The day we spent with Hara Shinobu in Hagi was one of the most extraordinary of our time spent travelling on our bicycles. Having only met over breakfast at the Ruco Hostel she offered to take us to meet a potter friend of hers that she was seeing and to visit the house he’d built for himself using traditional joinery and timber construction, some thirty two years previously.
She borrowed a bicycle and lead us out of town through small streets of timber houses, cherry blossom and carp filled streams, to meet the potter Hamanaka Gesson. His house sat on a terraced hillside over looking the town which was reached by a steep path between several out buildings and a large mud dried, wood fired, potter’s kiln. Above us the hill climbed, greened thickly with bamboo, beneath which the white rendered timber house sat.
His wife graciously met us kneeling as we sat two steps beneath her to remove our shoes inside the house on a stone floored vestibule before stepping up onto the timbered floor above. We were introduced and invited to wander through the ground floor rooms that displayed some of the work made by Gesson. The pieces were exquisite and varied from being sculptural to the more traditional ceramics of bowls, cups and plates, taking their inspiration from natural forms like the bend or curve of a leaf, with their glazes rough and beautifully discoloured. The spaces varied with small steps and variations in levels between timber floors and tatami mats, places that had no visual connection to the outside and those that did. Everything was naturally lit and finished, the timber panelling exactly proportioned and precise.
We then joined Shinobu with Mr and Mrs Gesson, in their kitchen’s extension, and were served black tea, peeled slices of apple, sweet potato crisps, and then fresh filter coffee and a chocolate. Everything was placed on his pottery – plates, platters, cups, mugs, and chop stick rests – with the individual chocolates to finish the morning’s coffee served in their own saucers. It was effortlessly presented, simple, delicious and visually stunning. The apple slices came with roughly carved bamboo skewers with which you spiked a piece of the fruit, from the folded bowl in which they rested, to then eat ‘off the stick’. We had to watch everyone and how they ate to know what to do ourselves.
Gesson showed us both a family photograph album of pictures of the house being constructed and a monograph about himself and his work. Several years ago he did a series of ceramics depicting arrows, representing for him, the idea of a return back to nature and to the lost traditions of Japan. These ideas are clearly seen in the construction of his house. There are no nails, just timber jointing and pegs which are in marked contrast to the concrete ‘Lego’ apartment blocks seen everywhere else in the built up coastal districts through which we’ve been cycling.
The visit was a perfect introduction to an alternative aesthetic of Japan and it’s social customs. We clearly have a lot to learn about this wonderful country.