ShimizuYoshiyuki | 清水善行

Pottery-making rooted in the earth


About 30 years have passed since I took up residence in Dosenbo district of Minami-Yamashiro Village, Kyoto Prefecture. I make pottery with a wood-fired kiln I built myself. I use clay that I dig out of the ground in the Dosenbo area and travel destinations, and prepare it with my own hands. I use ash from the wood-burning stove in my house for glaze and lumber I cut myself for wood. All elements from the clay to the finished pieces are the fruits of the earth. There are several types of Dosenbo clay, and they are not all easy to handle. Some have less viscosity than I would like, and stones are mixed into certain others. In some cases, the clay makes it hard for me to produce the forms I desire. But even then, I do not mix in more viscous clay from someplace else. This is because it would lessen the individual character of that particular clay. My approach is to discern the limits of the clay and make the most of the materials. This is at the same time a kind of conflict, because I must wonder how I can give shape to the impression I receive from the materials.

In my late 20s, I went independent and came to Dosenbo. For about two years before that, I was at a workshop for Kuromuta-yaki pottery in Saga Prefecture. It was a wonderful environment. The little hamlet in where the workshop was located had only six houses, two of which were making pottery. It was a tranquil place of beautiful scenery with a lovely river running through it. The workshop was filled with a folk arts atmosphere. While there, I continued to ponder the meaning of making a living out of pottery. Just what did I want to do?

One day, I found some clay in the vicinity of the workshop. I made a piece that looked like a large sake cup and had it fired in the climbing kiln. I count this as the starting point of my pottery-making. I had dug up some clay, made a piece with it, and fired it in the climbing kiln. I felt that this approach to pottery-making based on a primitive process contained more unknowns, and that I could work without being confined to a certain framework by adopting it.

After coming to Dosenbo, I first built anagama (hole kiln). This is a primal sort of kiln that is even older than the climbing type. Around the time I began making pottery, I saw an urn in the Shigaraki style from the Muromachi period, and was greatly moved by it. Although it was unsophisticated and plain, it made a strong impression on me and I never tired of viewing it. I conceived the desire to make something like that myself. I was never taught by anyone there and had plenty of failures. Nevertheless, ever since then, I have looked for clay, made pieces with it, and tried different ways of firing them. Why is it that I have continued making pottery, in spite of easily tiring of most other things? I think it is because, with pottery, things almost never go as you intended.


As I continued to make pottery, I became acquainted with people I cherish at key points along the way. One of them is the chef Shitoshi Sasaki. He does not have a restaurant of his own; instead, he is a chef for hire, who is invited to prepare food at private homes or for banquets at art galleries or other venues. He makes trips to various parts of Japan. His occupation struck me as unique. He performs all the tasks himself, from laying in stock and prepping to the cooking and hospitality. His meticulousness is extraordinary. It’s as if the amount of things he can do for his guests is a measure of the essential worth of his own life. He always used to tell me, “take a good look at things that seem unimportant.” Like a Zen master, he says things that prompt me to think. In the time we spent together, I believe he sowed the seeds enabling me to view things from different angles. He also has a deep knowledge of fine arts and crafts. In addition, he is friends with avant-garde artists such as Kazuo Yagi. By showing me worlds that had been unknown to me, he inspired me. I began to think that I wanted to try and make classical types of pottery by doing what I can do as a potter of this contemporary age, and to develop expression with more breadth.

Another such person was Dr. Kakuzo Misawa. In the phase of postwar recovery, he did his utmost to enrich people’s hearts with the power of art. He was also a professor at Tama Art University. When I first met him, he was living in a detached house in the hills around Shigaraki. He described his pottery-making as a “hobby,” but it was far beyond that level. The firing effects had an awesome character that I had never before seen. It was quite a long time after I had first met him that he talked about pottery with me. He said that each potter has to find his own way, because both the clay and the kiln are different. Then he posed a question to me: “By making pottery, do you want to become wealthy? Or do you want to make really good pottery?” At that time, I realized I wanted to follow a path grounded in “making really good pottery.” There is a way to keep making pottery on a stable basis, but even with a steady demand, I also want to take up the challenge of new things. This is because I still do not know how to go about making pottery well.


To make something with your hands is also to have your body remember the process. You knead the clay and make shapes with it. In the course of repeating this process over and over, I feel as if I am seeing the origin of making things. I make mainly white porcelain, Yakishime (high-fired, unglazed pottery), Kohiki (white slip pottery), and brush mark pottery.

People say that my pottery has weight. By this, they mean that it feels heavier than it looks. They may be right. I have seen many pieces of old pottery including some dating from the Yi (Joseon) dynasty in Korea, and believe that pottery essentially has a certain weightiness. To go further, I would say that it has a form or shape that has a weightiness. The form is hidden in the weightiness, and comes into view through it. I imagine that the presence that pieces such as little flower vases have comes from this. And besides the impression it makes at first glance, pottery conveys something by being touched, that is, by its feel. Quite a long time ago, the allure of a piece of Yi dynasty pottery was brought home to me by its weight and feel when I took it in hand. I want to make pottery that is the ultimate in this respect.

I also produce earthenware. I don’t apply any glaze, and fire it at a lower temperature. The soft nature of the materials comes out. Apart from the dimension of whether or not it is useful, when an earthenware piece is before my eyes, it has a calming and soothing effect on me. I respect the overwhelming power of materials, and am committed to keep preserving it.

Before beginning to make a new piece, there is a period of time I must spend forming an image. I do not make drawings or call to mind certain shapes. The image is abstract, but it is as if I melt into it and then gradually grow together with it. This process may be the backbone or heart of pottery-making.

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I built a split-bamboo-type noborigama (climbing kiln). Of the many types of climbing kilns, this type is the most primitive. It is shaped like kamaboko (a semicylindrical Japanese fish cake), and the interior is not partitioned like ordinary noborigama. I chose this type because I wanted to be able to make flexible use of a single kiln. For glazed pottery, I construct walls inside the kiln and divide it into a few rooms. For Yakishime pottery, I fire the pieces in a space like a long room, without partitioning it. As I see it, old wood-fired kilns are still in use today, when electric and gas-fueled kilns are in widespread diffusion, because the kind of pottery that can be made with them appeals to potters. In the case of my kiln, I can fire about 2,000 pieces at once. Right from when I am working the wheel, I think about where and how I am going to place the piece in the kiln, and how I am going to fire it. Similarly, after lighting the kiln, I adjust the flames while checking the color of the smoke, odor, and other elements.

Nevertheless, this kiln does not readily comply with my intentions. I still do not know if it is the right answer or not. I do know, however, that, although I cannot completely control it, I can make pottery that exceeds my expectations with it. I find this aspect interesting, and work with clay day after day. I steadily perform each step in the process, one at a time, and always strive to be true to genuine pottery-making.

Through pottery-making, I have met many people. With pottery as a medium, I can communicate with people who live each day to the fullest. Some of them take pieces of my pottery back to use in their own homes. While spinning the pottery wheel in Dosenbo, I can still get a vivid sense of the world of my pottery widening.

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