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Unique Somayaki pottery makes comeback in Hawaii

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Highly acclaimed for its distinct artistry and skilled craftsmanship, Obori Soma Ware from Japan is slowly making a comeback since its original factory in Namie-machi was destroyed by natural disaster more than 6 years ago.

The Dai Ichi nuclear disaster caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011 forced the factory and more than 20 other potteries in the Obori region of Fukushima to go out of business for several years, says Company President Robert Iida. Only about 2 years ago, a new Soma Ware facility was built in Nishigo, Fukushima, 50 miles inland from Namie-machi.

Soma Ware, called Somayaki in Japanese, is “still very unique and has the same workmanship as before,” Iida said. Established more than 300 years ago, it remains one of the most exclusive and expensive potteries worth two or three times more than the average teaware from Japan.

The evolution of Soma Ware began during the Edo Period, when a samurai warrior discovered a specific type of clay in the hills of Namie-machi and told his servant to begin making pottery out of the clay for daily use. One of the pottery was given as a gift to a Soma feudal lord, who helped expand production to more than 100 kilns.

“Ours is the genuine stuff,” Iida said. This clay or raw material is what distinguishes Soma Ware from other imitations.

Iida’s began selling Soma Ware in the early 1950s, when the store was at the corner of Nu‘uanu Avenue and Beretania Street in downtown Honolulu, he said. By 1955, many other retailers carried the traditional craft from Fukushima.

“Somayaki was not popular at first, but locals gradually began to appreciate its unique features,” Iida said.

Its most notable trademark is the “Hashirigoma,” an image of a horse galloping to the left. The motif, which is considered a good omen, is delicately hand-painted in metallic gold.

Another distinct quality is its double-layer construction, consisting of 2 layers of porcelain. The inner layer insulates hot liquids for a long time, while the outer shell prevents anyone from burning their hands.

“That’s what I love so much about it,” said Lynette Lasiter, a retired caregiver and longtime customer of Iida’s. Coincidentally, her mother’s side of the family are from Fukushima.

Soma Ware is also recognized for its beautiful bluish-green crackled glaze called “Ao hibi”.

“Everything is exquisitely handmade,” Iida said. No two teapots or teacups are perfectly alike. The pottery’s imperfections make Soma Ware truly a vintage collector’s item.

Before Lasiter married 45 years ago, she purchased her first Soma tea set from Iida’s to give as a wedding gift for a couple on the mainland. Thirty years later, she bought 4 large Soma teacups from a small consignment shop along Keeaumoku Street for only $8 a piece.

“I thought it was a real bargain,” she said. But since her teapot broke, Lasiter was convinced she would no longer have any use for the cups. So, she gave them all away to her only son.

“I regret it,” she said. “I should’ve kept it. I always give to other people but not for myself. That’s what kills me.”

In the meantime, Lasiter said she is satisfied knowing her son still uses the cups after all these years. “After all, he is a creature of habit,” she said.

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