Tucked deep in the densely wooded mountains of Kyushu and 300 years away from the hectic pace of the modern world is the rustic village of Onta. Life here has changed little since Yanase San’emon arrived from Koishiwara, another renowned pottery center 16 miles west of Onta, at the beginning of the 18th Century, to establish a distinctive way of making pottery known as Ontayaki that continues to be practiced by his descendants.
The ten families that live today in Onta can trace their lineage to the three original founders of the Onta kiln in 1705. Besides Yanase, the other two clans are the Sakamoto and Kuroki. Each family passed their pottery knowledge and skills from fathers to sons while the mothers and daughters performed no less important supporting roles. This patrilineal practice has helped to preserve Onta’s original pottery-making techniques in its purest form despite three centuries of generational succession.
Ontayaki was unknown to the rest of Japan until Studio KotoKoto’s philosopher hero and father of the Mingei movement Yanagi Soetsu visited Onta in 1931. He had to walk to the village on foot, as there were no proper roads connecting it with the outside world in his days. Yanagi was keen to go to Onta after first falling in love with the warm simple beauty of Ontayaki at a pottery shop in Fukuoka.
Onta’s traditional way of life and simple approach to making pottery perfectly fitted Yanagi’s vision of Mingei. This was detailed in his book Hita no Sarayama about Onta that put the village on the map in Japan. The famous British potter Bernard Leach also resided in Onta during the 1950s and 1960s, and this broadened the village’s profile onto the global stage.
The people of Onta have taken this fame in their gentle stride. When I arrived in the village on a cold spring morning, I was welcomed by the noise of creaking wood that was followed by a heavy thud. This is the sound of kara-usu, the wooden clay-crushing device that operates like a seesaw and is powered by water from the Hanatsuki River that runs through the middle of the village.
The rhythmic beat of the kara-usu is the reason why Onta has kept to its simple ways and avoided being swept up in the mass consumerism of the modern world. Each family in the village is only allowed two wheels in their workshops because of the slow and limited production of local clay from the kara-usu machines. This means that if a grandson is ready to take over a wheel, his grandfather has to retire to make way. This careful approach by the villagers to managing their land and strictly limiting the scale of output means that there will be plenty of clay left for future generations.
At one house, I witnessed a woman busy transferring wet elutriated clay from a trough to a clay-drying kiln. This confirmed what I had read elsewhere that the backbreaking daily work of clay preparation is the responsibility of the Onta women. So to the female readers of this blog, think twice about marrying that handsome potter from Onta because you will find yourself with a very physically demanding job for the rest of your lives. It is truly a revelation to see how much time, work, and space is needed to prepare the clay after seeing the kara-usu, the water pools that dissolve the clay, the clay troughs, and the clay drying kilns.
The wheel throwing method used in Onta and Koishiwara is strikingly different from the approach that I and many other potters are most familiar with. Instead of starting by centering enough clay to form the entire form, a ball of clay is patted and centered to build the bottom. Coiled clay is subsequently added on top to build the rest of the pot.
This method is called neritsuke and is a hybrid form of wheel throwing and coil building. This technique is said to be only possible because of the mastery of the potter to control the speed of the kick wheel. To watch how this is done, here is a link to a YouTube video of a young Onta potter, Sakamoto So, who is throwing plates and applying uchi-hakeme, which is a brush patted slip marking.
Onta clay is very smooth with a beautiful brownish yellow color that fires to dark brown because of a high iron content. Together with the slip that fires to light cream white, Ontayaki is ideal tableware as it brings out the color of food on the table.
Onta-ware has several distinct decorative styles that includes the chatter marking or tobi-kanna, uchi-hakeme, and the dynamic finger marking or yubi-kaki. These styles can also be found in the sister kiln of Koishiwara.
My visit to Onta was a deeply profound and eye-opening experience. More than 80 years have passed since Yanagi first went to Onta and far fewer people in today’s mass consumer society are using handmade products than when Yanagi made his pilgrimage to the village. Despite the enormous social, cultural, and economic changes that have occurred during these intervening years, Onta has never succumbed to the enticements of mass consumerism. And because the village’s residents have stood so fervently behind their age-old principles of sustainability and balanced moderation, Onta has thrived.
A key lesson that I take away from Onta is that as long as there is a community of people who understand and cherish the importance of handmade in their everyday life, this tradition will survive and live on in future generations. This is also the essence of what we at Studio Kotokoto are seeking to build, although through the application of modern day tools including the Internet rather than from a remote corner of Japan.
My pottery tour will continue in my future blog.