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The Fire Artist

A Traveller's Tale by Carol Buxton

Master potter, Shiho Kanzaki, talks to a visitor in his studio. All images © Carol Buxton

On a bright autumn morning, with the trees exploding their final fireworks, I have the privilege of journeying to Shigaraki, near Kyoto, to visit the world renowned potter Shiho Kanzaki. Shigaraki is one of the oldest pottery centres in Japan and in medieval times it became known as ‘Six Old Kilns’, producing much admired Shigaraki and Iga ware.

Born in 1942, Shiho Kanzaki grew up in the town and remembers seeing such pieces whilst visiting antique shops in Kyoto with his father. These, he tells us, made a great impression, but his path to becoming a potter was not smooth. As the oldest son, it was his duty either to succeed to his father's job (as a retailer of rice, firewood and charcoal) or to choose an occupation of higher rank. The occupation of potter did not carry much status. To acknowledge his filial duty he studied to become a lawyer, graduating in 1963. However, whilst preparing for the national licensing examination, doubts about his future as a lawyer crept in. Instead, he elected to become a potter, deciding to recreate the old-style ware that he remembered from his youth. His father disowned him, saying ‘Only the uneducated become potters’.

Kanzaki eschewed the usual career path of serving an often long apprenticeship to a recognised Master, telling us "In the word ‘apprentice’ there is the concept of receiving knowledge, perhaps unconsciously. So for all that I’ve done so far I’ve never been to school; I search the way by myself. I study all kinds of things and learn from that." He began by investigating the nature of the natural ash glaze of the old-style Shigaraki and Iga ware that he admired, ‘the true Shigaraki-yaki’ as he saw it. This involved wood firing in an anagama kiln, which he built himself.

The term anagama (cave kiln) describes a single-chamber kiln built in a sloping tunnel shape, often into the hillside, with a firebox at one end and a flue at the other. It is the oldest style kiln in Japan.

Shiho Kanzaki in front of his kiln.

Kanzaki’s firings last for 10 to 15 days, with a continuous supply of fuel being consumed very rapidly. It’s an expensive and exacting process and his first two firings failed, resulting, he says, in living "a mendicant-like life under the dim light of an oil lamp in a tin hut which I built myself. It was a struggle to feed myself…it was only in 1976 that electricity came to my workshop."

Pots are placed into the kiln unglazed and the interaction between flame, ash and the minerals in the clay body forms a natural glaze (shizen yu) and a surface texture.

Depending on the placement of pieces, the resulting ash coating and minerals will vary in colour, texture and thickness, ranging from smooth and glossy to rough and sharp. Much of his work is making tea ceremony utensils (chadogu), so he is careful to place the tea cups (chawan) in a part of the kiln where they will not collect ash on the lip. Other items include vases (hanaire), wide-necked pots (tsubo) and platters. Kanzaki does not use a pyrometer to assess the progress of the firing, but trusts his own insights, listening to the voice of the kiln, the voice of the fire.

Tea cups laid out in the studio

He invites us into his studio workshop, where we drink tea from bowls placed on a low black lacquer table. Tatami mats cover the floor; a scroll hangs in an alcove, a Buddhist shrine is set up in another.

The beautiful ceramics are displayed on a long, low table. Kanzaki sits cross-legged in front of a hearth and asks us to touch them, pick them up, knowing that handling something is better than not handling it.

I pick up a small bowl, work my fingers over its surface, weigh it in my hand, turn it, feel its balance. The clay has fired into unnamed colours; it offers both visual delight and tactile pleasure.

I had noticed the Buddhist figure on the top of the kiln and it is clear that Kanzaki’s work cannot be reduced to technique alone; his Buddhist nature plays a deep part in it. He tells us that "the Karma of Buddha reaches back to the past and stretches to all places; it covers everything…I believe that our spirits and thoughts are what make our ceramics. And making pottery and a way of life are closely related. This relationship is important. Wrong spirit, or without soul makes not so good work."

In later life, Kanzaki’s father became reconciled to his son’s work, and both he and his mother spent their last years living with him. He is respected worldwide and his ceramics are displayed in major museums.


About the Author

Carol decided to become a writer at the age of six, but more practical roles took precedence. Taking early retirement from charity administration, she gained a degree in English Studies & Creative Writing at Ruskin College, Oxford, and a Masters in English Literature from King’s College, London, which rekindled this early ambition.

An avid traveller, she likes to combine travelling with her passion for listening to, and performing, classical music.


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