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Traditional pottery town evolves with changing times

                                Pottery master Genji Shimizu shapes a lid of a kyusu (teapot) in Tokoname, Japan, one of six major cities in the country that has been producing ceramics for centuries.
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Pottery master Genji Shimizu shapes a lid of a kyusu (teapot) in Tokoname, Japan, one of six major cities in the country that has been producing ceramics for centuries.

Tokoname, Japan >> Pottery artisan Genji Shimizu, 78, creates each piece of his kyusu (teapots) one by one in a fluid motion that wastes no energy. The development of his skills over the past 60 years is evident in the way he throws clay on his pottery wheel and forms each part of every teapot, body, handle, spout and lid.

Shimizu lives and works in Tokoname, Aichi prefecture, devoting himself to making kyusu that are comfortable to use.

“I can thinly shape kyusu parts using sticky clay, which makes it light and easy to hold,” he said. “I also try to make sure you can finish pouring from the teapot without a single drop dribbling down.”

Occasionally, Shimizu makes a kyusu lid for customers to replace one that has broken. The tea utensils have become a part of their everyday life.

“I am happy to find that they use kyusu I made many years ago and are glad to have new lids for them, because usually you can never know who is using my kyusu,” he said.

Tokoname is a city of history and innovation. It is known as one of the “six ancient kilns,” referring to six major centers that have been producing ceramics for centuries — Seto, Tokoname, Echizen, Shigaraki, Tamba and Bizen.

Taking advantage of the clay from the area and its location facing Ise Bay, the city in ancient times flourished as a major production center of kame (jugs). In modern times, Tokoname has produced earthen pipes, toilets and tiles, among other products.

The production of kyusu is a 200-year-old tradition dating back to the end of the Edo period (1603-1867), and it became a particularly prosperous industry after World War II.

Shimizu’s grandfather made kame during the agricultural off-season. His father initially made mortars but later turned to creating kyusu. Shimizu himself began making kyusu after studying ceramics in high school.

An important point in Shimizu’s career came when he was about 30. He met a senior artisan who encouraged him to try a variety of clay beyond the traditional one that makes red-brown shudei kyusu, for which Tokoname is famous. The artisan also shared pottery techniques including yakishime, in which products are not glazed.

Shimizu also created tableware, guided by the rule of thumb that 10% of his products should be something other than kyusu.

The enterprising nature of Tokoname has kept the city vibrant with new innovations. The diversification of Tokoname ware has continued thanks to artists who produce an array of items, including kyusu for coffee and a well-designed tea burner that allows people to enjoy the aroma of tea.

With the development of numerous promenades, the city in recent years has become a tourist destination. Last fiscal year, Tokoname saw 3.5 million visitors.

Tokoname continues to evolve while retaining the history of the area. Tourists can visit Dokanzaka, a slope lined with walls made of earthen pipes and shochu bottles, as well as a traditional Japanese-­style house converted into a cafe.

“I think I was born in a good place,” Shimizu said earnestly, sharing an old pottery piece he found in the mountains while in high school.

In Tokoname, materials for learning left behind by ancestors are found everywhere.

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