Along the Uji River, south of Kyoto, you will find the legendary ceramic workshop of Asahiyaki. They specialize in ceramics for tea ceremony and daily life. The Matsubayashi clan has been harvesting the clay from the river for a staggering sixteen generations. The quality of the water and the soil composition make for a very fine clay. Coupled with the fact that Uji grows some of the best green teas in Japan, you get both sides of the tea experience in one small town. They have grown up together since the time of tea master Sen No Rikyu in the 1600s and continue to this day. Yusuke’s great-grandfather had the foresight to select a batch of clay that is still being used today and has sustained the family for the last 150 years. The history of the workshop and the practice is something to behold.
In 2015, with the Kyoto Workshop, we spent the afternoon with Yusuke Matsubayashi, who is the 16th generation. His father Hosai was having some health issues and has sadly passed away since. It was a tremendous loss, but the tradition is in good hands with Yusuke.
Potter’s wheels have strange associations in the West. For better or worse, when you mention potter’s wheels, we seem to have this image of a shirtless Patrick Swayze caressing a blob of overly wet clay as Demi Moore melts in pile of flesh before our eyes. It is one of those pop culture images that pervades our minds and does more for the world of soft core pornography than master craftsmen. Here in Uji, things are a little more realistic than Hollywood and thank god for that.
The range of traditional crafts in the Kyoto area is enormous. There are over 4,000 active craftsman working, living, and breathing their traditions. But not all crafts have the speed and immediacy of ceramics. From block of clay to shaped bowl, Yusuke can work through half a dozen pieces in less than a half an hour. What looks like a natural pressing and shaping of clay is actually an art that he has been refining, under the guidance of his father, since he was a child. He even allowed some of the workshop participants to play around with the clay and it became evident how the process is much harder than it looks.
Fortunately we were not there to make any contributions to the word of ceramics and could watch Yusuke work his magic. He slices and kneads a large piece of clay in preparation for sitting at the potter’s wheel. From the time he starts to when he is finished, the sound of ceramics is like a beautiful whisper.
He uses a metal wire to slice through a large piece of moist clay. Then a series of muffled thuds surround his hands as he works a smaller piece into a ball. This prepares the clay and works out any folds or air pockets that might be visible in the final piece. Next, piece by piece, the silent spin of the wooden potter’s wheel allows Yusuke to shape each bowl by hand. At his side is a small gauge to maintain a consistent diameter to the bowls he worked on that day.
As his hands press and slip along the surface of the clay, they make a hiss that is punctuated by moments of shutter clicks. He moves and we click. This dance of hissing and clicking continues on until half a dozen bowls are set down beside him. All the while he does not make a sound. He moves from left to right as each bowl takes shape. And the moment when a new bowl is formed feels like a mini revelation. What was once a cone of clay is now inverted and takes an elegant shape that feels like the echoes of his fingertips, suspended in time.
The life of a craftsman is often viewed as toil. Hard work, long hours, and endless attempts at reaching perfection seem to decorate the pages of magazines that feature this work as luxury goods, but when you sit next to a craftsman and feel them work, it does not seem like toil at all and the last thing that comes to mind is luxury. What comes out is humble rhythm that seems, for the most part, like as much fun as dancing.
“I think very little. I have an idea when I begin and it goes from there.”
When some of the photographers ask Yusuke what he thinks about when he works, he says “I think very little. I have an idea when I begin and it goes from there.” The call and response of the clay, the potter’s wheel, and his hands all work together without any force at all. They all move and spin until the form has emerged. When it is done, he does not take time to look at the work. Admiration, if it happens, is reserved for the finish product. But at the wheel, it is just a matter of flow.
Interestingly, neurologists are making great strides in understanding the brain activity of flow. The moments where the frontal lobe of the brain quiets down and the brain waves move from the analytical frequency of Beta waves to the more relaxed Alpha and Theta waves. It is in these moments that years of training fade into the background and a more primordial energy takes over. Here in the space of flow, people and their environment meld into one. Many craftsman experience this, though I’ve never met one who has studied themselves on a neurological level. At best, they will admit it is an interesting idea; however, they just prefer the experience.
As Yusuke slips in and out this state, it offers the photographers a view into the rhythms they might aspire to with a camera. By putting ourselves in situations where we can sync up with activities around us, it works as a guide to moving us from thinking students to practicing artisans.
What comes out is humble rhythm that seems, for the most part, like as much fun as dancing.