Oct 4, 2013

Battling Perfection in Suzu

A friend of a friend got us an opening at a suzuyaki maker's to make local pottery in Suzu. The small city is at the tip's end of the Noto peninsula. With no train station and two hours away from Nanao by car, it's an isolated country town.

While Japan's population dwindles steadily, Suzu's is plummeting. Young people are moving to the big cities to find work and no one is replacing the local population. If nothing changes, it will soon be a ghost town. Does that mean the age-old tradition of suzuyaki will disappear, too?

The four of us sat around a worktable in the potter's large workroom adjacent to his storage house of cut logs to heat his kiln. A complicated stained glass rendition of him and his wife was mounted on the same wall his kept his pottery that was ready to be fired.

The suzuyaki master presented each of us with three scraper tools, a scooping spoon, and wet piece of rubber, a taut wire, and a spinning base. He showed us in rapid steps, speaking only in Japanese, how to create our chosen cups, mugs, and goblets.

I had been warned that he likes to take over and do your pottery himself. As I tried to begin, he would come over and take it away from me. He is just trying to be polite in the Japanese way, assuming I want my goblet exactly perfect and identical to the others. The focus is on the finished product, and not the hands-on experience.

After he finished the first goblet, he went to "help" another person and I worked on my second one. It came out wonky, a little thinner on one side than the other, and with a crooked rim. It was charming. I did something unimaginable - I carved designs into it,  wide zig-zags that made it individual and unique. I even wrote the kanji for "drink" (飲) on the inside bottom of the cup.

As the potter passed, I asked, "だいじょうぶ です か?" (Is it okay?). No, it wasn't. As soon as he went to even the thickness out, it cracked on the thin side. He rubbed away the zig-zags, smoothed the inside kanji out, and cut off the top half to re-do it. Finished, it was an exact copy of the first - no longer my creation, but his.

I was upset about this. I paid him for an experience he judged as unsatisfactory. I feel this is how deep the idea of uniformity has reached in Japan. One does not practice anything for personal gain, or sometimes even enjoyment, but for the perfection of the finished product which belongs to everyone, and therefore to no one.

There is a carte blanche uniformity in all things here, even art. As the well-known Japanese phrase goes, "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down." No matter how much it is suppressed, however, the individuality of all things is inherent and natural. I believe it's what makes life beautiful.

Suzuyaki in progress.

Suzuyaki master with our crafted mugs.


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