Author: Ai Kanazawa

Kintsugi Teabowl Earthquake Relief Raffle for Wajima, Japan

As people around Japan were celebrating the New Year on January 1, a magnitude 7.6 earthquake hit Noto peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture, killing over 100 people and forcing more than 50,000 others to evacuate their homes.

One of the largest communities in this remote peninsula is Wajima, famous for its durable and beautiful lacquerware called Wajimanuri that dates back to the mid-Muromachi (1336-1573) period. The use of Urushi lacquer is believed to have existed in this area for much longer.

German artist Rabea GEBLER who is studying traditional wood turning and urushi lacquering in Yamanaka, Ishikawa, is fundraising to directly help the craftspeople of Wajima whose livelihoods have been severely affected by the earthquake. Supporting Rabea’s fundraiser is important because she will personally disperse funds to craftspeople in Wajima to buy materials and tools that they lost in the disaster.

To help Rabea raise money, Entoten is raffling off a very special Kintsugi repaired wood-fired tea bowl made by renowned potter Shumpei YAMAKI of West Branch, Iowa.

Kintsugi repaired tea bowl by potter Shumpei YAMAKI and Kintsugi artist Yuko GUNJI. Approximately D4.25″xH3.25″ Wood-fired in Iowa and repaired in New York using Japanese urushi.

This beautiful tea bowl has been expertly repaired by Yuko GUNJI, a Kintsugi artist in New York, using urushi lacquer; a key and vital component of traditional Kintsugi repair. I think that this piece of work repaired by urushi, which Wajima is famous for, imbues our hopes for the swift recovery of this area through this bowl.

Thank you in advance for helping us support the craftspeople in Wajima.

How this raffle works:
Raffle tickets are €20 each and the number of tickets that can be purchased is unlimited (€100 donation = 5 tickets)
1. Donations eligible for this raffle must be made between February 20th through March 2nd.
2. Donate desired amount to Rabea’s “Japanese Craft Revival after earthquake” fund on the gofundme page.
3. Forward the gofundme receipt by email to entotensd@gmail.com to enter the raffle.
4. Raffle ends on Saturday, March 2nd. Receipts should be submitted to the above address by 00:00 am on March 3rd. The winner will be announced and notified on March 3rd.
5. Entoten will cover shipping costs within the US.

Some of the craftspeople in Wajima that Rabea’s fund will be directly helping. She is also continuing to search for others who she can help.

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Making Shimekazari Rope Decorations with Rice Straw from Koda Farms in California

How many sleeps until
New Year’s Day?
On New Year’s Day
let’s fly a kite
and spin tops together
Come come quickly
New Year’s Day

Just like the child anticipating New Year’s Day in this well-known Japanese children’s song, I’m looking forward to the New Year, especially this December. To be honest, I’m really looking forward to putting up my New Year’s ornament called shimekazari that I made with my friends in November.

Eyeglass shaped “Megane” shimekazari made with rice straw from Koda Farms. The shape symbolizes bright outlook. This shimekazari was sent to Robin Koda who kindly shared her precious crop with us. Photo by Tomoko Matsubayashi

Back in April, I wrote to Robin Koda to ask if she would send me rice straw to make shimekazari this fall. I’ve known Robin for several years now through my shop, and she is the third-generation co-owner of Koda Farms in South Dos Palos, California. Her farm, established by her grandfather in the 1910s, is the oldest family-owned rice farm in the state. I was ecstatic when she graciously agreed to send me some after the harvest.

At the beginning of November, I received several bundles of sweet rice (mochi-gome) stalks. Sweet rice stalks are perfect for making shimekazari, because, from what I read, they are more flexible and don’t easily snap like regular rice (uruchi-gome) stalks.

The stalks were of a serene chartreuse color with plump beige grains that would have become the farm’s famous Sho-Chiku-Bai sweet rice, or Blue Star Mochiko. The smell immediately took me back to my childhood in Japan when I spent countless hours playing in the nearby paddy fields after school.

Beautiful sweet rice (mochi-gome) stalks from Koda Farms

New Year’s ornaments are made from straw ropes, called shimenawa, that are commonly seen at Japanese shrines. Apart from demarcating areas and objects where ‘spirits’ reside, these sacred ropes also create a boundary to ward off evil.

Large shimenawa rope at Izumo-taisha Shinto shrine in Shimane, Japan

If you google “shimenawa making,” you can watch videos of pros rolling straw in their palms and making a rope solo while holding the end with their foot. You can also tie the end to a door handle, or anything sturdy and stationary, and make a rope by yourself. But the easiest -and also the best- method is to have someone else hold the end while you twist.

Before making the ropes, the stalks must be cleaned by removing their leaves. After cleaning enough stalks and spraying them with water to soften the fiber, I gathered with my friends to make the ropes.

A bundle of sweet rice straw and removing of the leaves

For a three-strand shimenawa, the bunch is divided into thirds. Two of the thirds are twisted clockwise and entwined counterclockwise to initially make a two-strand rope. Once this is completed, the last third is twisted clockwise and wrapped around the two-strand rope to make a three-strand rope.

Twisting in one direction and twining in the opposite direction is counterintuitive, but when I realized that the rope stays together by the strands’ natural force to unravel, I was fascinated. The finished rope is ready to be formed into different shapes as ornaments.

Naomi and Masashi Kitamura came all the way from Japan to teach me how to make a shimenawa and shimekazari
Photo by Tomoko Matsubayashi
Naomi dividing the bunch into thirds 
Photo by Tomoko Matsubayashi
Making a two-strand rope by twisting each strand in a clockwise direction and entwining them in the opposite direction
Photo by Tomoko Matsubayashi
Twisting the last third and wrapping it around to make a three-strand rope
Photo by Tomoko Matsubayashi
Shimekazari by Naomi Kitamura made with rice straw from Koda Farms. Shimekazari are usually put up before the end of the year and removed on January 7 to be burned. These dates may differ depending on the region.
Photo by Tomoko Matsubayashi

Making shimenawa is a tactile act of building a relationship with the land, people, and to the lives we take to make ours possible, and I think this is the most important aspect of our New Year’s decoration. People in ancient times must have seen these real-life interrelationships symbolized in a rope because there are many similar ornaments, like corn dollies, made in other parts of the world using various fibers of cereals grown locally.

The Japanese believe that a good year only arrives to a clean house, so next week I will begin cleaning. All of that should be finished by around the 28th when I will put up my shimekazari on the door marking my house to the good spirits. I hope that they’ll find my house. I’m excited that my 2024 will begin with a little more connection to this land.

Thank you all and have a wonderful New Year!

Spoon-shaped shimekazari. Ornaments are often adorned with paper streamers, called shide, depicting lightening.

Eat, Sleep, Shave Wood: The Extraordinary Life of Woodworker Okubo Kotaro

Wooden spatulas and spoons by Okubo Kotaro in our shop ->

A few years ago, a friend gave me a wooden cooking spatula that I’ve used almost daily since. Shaped like a pirate’s cutlass, the spatula is now my go-to utensil for sautéing any kind of chopped vegetables, frying rice, and cooking minced meats. Its curved edge is perfect for breaking up and stirring foods that tend to clump along the arc of my pan.

“Kibera” cooking spatula in cherry wood by Okubo Kotaro
Urushi coated “SKT” wooden spoons by Okubo Kotaro with modern design and beautiful marks from his Nankin ganna

Japanese woodworker Okubo Kotaro is one of Japan’s most prolific woodworkers, known for making this distinctive curved wooden cooking spatula called “Kibera,” that he developed with input from professional chefs. His other wooden utensils include sleek urushi coated spoons. He carves each piece by hand using a shave tool called “Nankin ganna,” a version of a spoke shave with a made-to-order blade by a metalsmith precisely tuned for his use.

I knew of Kotaro for several years, but finally connected with him this summer through Jarrod Dahl, an American woodcraftsman. Jarrod hosted a sold-out spoon carving workshop with Kotaro this past August at his craft school, Woodspirit School of Traditional Crafts, in Ashland, Wisconsin.

Japanese woodworker, Okubo Kotaro
Photo by Douglas Matsumoto

At the end of September, I, along with my friend and photographer Doug Matsumoto, visited Kotaro and his wife Shuko, in Matsumoto, Nagano prefecture. Their studio and gallery are a little over 20 minutes by taxi from Matsumoto Station. From their place on a hill away from the city bustle, Hida mountain range can be seen on a clear day across the valley that cradles the city below.

“Mokko,” which means woodcraft, sign at Okubo Kotaro’s studio 
Photo by Douglas Matsumoto
Kibera laid out on the work table at Okubo Kotaro’s studio in Matsumoto, Nagano. Kotaro estimates that approximately 30,000 of his spatulas are used in Japan. Photo by Douglas Matsumoto
“Metal, water, and wood are all I need to make work,” says Okubo Kotaro. The wood used is locally sourced in Japan
Photo by Douglas Matsumoto
Okubo Kotaro’s shave-horse.
Photo by Douglas Matsumoto
Okubo Kotaro shaving the edge of a spatula with his Nankin ganna
Photo by Douglas Matsumoto
Kotaro frequently inspects the form while rough-shaping a wooden spatula
Photo by Douglas Matsumoto
Checking the blade setting on his Nankin ganna spoke shave
Photo by Douglas Matsumoto

Kotaro’s typical workday, which he repeats over 350 times a year, begins before sunrise with the ritual of brewing coffee. “I respond to emails on the computer while drinking coffee for a few minutes, and then go to work at the studio,” he said. “I stop and eat breakfast after sunrise, go back to work. Eat lunch, go back to work. Work until around 8 pm, eat dinner, take a bath, and go to sleep.”

Kotaro makes around 6000 utensils annually, which means an astonishing rate of 500 pieces a month.  Work-life balance experts may think that Kotaro’s work regime is a disaster, but working with wood nourishes Kotaro with constant discovery and inspiration. “I can’t wait to get up and work,” he cheerfully explained. “When I shave spatulas for 5 days straight, for example, I really start to get into the groove on the third day.”

Hand-carved spoons laid out at Okubo Kotaro’s studio. He carves around 6000 pieces annually by hand.
Photo by Douglas Matsumoto
Nankin ganna is a type of spoke shave tool that Okubo Kotaro uses to carve wood. He works closely with blacksmiths and stores all of his old shaves. Over the years, he has fine tuned the spoke shave to fit his use. Photo by Douglas Matsumoto

Shuko also finds this wood working life with Kotaro very rewarding. “I love watching him work,” she said. “Sometimes, after I finish my work, I grab a beer and sit by him and watch him work. It’s the happiest time of the day for me.” Aside from helping with the day-to-day studio and housework, she applies Urushi lacquer onto the utensils that Kotaro carves. Shuko also operates her craft gallery “Sen” next door on weekends.

Team Okubo Shuko and Kotaro sitting at gallery Sen in Matsumoto, Nagano
Photo by Douglas Matsumoto

Kotaro is originally from Matsumoto. In 2006, he moved to Kyoto and started working for a company that sold wooden home fittings like sliding doors, windows, and shoji screens. He worked there for 5 years, and met Shuko in Kyoto who was studying textile art at a university. They married in 2011 and returned to his hometown because Shuko yearned to live in Matsumoto. To see if it would work out, Kotaro moved back and attended a local wooden furniture making school for a year. “It gets really cold here in the winter, so I wasn’t sure if she would change her mind”, Kotaro mumbled. Shuko laughed and quickly interjected, “I really loved it here.” They decided to permanently settle in Matsumoto and opened their studio in 2012.

In the beginning when Kotaro started carving wooden utensils, he could only make 2000 or so a year because he used a lot of energy on each piece. “The wood was hard, my hands hurt, and my arms ached,” he said. He was carving dry wood, the raw material available for woodworkers under the current supply system. “Then I did some research and found out that past woodworkers, like from the Edo period, often soaked dry wood in water to soften it. This is counter to modern convention of carving dry wood to prevent warping,” he said. Wood blanks softened in water can be shaved like butter with his sharp Nankin Ganna. 

Wood spoon blanks soaking in water outside Okubo Kotaro’s studio
Photo by Douglas Matsumoto

To make a wooden utensil, Kotaro cuts out rough blanks from dry wood using a bandsaw and soaks them in water. He then carves the wood into shape using hand tools, mostly his Nankin ganna. The pieces are then dried and carved again to touch-up and finish. He doesn’t sand any of his utensils, so the edges of the wood stays fresh and crisp.

Throughout the years, Kotaro maximized efficiency by improving the Nankin ganna blades with metalsmiths, using different blade angles and openings, and even adjusting the incline of his shave-horse. “I don’t have trade secrets,” Kotaro said. “I share everything I learned over the years with anyone.” Kotaro thinks he has reached the maximum efficiency in the last few years so he hopes to organize more woodworking master class workshops like the one he held with Jarrod this summer.

Blade sharpening station at Okubo Kotaro’s studio
Photo by Douglas Matsumoto
Blade angle setting recorded with date on a Nankin ganna by Okubo Kotaro. 
Photo by Douglas Matsumoto

Occasionally, Kotaro’s fans copy his work, but rather than getting upset, he becomes very excited. “Ultimately if a shape is useful and good, it will be replicated over and over, and the maker’s name will disappear,” he observed. He dreams of a future where woodworkers working with Nankin ganna can be found all over the world making Kibera like the one he designed, even after he is no longer here. His comment reminded me of what Yanagi Muneyoshi, the founder of Mingei philosophy, wrote about good craft designs and how they are anonymous.

Three hours with Kotaro and Shuko flew by, and the sun was beginning to set. I suggested maybe we could go down to the city together and eat dinner. Kotaro beamed and said, “Thank you, but I’ll go back to the studio and shave a little more wood.” Shuko and I looked at each other and smiled. “I’ll drive you back to Matsumoto and drop you off at a restaurant that I recommend,” Shuko said. We then left Kotaro in his studio and walked to her car.

Four Tea bowls by Satoshi YOSHIKAWA: A Japanese Potter in Toronto

Tea bowls by Satoshi Yoshikawa in our shop ->

Nothing is more satisfying to me than finding out that crafts and makers are connecting cultures and traditions. So when I discovered that Japanese potter Satoshi YOSHIKAWA was making tea bowls in Toronto, Canada, I immediately asked him to make a few for me. Like a picture postcard, these beautiful and sophisticated tea bowls perfectly capture his new life in Toronto.

Four teabowls by Satoshi Yoshikawa, Toronto, Canada 2023

In 2014, I worked as an interpreter to a group tour of American pottery enthusiasts to Bizen, a famous Japanese pottery town in Okayama, in Western Honshu. We visited the studio of ABE Anjin, the celebrated and highly unconventional painter-turned-potter, who fires magnificent tea ware inside his wood firing kiln that is built completely underground. This is where I first met Satoshi, who was then a fledging potter-apprentice of Abe’s, in the midst of firing a wood kiln that reached around 2500 F. He stoked it in time for the group to experience the power of the fire firsthand. Quiet and contemplative, Satoshi seemed perfectly in his zone, calmly answering questions from the group while tending to the blazing fire.

Satoshi Yoshikawa firing the underground kiln at Abe’s studio in Bizen, 2014

That same year, Satoshi had his first successful joint exhibition with Abe in Tokyo and the Japanese ceramics world embraced him with great anticipation for his future. But fate intervened. Satoshi fell in love with Mika Sato, who owns a pottery and plants store in Little Italy, Toronto. In the fall of 2019, Satoshi moved to Canada to be with Mika, and a few months later, Covid-19 gripped the globe.

For Satoshi, his early days in Toronto were very difficult. “I spent many days thinking about what I should do because the environment completely changed for me,” he says. “I felt impatient because I couldn’t effectively make use of the knowledge I have accumulated over the years.”

Satoshi Yoshikawa working at his studio in Toronto, Canada 
Photo courtesy of Satoshi Yoshikawa

Satoshi was inspired to become a potter when he took up his first job at an antique store in the famous art and antique district of Kyobashi, Tokyo, after graduating from high school. “In the beginning, I didn’t know anything about Japanese ceramics culture, but when I saw the old Shigaraki, Ao-ido, and Muji-Karatsu tea bowls, they shook my heart” he says. He was intrigued that the customers, some of whom were famous artists themselves, avidly studied old objects. “I enjoyed seeing people fascinated with these objects and that sparked my interest to become a potter.”

Enchanting like a sweet round mochi.
Teabowl by Satoshi Yoshikawa, Toronto, Canada 2023

Throughout his training in ceramics that began around 20 years ago, Satoshi enjoyed digging wild clay from various places and firing them. “Everyone told me, you can’t make a living doing things like that,” Satoshi looks back. “But the more primitive the process, the greater the happiness I felt. There was satisfaction in living counter to the norms of a highly civilized society.”

Then in the early 2010s, Satoshi met Abe who reignited his passion for chato -tea ceramics- and went to work for him. “It became clear to me that chato was what I wanted to pursue,” Satoshi says. “My study under Abe-sensei taught me the potential of ceramics, in art, chemistry, history, and religion. Abe-sensi continues to be a huge influence on me and my values.”

Studio MIKA on College Street in Toronto, Canada. Satoshi’s pottery studio is adjacent to the shop
Photo courtesy of Satoshi Yoshikawa

In Toronto though, Satoshi had no wood-kiln to fire, no clay to dig, and hardly felt the aesthetic of ‘wabi-sabi’ that is at the core of Japanese chato. But he says he was saved by the local Torontonians that came to his wife’s shop, MIKA, who were always glad to see him. “Eventually I could switch gears. I just wanted to make the best effort at creating things that would make people here happy,” Satoshi says.

The bowls in this batch of work by Satoshi are well balanced and they feel incredibly good in the hands. Each bowl is distinctive because Satoshi avoids repeating the same process twice. By doing so he creates a good stress on himself so that he doesn’t get “used to” the process. “Just like a gathering around tea is ‘once in a lifetime’, I think the utensils should be created with the same attitude,” he explains.

Teabowl by Satoshi Yoshikawa, Toronto 2023

These days, Satoshi feels that there is nothing difficult about creating work because he can make whatever he wants, however he wants. “When I look back, I feel that I was trying too hard and being too competitive in Japan. I now think about the people here in Canada who will use my work and ask, ‘how can I make them happy?’ Then I apply my perspectives and experiences to achieve that goal, so it makes me much more flexible,” Satoshi says.

 

Kikusumi: Chrysanthemum Charcoal by Kotani Yoshitaka

Nosé Kikusumi by Kotani Yoshitaka in our shop ->

“This is hard work, but we need to keep it alive,” charcoal maker Kotani Yasuyoshi often said to his son about their profession. Sumiyaki, or charcoal-making, is a regional tradition in the town of Nosé where they lived.

The charcoal from Nosé (pronounced “no say”) and the surrounding area, located at the northern tip of Osaka prefecture, is known as “Ikeda charcoal.” This charcoal is renowned for its exceptional quality, especially among practitioners of the Japanese Way of Tea who use the charcoal to boil water in an iron kettle on a brazier. With the oldest written record of this charcoal going back to the 15th century, the Ikeda brand has been around for more than half a millennium.

Kikusumi Chrysanthemum Charcoal made in Nose, Osaka

But when demand for charcoal in Japan plummeted after the Second World War, the number of people making it also declined rapidly. The older Kotani-san feared that this local knowledge would soon disappear, so he took up the profession after retiring from a 40 year career as a civil servant in Osaka prefecture. He continued this work until he passed away in 2008.

This winter, I visited his son, Kotani Yoshitaka, who is following in the footsteps of his father to continue this tradition. I was accompanied by Fukuhata Shingo, a local green woodworker and owner of a popular log-cabin café called Soto. Fukuhata-san is a passionate advocate for local wood culture and he first introduced me to the unique charcoal-making tradition of Nosé back in 2020.

Nose kikusumi cut for use in the summer furo by Kotani Yoshitaka

“A good piece of charcoal creates a lot of heat,” Kotani-san says as he points to the pieces of charcoal burning in a small grill in his office. They resemble elegant black flowers, and as they softly crackled, the sweet smell of wood wafted in the air. “They smell good, don’t they?” he remarked and gave a satisfactory grin.

Kikusumi holds its shape as it burns and eventually turns into ash that looks like a white flower

The charcoal, rather poetically, is called “chrysanthemum charcoal” or kikusumi because the end grain pattern resembles the flower’s blossom. The best quality charcoal is almost perfectly round, tightly wrapped in a thin bark, with lines radiating from the center. It holds its shape as it burns, and eventually turns into ash that looks like a white flower.

Kotani Yoshitaka in front of the charcoal kiln

It was February and peak charcoal-making season, which is from October until April when the trees go into dormancy. We first walk down to the kiln at the bottom of the hill. “The quality of the wood, the structure of the kiln, and how they are loaded inside is key to achieving high quality,” Kotani-san explains. We then walk up the hill where his apprentice is tending to a kiln billowing smoke. “We fire the kiln non-stop for a few months,” Kotani-san says. “This is because it’s more efficient to empty and fill the kiln while it’s still hot, usually around 90 °C (194 ºF).”

Wood is separated into groups according to thickness before they are put inside the kiln to make charcoal
Kikusumi charcoal before sorting and cutting

Cutting, transferring, and putting wood in the hot kiln is grueling work and several helping hands are needed. Kotani-san said that he once emptied the kiln while it was 100°C (212 ºF) inside. “At the time I was fine, so I thought, hey, 100°C is not a problem. A little later my eyes started hurting so I went to the eye-doctor, and he asked if I had been on an Arctic expedition. I had something similar to snow blindness in my eyes, so I stopped going into the kiln when it’s too hot.” He chuckled.

Kunugi oak used for making kikusumi

The wood used for kikusumi is kunugi, a type of oak that is harvested locally. To efficiently harvest wood for energy, the Japanese have devised a forestry method called “daiba” meaning tree platform. In this method, only the top part of the tree is cut and harvested, leaving around 6 feet of the base and roots intact. New shoots (which are straight and easy to cut and handle) sprout from the base, which can be harvested every 7-8 years. This forestry method is said to have been in use since the 15th century.

“People often think charcoal making is destructive to the environment because a lot of trees are cut down, but it is not,” Kotani-san explains.

Daiba kunugi forest in Nose, Osaka

In areas where human settlement and activity has been present for centuries in rural Japan, a unique eco-system has developed where nature and people support each other.  In these areas, called satoyama, human intervention is vital to the health of the natural environment. Daiba kunugi is one such example because it requires regular rotational harvesting of the shoots to keep them healthy.

In recent years, the Nosé community have come together to preserve the daiba kunugi forest by helping to plant new trees and tend to existing ones. I’m starting to see a pattern in places where local culture is being reinvigorated. In these communities, ordinary people who understand the stories behind the old traditions join up and commit to providing the necessary support to preserve the culture and the environment.

A newly planted kunugi forest that will become daiba in the future.

In Japan, kikusumi is mostly unknown to people other than the practitioners of the Way of Tea. But Kotani-san and the Nosé community want to change that. “Charcoal is a great deodorizer and humidity remover, and they have so many other uses,” he says. “I want everyone to know its beauty and propose new ways of bringing charcoal into peoples’ lives.”

Until recently, the Japanese postal service did not allow charcoal to be shipped abroad, but Kotani-san worked out an agreement with Japan Post so he can legally ship charcoal to the U.S. with a special label. He dreams that people all over the world will learn to enjoy his beautiful charcoal. “Maybe it is a uniquely Japanese sensibility to find elegance in charcoal,” he says, “but I feel that I’m playing a part in spreading and passing on that special sensibility to the next generations.”

The Saint John’s Pottery in Minnesota: An American Pottery Tradition

To understand the story of the Saint John’s Pottery in Collegeville, Minnesota, it is worthwhile going to the studio in person. In July, I visited this legendary pottery studio located inside the serene Benedictine environment of the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University (CSBSJU), accompanied by my photographer friend Tomoko Matsubayashi.

“It’s slightly unusual,” said Samuel Johnson, potter and Chair of the Art Department of CSBSJU, about the fascinating relationship and history between the Saint John’s Pottery and the University.  “Ultimately, the pottery exists because it extends the Benedictine values of hospitality and community.”

I’ve been working with Sam since 2014, and this was the first time we met face to face. I was eager to see him because he is one of the rare breed of potters that went through multiple layers of training that included spending time as a Japanese-style pottery apprentice at the Saint John’s Pottery, going to graduate school, and studying overseas in Copenhagen and Japan.

Samuel Johnson’s pottery studio in Saint Joseph, MN
Kick-wheels at Samuel Johnson’s pottery studio in Saint Joseph, MN

We first met at Sam’s studio by his house located in Saint Joseph, a few minutes away from the college campus. Equipped with kick-wheels and long planks of ware boards, the studio resembled the pottery studios that I visited in Karatsu, Japan.

Many of the characteristics —even the studio’s cleanliness— are testimony to the transmission of knowledge through distance and time. Richard Bresnahan, Sam’s teacher, and the Artist-in-Residence at the Saint John’s Pottery, trained under the renowned Japanese potter Nakazato Takashi in Karatsu, Saga prefecture.  “Through the tradition I was studying I felt linked to the past, to potters from other places and times,” Sam says.

Handmade pots line shelves at Samuel Johnson’s pottery studio in Saint Joseph, MN
Samuel Johnson standing next to long wooden ware boards at his studio in Saint Joseph, MN
Coiled and paddled wood-fired jars by Samuel Johnson

There are two wood-firing kilns on the CSBSJU compound. The smaller kiln is called Sister Dennis Kiln that Sam built in 2012. This kiln is usually fired in the spring and fall, giving opportunities for students at the university to experience the traditional method of firing pottery. Through this experience, the students learn to work together and appreciate the beauty and function of handmade pots. “I studied here, so I thought it was only natural to use handmade pots,” Sam said in explaining the positive impact of being familiar with handmade ceramics. “But many people in the rest of the United States often ask if it’s possible to eat from a plate made in this manner.”

Sister Dennis Kiln at CSBSJU. The kiln is fired for about 76 hours using wood from the college arboretum.
Stoking windows on the side of Sister Dennis Kiln at CSBSJU.
Sister Dennis Kiln at CSBSJU. Once the pottery pieces are loaded inside, the kiln opening is closed using bricks and clay before firing.

In the afternoon, we visited the Saint John’s Pottery located on the west side of campus. Unfortunately, I was not able to meet Richard Bresnahan on this visit because he was traveling to celebrate his birthday with his family. “I lived in that small narrow room,” Sam said, pointing to the upper part of the brick building as we entered from the door below. “It was so narrow that if I stretched out my arms, I could almost touch both walls of the room.”

The Saint John’s Pottery Studio in Collegeville, MN
The upper brick part of the studio building is Saint Joseph Hall, originally built in 1899, which was used to house lay employees and workers. Richard Bresnahan first established the studio in the building’s abandoned root cellar in 1979. In 1992, the University moved the studio by building a new foundation and relocating the whole 4000 sf historic building on top. 

Studio Manager Daniel Smith and apprentice Luke Kiefer welcoming us with tea around the Japanese hearth at Saint John’s Pottery

Current members working at the pottery welcomed us for tea around the famous pottery hearth at the entrance to the studio. They included Environmental Artist-in-Residence, Steve Lemke; Studio Manager, Daniel Smith; and apprentice, Luke Kiefer. Through conversations over tea made with water boiled in a cast iron kettle and poured from handmade teapots, I learned about the many obstacles the studio had to overcome to establish and continue its apprenticeship program. Despite these setbacks, Bresnahan has successfully trained more than 50 apprentices over the last 44 years, and many more artists have come to learn at the pottery as residents of the studio with the help of supporters and grants.

“The Melon Cup” is the first form an apprentice of Richard Bresnahan’s learns to throw on the wheel. The wood kilns at CSBSJU bring out the color of the clay vividly because they are fired at lower temperature than most anagama kilns
Luke Kiefer and Daniel Smith working on kick-wheels at the Saint John’s Pottery.
Daniel Smith trimming the foot of a bowl on a kick-wheel. The kick-wheels are turned clockwise in Karatsu, Japan, but they are turned counter-clockwise at the Saint John’s Pottery, as do most potters in the US

The clay used at the Saint John’s Pottery is made from a nearby deposit that is extracted, stockpiled, and processed as needed in-house using secondhand equipment. The wood used to fuel the kilns is environmentally sustainable, certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, and comes from the nearly 3,000-acre Saint John’s Abbey Arboretum. The apprentices not only master their skills in a deeply immersive setting but also learn to sustainably use the natural resources from the surrounding environment.

Work by Richard Bresnahan, Artist-in-Residence and founder of the Saint John’s Pottery. I hope to meet him in person in the future

Sam says that through his apprenticeship with Bresnahan, he experienced the quality that stirs the imagination in his work. “In cups and bowls that I make, but also in the mundane aspects of work [like] washing ashes or clay, stacking wood,” he said. “This is one of the gifts my teacher gave me.”

The Saint John’s Pottery is a hub that disseminates a deep knowledge of pottery craft. Its apprentices, including Sam and Iowa potter Shumpei Yamaki, are gems of this unique American pottery tradition.

The clay processing area of the Saint John’s Pottery using recycled equipment.

After the tour of the studio, Daniel Smith took us to the other wood-firing kiln on campus, which is the famous Johanna Kiln that was designed and built by Richard Bresnahan in 1994. At over 80 feet, the kiln is the largest of its kind in North America and can hold around 12,000 pieces in a single firing. The kiln is fired once every two years, and as its front chamber is currently being repaired, the next firing won’t take place until October 2024. The labor-intensive firing event lasts for 10 days with the help of 60 volunteers who take turns stoking the kiln around the clock.

The building housing Johanna Kiln on the CSBSJU Campus in Collegeville, Minnesota.
Samuel Johnson inside the large Tanegashima Chamber of the Johanna Kiln

At the end of the day, Sam took us around the CSBSJU campus. The Benedictine monks first arrived in Collegeville in the spring of 1866, and by the end of the 19th Century had constructed the quadrangle building using bricks that they made from the rich clay deposit on site. When I saw these original bricks in the building wall that the monks made, and the durable end-grain wood floor of the Great Hall, it became clear how a remarkable institution like the Saint John’s Pottery was able to thrive here in Minnesota.

Stability, community, hospitality, and dignity of work: these Benedictine standards seem difficult to live by, especially in this modern, economically obsessed world. But what sets Saint John’s apart is that the university has made credible commitments to these ideals that are tangibly demonstrated in the work of the Saint John’s Pottery and its community of potters.

Looking towards Great Hall and the Quadrangle building from the Abbey Church of CSBSJU, Collegeville, MN
Quadrangle Building, CSBSJU, Collegeville, MN
Unevenly fired bricks inside the Quadrangle Building made by Benedictine monks in the19th century. The monks labored to build beautiful buildings, promising stability and durability. CSBSJU, Collegeville, MN
Great Hall (original Abbey) at CSBSJU, Collegeville, MN
The wooden end-grain floor laid in a herringbone pattern conveying stability and dignity of work. Great Hall, CSBSJU, Collegeville, MN
The Abbey Church and Bell Banner by architect Marcel Breuer completed in 1961. The original abbey (Great Hall) can be seen on the right, built to face East, welcoming people arriving from the railway station. The current abbey is facing North towards the road from the freeway, indicating Benedictine hospitality.
“All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ for he himself will say I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” A sign in front of the abbey woodworking building, CSBSJU, Collegeville, MN

 

All photos by Tomoko Matsubayashi for Entoten

More information about the Saint John’s Pottery at CSBSJU can be found here->
You can also donate to support the Saint John’s Pottery from here ->

New Quilts by Sarah Nishiura and Thoughts on the Humble Thimble

Today I’m very excited to let you know that we have new quilts by Sarah Nishiura in our shop->

Quilt by Sarah Nishiura, 2023
Sarah made this quilt because she hadn’t made a yellow quilt for Entoten in a while and she was also in the mood for some sunshine after a long gray winter.
Quilt by Sarah Nishiura, 2023
This quilt was made as part of a series of blue and white line of work that Sarah has made for Entoten over the years. Each work of this series has been created through a different approach using these colors.

 

Right around the time I received these much-awaited quilts, Sarah was announcing her hand quilting workshop in Chicago that begins registration on June 21st through her Instagram account. “What’s the best way to learn to hand quilt?”, she wrote. “First, buy a thimble; Second, find a teacher who can give you a few tips; Third, practice, practice, practice!”

This got me thinking about thimbles. About how the thimble that my mother showed me to use in Japan is different from the ones used here in the U.S.

Thimbles in Japan are called yubinuki and they provide the same function in hand-stitching as western thimbles to push the end of the needle through fabric and to protect your finger. But while a typical Western thimble is worn on top of the middle finger, Japanese ones are worn between the first (DIP) and second (PIP) joint of the middle finger like a ring. You can watch a short Japanese YouTube video on how to use a yubinuki here->

The Western cap-shaped thimbles are also available in Japan, but all the kimono sewers that I have known wore these ring-shaped thimbles. I would often walk into a tea break that my mother was having with her sewing buddies and everyone had these rings still attached to their fingers as they sipped tea from a cup; like it was some sort of a fellowship ring of sewers.

Yubinuki that my mother uses to sew. They can be purchased for less than a dollar a piece.

 

According to the encyclopedia Nipponica via Kotobank, the majority of pre-Meiji (1868-1912) period yubinuki were made from layered fabric in the shape of a triangle or a circle and were worn at the base of the middle finger with a string. This is because people used long thick needles to sew work clothing that were mostly made from rough linen or cotton. After Meiji, when sewing became part of the school curriculum, shorter needles and ring-shaped yubinuki became more common.

I first learned to use a yubinuki when I made a summer kimono many years ago under my mother’s instruction. It was very awkward and uncomfortable to use at first, but when I got used to wearing it, I couldn’t sew without it. I haven’t had the courage and patience to make a kimono since then, but the yubinuki has stayed with me and I look for it even when I have to occasionally re-attach a button.

Sewing set that was used by my niece in school when she was about 11 years old. The same yubinuki is in the set because they can be adjusted to fit the small fingers of children with a string. Sewing is still a part of the Japanese primary school curriculum.

 

Once, I purchased a nice ring-shaped metal yubinuki for my mother because I noticed that she was using cheap leather and plastic ones that needed replacing regularly. She was very happy when I gave it to her, but I soon noticed that she wasn’t using it. When I asked why, she hesitated, then told me that she prefers the soft adjustable ones because the bony knob on her finger joint was getting bigger as she got older, and it was difficult to put the ring through. I was embarrassed that I didn’t realize this without her telling me. Just because it was durable and more expensive, it wasn’t better for her working hands.

Many years have passed since then, and these days my mother has difficulty remembering how to sew a kimono. But she still loves stitching and when I see that brown, slightly tattered yubinuki on her finger, it makes me happy because I know that she is having a good day.

Kajo Day: Wagashi Celebration in June

Did you know that June 16th is Wagashi Day? Wagashi means Japanese sweets, with ‘wa’ meaning Japanese and ‘k(g)ashi’ meaning confections.

Kajyo Day display with anmochi and tea bowl by Mitch Iburg (2014)

The origins of Wagashi Day are unclear, but according to multiple Japanese sources, its history began in the Kasho (aka Kajo 848-851) era in the mid-Heian period. It is said that the sitting Emperor, Ninmyo, was faced with a disease outbreak, and in hope for a swift end to the suffering, he made offerings of 16 sweets to the gods on the 16th day of the 6th month.

This became Kajo day, a day of offering and eating wagashi. The tradition continued and peaked during the Edo period when sweets, previously only available to the ruling class, became accessible to ordinary people. The custom unfortunately died out in the political and social turmoil of the early Meiji (1868-1912) period, until it was revived by the Japan Wagashi Association in 1979.

When I first discovered Wagashi Day, I was disappointed because as a child I favored savory snacks to sweets. Since June 16th also happened to be my birthday, I would have preferred a soy-sauce-on-rice-cracker-wrapped-in-seaweed day. In fact, I avoided wagashi for most of my life because I was averse to the smell of anko, the red bean paste that is central to these confections.

My appreciation for red bean paste only developed in the last decade after I started learning chado, the Japanese Way of Tea. I was served wagashi at practice every week before having a bowl of matcha, and I was too diffident to say that I didn’t like anko to my teacher. In the beginning, I quickly swallowed the wagashi so that I tasted them as little as possible. But soon, I got used to the scent of anko, and realized that the bean paste noticeably brought out the flavor and aroma of the powdered green tea that followed. So if you have tasted red bean paste before and thought it wasn’t for you, I am proof that you can still acquire the taste for anko.

The Art of Wagashi by Kimiko Gunji, with a photo of wagashi depicting hydrangea on the front cover.

These days I look forward to wagashi at tea practice, many of which are created to convey the seasons. Wagashi depicting a hydrangea is popular through the month of June. You can also read more about seasonal wagashi on the Tokyo Wagashi Association website.

Matcha in a tea bowl by Mitch Iburg, 2023

To celebrate Kajo Day this year, I made the most basic, but one of my favorite, ‘anmochi‘, which is a ball of red bean paste wrapped in sweet mochi. I followed the recipe from the book, “The Art of Wagashi”, by Professor Kimiko Gunji of Japan House at the University of Illinois. I have tried a few recipes from this book, and they were very easy to follow. It is also very helpful that the listed ingredients are available in the supermarkets here in the U.S. So I highly recommend that you get a copy if you’re interested in trying your hand on creating wagashi.

Anmochi wagashi