and nuka, in a style reminiscent of chosen Karatsu, nuka on the upper parts, and black on the bottom. Both glazes are applied quickly, thick and wet, and the nuka runs into the black.
Part way through loading the glaze chambers, Shimaoka picks out the pieces he will fire in the firebox, the yohen area, and the salt chamber. He always makes more than he can actually fire in these areas and is selective about which pots actually go into the firing. Shimaoka personally loads the work which goes into the yohen chamber, which will be covered with charcoal at the end of the firing. The yohen area is loaded before the firebox, so that ware and stacking supplies can be passed to Shimaoka through that area.
First, a layer of burnt rice hulls is layered on the floor, about one-to-two centimeters deep. The pieces are then positioned on wadded shells on top of slabs of sara clay which have been coated with alumina hydroxide. The rice hulls are almost completely silica and very refractory. Even after a firing, they still sweep out of the kiln. The slabs of clay catch drips and runs from the work above. While shells are impermeable to water prior to firing, after firing they turn to calcium sulfite, which is water soluble. This is important, as it almost eliminates loss in the high-ash areas. Even when shells stuck to both clay slab and pot by ash or salt, Shimaoka takes the work out, places it in buckets of water, and within a few hours the shells have dissolved.
All the wood that goes into the kiln is red pine. High in resin and oil, it burns fast, hot, and bright. The ash from red pine has a higher iron content than most wood ash, and this is what gives it its deep green color. Most of the wood Shimaoka uses comes from the Mashiko area, but occasionally he will order in a truckload from further north if he doesn’t get wood in time from the Mashiko suppliers. While the wood is usually delivered about the time of the firing, it is actually older wood that has been in the shed for two years or more that is used for the firing. So the wood shed is continually being filled and its contents rotated throughout the year.
FIRING THE NOBORIGAMA
The firebox of the kiln is fired for a total of about three days. Shimaoka comes out from time to time during the firing to see how the ash is building up on the pots in the firebox. He uses protective glasses, and one of the workers holds a sheet of tin or heat-resistant board in front of him as he looks at the pots. This is always done at the end of the stoking, since it is difficult to see anything unless the fire has died down and the kiln is in oxidation. When Shimaoka and the oldest worker decide that there is enough ash on the pots, the firebox is finished up, and people prepare to stoke from the sides as they move up the chambers of the kiln. The firing of the firebox typically ends at about six a.m. on the morning of the fourth day. At this point you can see the ash running down the work in the firebox and the second chamber, and the first glaze chamber is bright orange.
Up until this time, the shifts have been trading off, but now everyone is present. The next five to eight hours are crucial and intense. The rooms themselves will be fired by different groups of people, always in pairs with an additional person on each side to support and move wood. The shift that is stoking the firebox will continue to do so, but the second shift will begin to stoke the first glaze chamber. While this is being done, charcoal which will cover the pots in the yohen chamber is brought over. It will take one to three hours to stoke the first glaze chamber to temperature. Especially in the first chamber, care has to be taken about the amount and timing of stoking, or it will fire in oxidation.
While both Shimaoka and the oldest worker can tell the temperature by eye, there are also cones and four sets of test tiles which can be pulled. The glaze tests are probably the most accurate gauge of firing, and at about cone 8 or 9 one is pulled from either side. The test tiles are approximately one inch square pieces of cut-up teacups with a hole drilled in the middle. The glazing sequence for these tiles is glaze them once, then glaze half again, then add a drop of glaze on top of the thick side. It is this drop-of-glaze area that is evaluated as if it is no longer visible, the glaze has fluxed and the room is finished. A two-meter long rod pointed and bent about 5 mm on one end is used to pull them. Both sets are taken to Shimaoka and Kamiya-san and evaluated. Typically, two sets of test tiles will be pulled before the chamber is completed.
The next stage of the firing, that of the yohen chamber, is one of the most complex and demanding. Once the first glaze chamber is almost completed, the group for the second chamber begins stoking. Wood, charcoal, and wet sand have been prepared near the firebox. Two long sheets of corrugated roofing steel are brought to the stoking ports of the yohen chamber. One person puts on protective gear, long gloves and a face mask. This person will brush the charcoal into the kiln. Two others are prepared to pour charcoal on the metal slide, and support it while the charcoal goes in. With this ready, the firebox is left to burn down to oxidation and, on Shimaoka's signal and on cue from both sides, the stoking sides of the yohan chamber are opened, and several hundred kilograms of charcoal are pushed into the kiln to cover all of the ware in the chamber completely. Shimaoka observes from the door side, and urges people on to cover up all the work quickly and completely. With his approval, the stoking ports are closed. After adding the charcoal, one last very large stoke is made where the entire firebox is filled with as much wood as possible, and work begins on sealing up the front part of the kiln. At the same time/the draft bricks below the stoking ports on the first chamber are pulled, and the primary air ports on the firebox are closed. All cracks in the firebox and yohen are then sealed with wet silica sand until no light can be seen. With that the firing moves up the kiln to the second glaze chamber.
The second glaze chamber is used for traditional Mashiko glazes, applied in Shimaoka’s unique way. Here you can find the nuka white, copper green, and Mashiko black. All these glazes mature at a lower temperature than the first glaze chamber, around cone 8-9. They also have greater tendency to run if over-fired, but this is hardly every the case, given their distance from the firebox. Two people stoke this chamber for usually about two hours. There are cones and test tiles in this room as well, and they are drawn and evaluated to determine when to move on to the salt chamber.
Sometime in the early hours of the morning, while the firebox is still being stoked, Kamiya-san walks off to the bamboo forest next to the kiln, and cuts six lengths of bamboo approximately 6-8 cm by 2.5 meters length. These are split in half lengthwise. Then, while the second glaze chamber is being fired, he goes to the lower storehouse and returns with a 25 kg. bag of imported Spanish rock salt. How long that rock salt has been there is anyone’s guess. It is usually solidified, and the apprentices beat it apart with a wooden mallet. The split bamboo are divided into two parts, and all are filled to the same length with crushed rock salt.
As the second glaze chamber matures, work on stoking the salt chamber begins. The salt chamber has only a single layer of work, and the salt will be dumped on top of it in two batches. The salt chamber is fired fairly hot, and once cone 10 is completely gone, the first batch of salt is added. Then the chamber is stoked another three rounds, or until the smoke coming out of the chimney is no longer white. At this stage, the second batch of salt is added. The kiln is again fired until the smoke clears and then test tiles are pulled. If the test tiles don't show a lot of salt on the work, a third batch may be added. This is usually determined by visual inspection of the work as it is fired. Then the dampers are closed, lids put on top of the chimneys, and all of the kiln is sealed with silica sand.
At this point the firing is complete. Typically it is somewhere around noon on the fourth day when the firing stops. People who finished their work on the lower parts have gone home and cleaned up and changed. Everyone is invited into Shimaoka's home for lunch, beer, and sake. Shimaoka's daughter comes to help her mother with the meal, and all kinds of wonderful things are served. While I was there, Kamiyasan called for sake with gold in it, and it was produced. At the initial toast, Shimaoka offers his thanks for everyone's assistance and work in completing the firing. Other toasts are offered, and then the meal begins.
After the meal, everyone goes home for a two-and-a-half day vacation. The first thing most people do is sleep for a solid day. During the firing, the workers wives have been busily working on cleaning and straightening both the workshops and the grounds. They also grind the overglaze enamels for a day or so, as Shimaoka will be working on applying these to the new work once the kiln is unloaded.
UNLOADING THE KILN
On the fourth day after the firing, the kiln is opened. First, all the doors and ports are pulled and stacked neatly to the side. The first room to be unloaded is the first glaze chamber. Saggars are pulled out one at a time and passed hand-to-hand down to the front of the kiln, where the plates are taken out and stacked on boards, and the saggars put away. Then the ware comes off the shelves of the kiln. When this room is completed, the second chamber is unloaded, and then the salt if it is cool enough, the firebox, and lastly the yohen chamber. Shimaoka watches all of the work come out of the kiln, and may ask to look at a piece from time to time.
Many of the pieces which were fired on shells have them stuck to their bases. Buckets of water are readied, and these pieces are placed in them by Shimaoka or the older workers. After an hour or two, the shell melts away, and one is left
with just the pot, although it may have some ash runs which need to be cleaned up.
It takes about half a day to unload the entire kiln. The next week will be spent on cleaning up the pots. Fukuyan always works on trimming ash runs off feet and the like. Two apprentices will spend the week with grinding tools at the same kind of work. Everyone else takes up thick straw rope bundles and begins the work of polishing the work from the firebox and yohen chambers to a high shine. Teabowls are finished in a half a day, but large vases can take up to three days of constant rubbing before they receive the nod from Shimaoka that they are finished.