Saturday, June 10, 2017

Origins of Namban pottery: Hội An, Vietnam

I was aware of Namban pottery for a long time, but since my trip to Japan in 2015 this interest became deeper. This fascination arose from the fact that Namban’s origins are shrouded in mystery and I am a person who likes to get to the bottom of things. The best explanation of Namban origins I found so far is here

South-East Asia has always been a suspect provenance of Namban pottery and last year, I made a Namban discovery of my own, while traveling in Vietnam. During a visit to the Museum of Folk Culture in Hội An, I came across of a ceramic piece that simply “screamed” Namban at me (see image below left). For comparison, the image below right is a contemporary piece of similar shape and size made by a renowned Japanese potter Yukizyou Nakano also known as “Gyozan”.

I learned at the museum that the pot has been made in the Thanh Hà village near Hội An. Potters of Thanh Hà village have been making functional low-fired unglazed pottery since the beginning of the 17th century. Nguyen Dynasty records of the time tell us that their wares have been transported by river to the nearby commercial port of Hoi An and from there exported to the coastal provinces of Central Vietnam and abroad. All this got me thinking and I realised that six historical occurrences took place at the same time, all of them at the beginning of the 17th century. Here they are:

1. Potters settle in Thanh Hà village near Hội An in Vietnam.
2. Hội An becomes the most important trade port in the East Vietnam Sea.
3. Tokugawa Ieyasu issues permits to Japanese merchants to trade with Vietnam.
4. A thriving Japanese trading settlement springs up in Hội An.
5. Increasing demand for rustic and unassuming ceramics for tea ceremony in Japan.
6. Earliest Namban pottery appears in Japan.

When the facts line up like that, Vietnamese provenance of some of the early Namban ceramics becomes quite plausible. I could also add here that the oldest extant Vietnamese ceramics have been found in Japan, in a tomb at Dazaifu and they date back to 1330. Vietnamese ceramics made in the 15th and 16th centuries also have been found in Okinawa, Nagasaki, Hakata, Osaka, Sakai and Hiroshima.

One architectural remainder of the former Japanese presence in Hội An is the Japanese Bridge. At the beginning of the 17th century Japanese merchants in Hội An were influential enough to build this bridge across the river to trade with the local residents (see the images below).

As a more general afterthought, I would like to finish this post with a photo of a lidded jar I saw in Vietnam and I hope you see the connection with the topic of this post. Lids of such jars were converted into bonsai containers known today as Namban.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Bonsai pot leftovers from last year

Images above show a couple of unglazed electric kiln fired pots I made last year. The one on the left is inspired by rectangular nanban pots, which are less common than the round ones. It was also the first time I tried a combination of slab and coil building to form a bonsai pot (dimensions 20 x 27 x 11 cm). This technique is used by some Japanese potters to make large bonsai pots. The pot on the right was my attempt to imitate this slip decoration technique that I’ve seen on some Chinese pots. This pot is small, about 10 cm in diameter.

My Fergus Stewart pot

This year’s AusBonsai Market held at Auburn Japanese Garden was great. My deep gratitude to the organizers. I was just curious about what’s new and one stall selling bonsai pots immediately got my attention. The first thoughts that came to my mind were wood-fired ceramics by a highly skilled potter, but not a career bonsai pot maker. All pots were on the larger side, round, skilfully thrown on a potter’s wheel. Some of them were about a meter in diameter! You have to be a potter to appreciate that. I had to know who the potter is and the stall owner was too happy to tell the story. A Scottish ceramic artist Fergus Stewart with a passion for wood-fired ceramics worked in Australia between 1981 and 2002. Around 1999 while working at the Strathnairn Ceramics Workshop in Canberra, Fergus Stewart was commissioned by a Canberra bonsai grower John Remmel to make a series of bonsai pots. The examples of pot shapes and glazes given by Remmel were illustrations from “Matsudaira Mame Bonsai Collection Album” published in 1975. Stewart had to develop several glazes to match the illustrations in the album. Most pots had either a chop mark “FS” or signed “Stewart”. It turns out that the lot of them was never used and ended up for sale in this year’s bonsai market. Many of the pots had no feet and looked more like your typical English handmade functional stoneware rather than bonsai containers. Perhaps this was the reason why this stall was largely ignored by the market crowd. It’s a shame because they are a product of great craftsmanship and would work with certain trees. Nevertheless, in some instances Stewart did manage to capture the essence of a bonsai pot and I simply could not resist buying one of those (see image below, round 6 x 40 cm).

By the way, Fergus Stewart is currently teaching ceramics and works in Lochinver, Scotland specializing in wood-fired and salt-glazed ceramics. It doesn’t look like he is making any bonsai pots these days.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Byōdō-in temple, Uji

During my short residency at Fujukawa Kuoka-en in Osaka a couple of years ago, I was wandering what to do on my weekly day off. My bonsai instructor Maeoka-san pointed at the obverse of a ten-yen coin and said: “Go to Uji, it’s very peaceful there”.  I thought if this place is depicted on their money, it has to be amazing. I was aware that Uji is famous for its tea, but knew little about Byōdō-in temple depicted on the coin. A quick Internet search informed me that the temple began its existence in 1052 when a Fujiwara clan country house was converted into a temple. The construction of its most beautiful and famous building known today as the Phoenix Hall was completed in the following year (see images above and below). The coolest thing about the Phoenix Hall is that it’s a wooden structure which hasn’t been burned or destroyed for nearly a thousand years. What we see today is roughly how it looked during the heyday of Heian period. So, for me, visiting Byōdō-in was like time travel.

Byōdō-in museum was fascinating too, but photography was prohibited. All temple buildings except Phoenix Hall were burnt down during a war in the 14th century, so the other buildings reflect later architectural styles (see images below). To sum up, Byōdō-in is one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen in Japan.