05 October 2023
Kyoto Chronicles: Adventures in Art and Appetite
This year, the heat was unlike any other. Everyone remarked how it truly was a scorching summer in Japan. However, Kyoto's summer was even hotter. The city is surrounded by mountains, making it hard for the wind to blow through, giving one the impression of walking inside a sauna.
I made a business trip to Kyoto along with our Art Director, Umehara-san, and Assistant Art Director, Yamashita-san, who had joined the company just a month prior. Having previously experienced heatstroke in Kyoto from merely walking the distance of a single subway station, I was relieved that we decided to visit in September, hoping it would be a bit cooler.
- Toan Treasures: Delving into Higashiyama's Ceramic Secrets
- Gion Gastronomy: Noodles, Eels, and Ancient Allure
- Waraku Wonders: Unearthing the Legacy of Raku Ware Craftsmanship
- Kanaami Craftsmanship: From Sacred Protection to Culinary Utensils
Toan Treasures: Delving into Higashiyama's Ceramic Secrets
Upon arriving in Kyoto, our first destination was Toan in the Higashiyama District. While the district boasts entertainment areas like Gion and Sanjo, it is also home to numerous temples like Yasaka Shrine and Kiyomizu Temple.
Historically, a lot of pottery was fired around the Kiyomizu Temple area, known for Kiyomizu ware, making this area renowned for its many kilns. Umehara-san had been captivated by Toan's pottery and had wanted to deal with them. Although the contract had already been reached, this was our first time visiting the actual workshop.
The pottery studio, which opened in 1922, is now in its fourth generation. They are renowned for their beautiful designs, including a pattern called "crystalline glazes" that looks like flowers and depictions of colorful flowers. On the other hand, the current generation has been working on reproducing a type of tea bowl and has achieved consistent quality, garnering media attention. We learned that they now employ over 20 craftspeople, making it the largest workshop in Kyoto.
What caught our eyes in the workshop was the detailed painting process. Each delicate petal is drawn carefully and is dried slightly with a dryer before the next stroke. The ability to vividly express Japan's four seasons on pottery is surely due to the craftspeople's meticulous work.
Gion Gastronomy: Noodles, "Hamo," and Ancient Allure
After leaving Toan, we decided to have lunch. We were dropped off in Gion by a chatty taxi driver. Although the crowds in Gion weren't overwhelming due to it being right before a long holiday, we saw many tourists dressed in yukatas. It was a clear sign that international tourism was rebounding.
For lunch, I chose cold "Hamo" (conger pike) somen. These noodles, thinner than udon, are a staple during the Japanese summer. Hamo dishes topped with shredded dried plum are a Kyoto summer delicacy. The visually refreshing dish paired with the sourness of plum was truly appreciated in the continuing heat of Kyoto.
As we walked through the streets of Gion, heading for our next stop, we noticed numerous wind bells hanging under the eaves of houses. Unfortunately, there was no breeze to hear their gentle sound, but the old-world charm of the ancient capital made us eager to capture the scene.
Waraku Wonders: Unearthing the Legacy of Raku Ware Craftsmanship
Our second destination was a Raku ware pottery studio. We had called the previous day but couldn't get through. Thus, we decided to try our luck and visit without an appointment. Raku ware pottery is hand-molded without the use of a potter's wheel and was born in Kyoto, primarily for the tea ceremony. The challenge of reproducing the Raku tea bowl was a first for Musubi Kiln. It was difficult to decide which kiln to approach as we had no prior connections. After discussing potential options, we decided to visit "Raku Ware Kiln Waraku." One reason for this was that the eighth-generation owner had worked as an engineer at a thermal power plant and had international business experience as mentioned on their website. We thought such a person might be open to our proposals.
Upon arrival, the grand "Noren" curtain in linen and the showcased tea bowls caught our attention. Hesitating a little due to the closed sliding door, we were warmly welcomed by the owner once we approached.
Inside, natural light from the showcase streamed into the room, further highlighting the presence of the Raku tea bowls.
Raku ware Kiln Waraku has a history spanning 180 years. I was allowed to hold one of the displayed black Raku tea bowls. I was amazed by its moist and glossy glaze, imagining how beautifully green matcha would contrast against it.
We were also allowed to tour the workshop. Surprisingly located within the city, the owner led us through the narrow and long Kyoto townhouse. They had three kilns; two gas kilns and one wood-fired kiln. Two craftsmen were diligently working, applying glaze to each piece.
During our conversation, which lasted about an hour and a half, we discussed handling several of the Raku tea bowls. We were deeply grateful that the owner welcomed us, even though we had visited without any prior connections or arrangements, simply driven by our passion. As we left Raku ware Kiln Waraku, we were wrapped in a sense of satisfaction, both from the beauty of the Raku tea bowls we had seen and the prospect of a new collaboration. With this uplifted spirit, we decided to head to Torii Kanaami Kougei, a shop of Kyo wire netting crafts.
Kanaami Craftsmanship: From Sacred Protection to Culinary Utensils
In Kyoto, traditional items extend beyond pottery into various fields. There are traditional sweets, Kyoto cuisine, woven fabrics, incense, and one of them is metal netting. Originally, Kyo wire netting crafts played a role as a bird deterrent for temples and shrines. However, nowadays, they continue to handcraft tools essential for everyday life. Torii Kanaami Kougei, a wire netting store with a history of over 100 years, still produces nets used for the protection of Buddhist statues at Chion-in and Heian Shrine.
Inside the store, the father and son were quietly weaving, and we spoke with the mother. Our main objective was to find a net for tonkatsu, the deep-fried pork cutlet. Placing a freshly fried tonkatsu on a net is perhaps a common sight in Japan, right? We had always been searching for a sturdy and durable net.
There are many artisan-made tableware items. However, they face the risk of being replaced by mass-produced items. Additionally, due to being too niche or changes in lifestyle, the demand for these items might decrease. We wondered if our role isn't just to seek out glamorous artwork, but also high-quality "tools for daily life" that are closest to our everyday lives. We look forward to what we can introduce using the material of wire netting.
And thus, our fulfilling business trip came to an end. Kyoto, with its long history and various styles of pottery, left me wondering what I should explore. Should I go for the oldest kiln in the area, highly-rated potters, or places preserving traditional techniques? I believe I was looking for some kind of "correct answer."
However, upon actually seeing Kyoto's pottery, I began to feel that having such a mindset might not be meaningful. Throughout the ages in Kyoto, various types of pottery were crafted to meet the demands of shoguns, tea masters, and chefs of the time. There is no singular "correct answer." Indeed, our exploration of suppliers this time began from our own sensibilities: something we saw and felt drawn to, believed we should visit, or a customer request. We did this because we felt it would be more effective to give an honest account of the current state of creation rather than a faithful introduction to Japanese culture. Of course, this would require more in-depth communication with people and wandering around hot Kyoto.
As I once felt during my visit to Gifu, the true essence of Musubi Kiln is in valuing our unique sensitivity and originality. I aspire to hone such discernment as a buyer.
Mom of a high school boy. In her everyday life, she enjoys choosing tableware that makes her dishes more palatable, adding an extra touch to their dining table. She also refreshes her mind by concentrating on one of her hobbies, "Kintsugi" gold repair.