Left in Andover: The push to learn in Japan

By Susan Leader
©2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

The downside of securing an apprenticeship at the Ogami Pottery was that I could no longer freely visit the other workshops in Tachikui village without feeling like a traitor.

Wherever I wandered, workers quizzed me as to how the Ogamis did things: What tools and techniques did they use? What shapes were we producing?

I found this rather amusing since I had already had the opportunity to observe that all of the potteries in the village did everything exactly the same, in accordance with their 800-year-old Tamba ware tradition.

Susan, at her glazing tasks in Tachikui, Japan, 1973.

Regardless, now I was busy six days a week. Oku-san, the wife, dressed me for work as her helper in indigo mompe, traditional peasant bloomers with gathered waist and ankles, and ruffled long sleeved aprons tied at the back.

No modern young Japanese women would have agreed to appear publicly in such apparel. But I rather fancied my get-up, even though the sight of me sent the country school children running — and even crying on one occasion. Some had never seen a foreigner up close, and certainly not a red-haired one.

Oku-san had no hesitation ordering me around. She kept me busy sweeping the floors and glazing pots all day. She was a true perfectionist, making us natural born opposites. I realized she had much to teach me if I could force myself to be compliant, but this went against my every instinct.

Carrying a board of pots — or tatah.

If I could somehow manage to never sully my apron, obey her commands instantly and work my heart out, then I might master discipline, patience and humility, not to mention pottery. Hourly, I wondered how long I could last.

One evening after work I escaped and went alone to visit Y-san, the hipster looking apprentice at a neighboring pottery, thinking he would be sympathetic to my plight. Instead, he lectured to me that a chestnut tree takes seven years to bear fruit. That was how long his own apprenticeship would last. Only then would he earn the right to call himself a potter. An American like me who rushed in and expected to learn everything in three months was beneath contempt.

Daniel Rhodes wrote in his 1970s book Tamba Pottery: The Timeless Art of a Japanese Village:

Design is a word which can hardly be applied to an old Tamba pot. The jar ‘happens.’ It seems to have formed itself. And surely the potter must have felt that way about it. He must have turned out his quota of jars each day with little thought of the individuality of each piece. Through his workmanship, the clay, the water, the rhythm of the wheel and the fire came together. The feeling and creative urge which prompted the shaping of these pots operated at the deeper levels of group consciousness…the pots express a whole culture, an attitude, a way of living and working.

Group photo in front of climbing kiln at Ogami Pottery with Susan on upper left.

I yearned to explain to my fellow apprentice that my heart beat with just as much passion for Tamba pottery as his did. I had assumed that was obvious. Why else would I have traveled here to the other side of the world?

Y-san turned back to his turntable of Dylan records, and I returned to my own workshop, seething with rebellion. I lacked the words, but not the determination, to become a link in this thousand-year-old cult of fired earth.

After a full 30 days of shadowing Oku-san, dipping pots in vats of glaze and emulating her mincing trot across the workshop to perform the feminine duty of picking up the phone — even when a man was sitting right next to it — I went on strike. I announced that I would leave if I was not allowed to work on the potters wheel.

Against his better judgment, Dana-san, the boss, agreed to this unheard of role for a female, issuing me the challenge of throwing 1,000 identical sake cups, starting the very next day.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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