Japanese potter Hanako Nakazato is a tour de force of creativity and productivity. I had the privilege of glimpsing this at first hand when I visited her Japanese studio far away in Karatsu, Saga Prefecture in Kyushu this past spring. It took a long train ride to get there, but was a journey to savor and understand how a potter’s life requires not only talent but discipline, hard work, and –in Hanako’s case- a love of food and cooking.
Following an early morning start in Kyoto and several changes on the way, the train finally pulled into JR Karatsu station shortly after lunch. After the long ride, I was delighted to be met by the familiar face of photographer-cum-writer Prairie Stuart-Wolff, Hanako’s partner and business manager for monohanako. The two travel between Maine and Kyushu every year.
Hanako’s studio in Karatsu stands on a lush green hillside in Mirukashi, about two miles from the train station. When I arrived at the studio, Hanako was working at her wheel making bowls. She got up to greet me, beaming with a friendly smile and gestured a “hug” from a few feet away saying “I have clay all over me”. I did not want to interrupt her work and at my request she went back on the wheel. I watched for a while as she whipped out bowl after bowl, amazed at how similar they are in shape and size, even though she never measured them.
As Hanako worked, I looked around the clean and spacious studio that was divided into three sections. There was a showroom for guests to view and purchase her work. A second section was the kiln and glazing room where bisque and glazed pieces are stored next to the gas kiln. The last section was the wheel room where she was busy throwing her pottery.
The sliding door to the wheel room had a large blackboard that was covered with diagrams, numbers, and glaze types. Hanako carefully keeps track of the progress in the production of her wares by charting them on this board. Its an ingenious way of visually managing the production schedule that enables this prolific potter to put together a solo show almost every month during her stay in Japan. I even managed to visit her annual solo show at Manyodo in Ginza, Tokyo in May.
Watching Hanako work on the wheel was meditative. When I commented that it must be enjoyable to be able to throw with such rhythmic flow, Hanako laughed and replied that, “People might think that it must be fun to become a potter and throw pots on the wheel, but this is not the whole story”.
She explained that less than 20 percent of her day is spent on the wheel and that the rest of her workday is spent cleaning the studio and work equipment, loading and unloading the kiln, mixing and testing glazes, and preparing the clay. Hanako said that a three-year apprenticeship under her father and internationally famous potter, Nakazato Takashi of Ryutagama Kiln, had instilled into her the important habit of waking up early everyday to work, clean, and carry out other chores. Maintaining this discipline was indispensable to the running of a successful pottery studio.
Long and narrow boards on the racks in the studio were loaded with pots that were drying. These boards are easily over 5 feet long and they appear almost impossible to carry without dropping the pieces on top. Hanako said that it was just like the balancing pole that tightrope performers use to help them balance. She noted that, “the longer the board, the easier it is to balance on the shoulder with one hand”.
On days when Hanako can work uninterrupted on her wheel, she can throw over a hundred pots in a day. On my visit, Hanako had to answer many phone calls, tend to visitors such as myself, and send a pugmill to repair. She finally wrapped up her work at 5 p.m. after throwing numerous bowls.
In the evening, Hanako and Prairie cooked a delicious 7-course meal using Karatsu’s seasonal ingredients, each served on monohanako tableware. They put great care into preparing each dish and it was clear that they enjoyed cooking. As the famous Japanese ceramist and gourmet Rosanjin once said, “tableware for cooking is the equivalent of clothing for people.” He meant that the vessels that the food is served on is as important as the clothes that people wear and that people that are interested in food are inevitably interested in the wares they are served on. Consequently, many potters –of which Hanako is definitely a prime example- are excellent cooks and it was a real treat to be a guest at their dinner table.
Early next morning, Hanako was back in her studio finishing up the plates that she had thrown in the past few days on the wheel. She said she was in full work mode, firing work for shows that will be taking place after she was to depart for Maine in a few weeks time. I told her that her many fans in the U.S. were eagerly waiting her return. As we spoke, I realized that I was associating Hanako’s return with the changing of the seasons, just like a birder in anticipation of the annual migration.
Hanako worked until the late morning, and then we all left for a quick tour of Karatsu and lunch before I caught the bus to Hakata in the afternoon to start my long trek back to Tokyo. I was very pleased that I got to see a day in the life of this hard working potter, who is a rising star of the pottery scene in Japan and the U.S. While I discovered that being a potter might not be as idyllic and glamorous as it might appear, I am grateful that Hanako chose it as her profession. Her creativity has certainly brought style and beauty into our daily lives through the wares that we use to nourish our body and soul.