Mashiko, however, is not Nikko, and for that matter, is not exactly at the top of anyone’s Japan “must see” list. It’s famous for one thing, and one thing alone: pottery. In fact, if the town’s website is to be believed, Mashiko pottery is famous world wide. I don’t know if this is true, but I did see that a fellow from Minnesota had come all the way to Mashiko to train in pottery making, so at least it’s famous as far as the cow-filled plains of the American midwest.
I have never been all that into pottery, but it has seemed to me to be one of those things a person ought to try before they die, preferably when they’re young, so they can put their misshapen creation on a shelf somewhere in their house to collect dust, and perhaps a set of pushpins or other odds and ends, and then when they bring a date over the date can go “wow, where did you get this… errr, i guess it’s a bowl?” and then you can announce with pride “ah, that? yeah, that’s just a little something I made with earth, water, and my two hands” and then they will swoon because they will know you are not only attuned to the vibes of the earth, but also artistic and domestically inclined, what with crafting a piece of household earthenware by hand, you rougish devil you! Also, I hold the dubious distinction of having pretty much seen every major area of tourist or cultural significance in Japan over these past 5 years, and so now it was time to move on to the little random places. Like Mashiko.
Oh and I’d like to just interrupt this blog poast for a second, break down the fourth wall or whatever in a way oh-so-very-stream-of-consciousness-yet-alarming to let you all know that as I sit here typing this at my kitchen table next to the window, an explosive crack that I swear to god sounded like a rifle firing three times in a row just sounded from behind the house next to mine. Should I be alarmed?
Anyway, back to the story. And if this just ends in mid-sentence, then you will know I have fallen victim to a stray bullet or something. (and presumably this, my last work, shall be poasted by little magic panda fairy angels come to carry me off to the Great Bamboo Grove in the Sky)
I am not sure about whether it makes a lot of sense to go to an (apparently) world-famous pottery center to play around with a lump of clay spinning at an alarmingly fast rate for the first time in your life or not. Maybe it’s kind of like going to the Sistine Chapel to try out finger painting for the first time or something. (By the way, there’s no conclusion to this thought couplet, so I’m just gonna move on as if I didn’t even write it. It may not even make it into the final poast, depending if I can rouse my NY-based editor from her slumber and convince her to look at the draft before this entry goes up) Regardless, we woke ourselves up at an ungodly time in the morning and stumbled off to Ueno station from which we hopped onto an express train headed up to Tochigi.
Somewhere along the way we got to change from the JR to a private rail way on which – Saturday and Sunday only – a supar special steam locomotive ran up to Mashiko and back exactly once in each direction. Helpfully, they timed the “to” and “return” trips like 3 hours apart, so you know, you have exactly no time to do anything before you have to catch your train back. (I jest, there are other regular, non-steam trains running through out the day as well). I was – strangely – pretty excited to ride the steam train. I had images in my head of those coal fired trains they sometimes have running in the upper American midwest where you can enjoy the autumn foliage and the countryside and all that other hokey tourist schlock that I used to roll my eyes at when I lived in Wisconsin but now miss so very dearly (ahh… trees….). I thought this steam engine would be the same. Well, actually, I’ve never even ridden a steam locomotive before so I was kind of excited to do that as well. Look! Riding a Steam Locomotive and Making Pottery. A banner day for “Things Panda Has Never Done Before”, right?
If you have never ridden a steam locomotive before, it turns out there are some things you need to be told. I was not told them, but now I will tell you so you can avoid my fate. The first is that steam locomotives are Loud and Dirty and Spew Hot Gases and Occasional Flames. They also exhaust copious quantities of steam and smoke (which I presume to be scalding, I did not dare to test) so do not stand too close to them on the platform.
They are fired by coal, which is quaint to see shoveled into the hopper from afar, but when you’re sitting in the train car directly behind the locomotive, it turns out that little chunks of black streaky coal will occasionally tumble out and fly at you at high speeds.
Which brings me to my next point, which is that on the adverts they show the kids and the tourists and the dogs happily hanging their heads out the window as a train rounds the bend in an idyllic forest scene. You may get it in your head that this is an activity you might want to engage in as well. I, however, would urge you to think again.
You see, as the locomotive in front of you chugs along with its primitive and inefficient thermal engine of high pressure steam and fire, it exhausts all sorts of smoke, soot and general aerial grime. Copious quantities of it, in fact, which billow thick and noxiously and cascade downward, so much heavier than the surrounding air are they. However, as you are all moving forward at the same time, what happens is that this thick black soot and smoke descends upon you like a plague of coal locusts and it envelopes you and your face and whatever part of you is unfortunate enough to be hanging out the window when it strikes and in short order, my friend, you end up looking like the miserable grime streaked orphans of the 1982 remake of Dicken’s “Oliver Twist“.
So we arrive at the place and no sooner have exited the station than a gruff old fellow in sandals walks over to us.
“Are you Mr. Panda?”
(in my head: “who are you?“)
“Okay. Follow me.”
and he leads us into what I swear to you, is the first wood-paneled station wagon I have ever seen in Japan. It looked just like the stereotyped image we have of station wagons from the 1970s or whatever back in America. It’s also like cluttered with junk and stuff inside.
And weighing the years of education in primary school dedicated to alerting me to the dangers of getting into strangers’ vehicles with the submissive milquetoast nature that Japan has beaten into me, I nod my head and in we go.
It turns out that when the trip itinerary advertised that there would be a shuttle bus to the centre, what they meant was “someone will come pick you up at the station.” And by “someone” they meant “whoever was on lunch break at the time”, which happened to be this fellow. Not that I’m complaining, mind you, because he was very nice and it was very nice to have a ride. I was just surprised because I was expecting a shuttle bus and got instead, a wood paneled 30-year old station wagon filled with boxes
Upon arrival at the centre, we were shepherded upstairs to partake of a glorious feast that had been laid out for people visiting through that day trip travel package. As it turns out, the number of people visiting that day through the day trip travel package consisted entirely of. . . err, just us. A dining hall that could easily seat a hundred filled with just the two of us, about a dozen attendants, and the longest buffet set up of food I’ve sen in a long time. (later on a few other people from town wandered in, but in the beginning I felt really silly because they had set up this big sign with my name on it and planted it smack in the middle of our table, and it just seemed so surreal, as we were the only ones in the vast empty hall, yet here I had this massive sign defying anyone else to try and take my seat haha).
It turns out that Tochigi is famous for gyoza. Unfortunately, this coincided perfectly with this in Japan wherein hundreds of people got sick from pesticide tainted – yup, you guessed it – gyoza. Needless to say (and once again showing my susceptibility to group think regardless of rational, another unfortunate byproduct of too much time spent in Japan) I was a little nervous about eating the buffet (which consisted primarily of different forms of gyoza) but in the end hunger won out (I do loves me some gyoza), and I plunged in. I am still alive, so you know, I guess I got lucky.
It is somewhat ironic that having wasted so much time rambling on for pages on what is basically the exposition to this entry I am now going to spare but one or two paragraphs to the actual making of the pottery. But I’m getting sleepy and can’t type anymore, so that’s the way it’s gotta be. Making pottery is fun. If you have never made pottery before, I suggest you try it. Watching someone who is an expert potter make pottery is even more fun, and I highly suggest you try that. The clay is like a living thing in their hands – our teacher (a young lady not much older than us who had been doing this for over a decade) was all like “oh yes and now you just press like this with your hand and you have a bowl” and like, all of a sudden, the lump of clay turned into what I swear was the most awesome pottery bowl I’ve ever seen in my life. It was, friends, like watching a plant bloom, only instead of a flower blossom, it bloomed into a bowl. It was so weirdly fluid.
Then she was like “okays, and now I just press like this and we get a vase!” and like, all of a sudden, there was a vase. “Now, just push this way while holding your palm this way…” and all of a sudden the vase turned into a plate. That was some seriously cool business, my friends.
Now, flush with anticipation and the urge to master the earth and bend it to my will, I eagerly sat astride the spinning wheel and planted my hands firmly on the lump of clay, determined to make it do my bidding.
clay spurts for a second, then explosively deforms, a chunk flying out at a 47 degree incline at about 25 kph, striking a passing old woman in the head.
Turns out that making pottery is one of those things that looks easier than it actually is. It’s really easy to make like, a column. Or maybe a donut (just try pinching too hard and you’ll see what I mean). But the second you try and make a bowl, or a cup, or heaven forbid, a plate (which you’d think would be easy to do, right?), like all of a sudden the laws of nature and physic and centrifugal force all conspire to make your shit lumpy or asymmetrical (if you’re lucky), or droopy and slanted (stupid gravity) or, if your wheel is spinning to fast, make it exploded in a way most spectacular and frightening (if you’re unfortunate enough to be seated next to us).
In the end, however, we did manage to eke out a couple of passable bowls and plates between the two of us, and the teacher (looking a bit exhausted from having to constantly dodge our exploding clay projectiles) informed us that they might survive the glazing and firing, should we so desire to have that done to them. Remembering how handy a few hand made pieces of pottery might be should I ever find myself having to convince a member of the fairer sex of my sensitivity as an artist and domesticity as a man as noted in the exposition of this entry, I decided to get a couple fired. The actual kiln/glaze costs were not that much, perhaps a couple of thousand yen (maybe $20 USD?) but when you add in the total cost of the trip, travel package and train ride, thems is gonna be the world’s most expensive set of lopsided pottery, my friends.
But at least it will be mine. Oh and I shall love it so, just like my child. Love it despite its misshapen structure and droopy lipped circumference. Display it proudly in various parts of my dining room, place small but tasteful pieces of fruit or other table decorations atop it like I see in the IKEA catalogues, set it up atop my shelf for all to see and marvel at.
That is, until it comes time to move and I have to bing whatever I don’t need and I’ll pull it down from the shelf and be like “omigod, I can’t believe I actually paid to make this thing?!” and toss it straight into the pile of stuff to donate to charity/homeless shelters/the trash.
The cycle of life, I suppose. But yeah, if you’ve never done pottery, you should.
Thank for reading this completely rambling and nonsensical entry. And I apologise if it got a bit loopy there at parts.
Now listening to: “Notorious B.I.G. – Freestyle 95″
This is actually part of a longer freestyle between Biggie and Pac back when they used to be friends, but for some reason Biggie’s part has been extracted and is floating around on the internet with the title above. The full freestyle can be found on a CD called “DJ Trapp – The Pac and Biggie You Never Heard” (which I picked up at some random CD shop back in the day).
However, some clever young lad (or lass, possibly) has overlaid Biggie’s raps onto this video of, erm, Hitler, giving a speech. Not that Hitler or Nazi-ism is anything to joke about, but dammit, this clip made me laugh. I think it’s just how well it’s synched up to the lyrics.