The first, Hiromi Nishijima, is a potter who specializes in glazes. His showroom is filled with amazing art bowls and vases, each with some kind of interesting glaze effect. When he realized how interested we were, he went into detail about some of the things he does. He collects about as much goldenrod as Jason's car is big, burns it down to ash, runs it through a 60x mesh, and rinses the ash 30 times for 30 days. Add one part in three to a clear glaze and you get ... well, I forget what color it was, but it was beautiful. He's experimented with iron, and found that a small amount gives red, a reducing fire gives blue-grey. At around 8%, you start getting blacks. His friends bring him minerals from around the world, so he has, for example, a bunch of little soy sauce bowls, each glazed with ash from a different volcano. Mt Fuji ash gives olive green, Mt St Helens gives a creamy brown. I asked about wrapping pieces with copper wire, and he said that wouldn't work, but I could try scraping off the green rust, grinding it up, sending it through a 100x mesh, and adding it to a glaze to get green. He also uses various charcoals to run his kiln with, including mangrove. He planted a special kind of tree, sekkai, in his back yard because its leaves are high in SiO2Al3, so you can use them to make a leaf print in the glaze ... exactly how is a secret.
We inspected his coal/coke fired kiln, which sits outdoors. It is on a stone platform, and is basically a fire-brick box. The ware chamber is a 2 foot cube, with a little extra in front where he shovels the coke. Below, there are ceramic tubes through which he can pump air with lawn blowers if he wants the fire to be really hot. The chimney comes out the back, a downdraft chimney with holes for firebrick dampers.
The workshop has three gas or electric kilns. Shelves with his production work line the walls, but his real interest is in experimenting with glazes. He brought out a couple of museum books showing a particular pot, only one of which is perfect and intact, in a museum in Tokyo. A nobleman brought it back from China 800 years ago, and, if I understood the story correctly, somebody sold a castle in order to own it. THAT is the glaze he wants to be able to recreate. He showed us a series of test bowls. One had one half-centimeter of area where the effect is correct. Potters all over Japan are vying to be able to figure it out. Then, casually, he said, "You guys can have these mistake bowls." Even as mistakes, they're beautiful. We bowed, thanked, and drooled happily.
After tea and chocolate, we left to go down the street to the soy sauce maker. Just opening the door to the shop is like diving into a chocolate factory because of the deep, dark smell. The soy sauce he makes, as you might expect, is richer and fuller than the Kikkoman we get in the States. However, you don't want a soy sauce that is too interesting because it is a condiment, not a meal.
Soy sauce is made from wheat, salt, water, and soybeans. You can use the ordinary white beans, but he also likes to make some from black soy beans, the kind that are grown in the Kyoto mountains. This is too expensive to sell but, like the potter we met earlier in the day, he is an experimenter at heart. Sure, he does production soy sauce to make a living, but what he loves is the art of it.
The fermentation process has to happen in the dark, so we were led into one cave after another. The first one had huge wooden vats with the finished product in it. The staves are about 6 inches across and 6 feet up, and they are held into the barrel shape by woven bamboo and nothing else. Around the corner into the next room, was the well. He uses Kyoto groundwater. Next, there was the boiler, and high above, an ancient 100 year old iron vat on ball bearings that you put the mash into and steam it. After its cooked and sterilized, it goes into a dark room on shallow dishes, where he sprinkles a special yeast on the top. There it ferments for three days.
The mash is then ready to age. The light bulb in the aging rooms is burnt out so we didn't see the commercial aging vats, but his first love is the experimental mashes anyway, which he was glad to show us. They are in about fifteen wooden buckets, busily aging away, from one to four years old. He stirs them every day. "Taste, taste," he invited, and we did, at first nervously, then hungrily. Each bucket had a different taste, from sharp to sweet to chocolaty. There is a big press that extracts the soy sauce, and some pits in the ground through which steam is bubbled to sterilize it so the fermentation stops.
Back in the shop room, we sat down to coffee. Coffee at 7 in the evening. This is normal for Japanese hospitality. Then he presented us each with a bottle of zillion dollar soy sauce, in a purple plastic bag because the color of soy sauce, if it is good, can be described as purple. We parted with good wishes all around. We'll see him again tomorrow night when Jason goes to a taiko drum group he leads.
Now, dinner. While waiting for a table, we visited a palace with a moat, gardens, and an egret perched in a tree. The meal was hearty Italian, served by waitresses in gingham aprons. Delicious, unpretentious, crowded.
At home, we watched "The Miracle Worker," an old movie about Helen Keller learning that words have meaning. Later this month we'll do a session back at Yohane School on the movie, because it talks about language acquisition.