When Shoya Yoshida introduced the mingei movement to Tottori, he infused the western Japan region with a love of folk crafts that would change approaches to craft production and lifestyles and put in place a legacy that continues to enrich the region today.
The simple beauty of Tottori's folk crafts can be found across the region in washi paper, textiles, bamboo, and forged knives, among other forms. It's pottery, though, that offers the deepest dive into the mingei movement introduced here in the 1930s. Visitors can even stop by kilns with direct connections to the person who made the introductions.
Noriyuki Yamamoto is ready to go. We've barely taken our seats in the cafe at his kiln Craft-kan Iwai-gama in eastern Tottori Prefecture. Coffee is yet to be served before the 75-year-old potter slips comfortably into an enthusiastic stream of thought and reflection about his life with mingei and the influence of "Yoshida sensei."
Yoshida sensei - Dr. Yoshida. By day, Tottori native Shoya Yoshida (1898 -1972) was a medical practitioner who treated patients at a clinic in downtown Tottori. The building is still there, though no longer a clinic. Across the road are facilities established by Yoshida in his other guise, as a producer of Tottori folk crafts and the man who brought the mingei folk craft movement to the region.
Knowing that he wanted to do something with his hands as a vocation, at 16 Yamamoto sought the advice of Yoshida, the mingei producer and once his childhood doctor.
"I went to see Yoshida sensei (at his clinic). He was in the middle of an appointment with a patient and told me to wait a moment, so I went to see an exhibit at the Folk Crafts Museum."
That visit to the Tottori Folk Crafts Museum, where the young Yamamoto found himself in awe of the Joseon white porcelain from Korea on display, "is a big reason why we are here now," he tells us.
The Tottori Folk Crafts Museum, established by Yoshida in 1949, is located across the road from what was the doctor's clinic. Today, the museum offers visitors an insight into the life of Yoshida and is a good place for the novice to get a grasp of local folk crafts and the mingei movement.
The most concise definition of mingei, though, can be found in the words of the people who started the movement in Japan in the late 1920s. After the country began its rush to industrialize during the Meiji period a group of craftsmen, led by philosopher and art historian Yanagi Soetsu (1889 - 1961), sought to save simple folk crafts from being left behind, condemned to collect dust in the nation's attics.
Soetsu and his peers combined the words min, meaning "the masses" or "the people," and gei, meaning "craft," to create mingei - "crafts of the people" - often translated as "folk crafts." The mingei movement saw beauty in objects used by ordinary people in their daily lives, championing the creation of honest crafts of practical purpose.
"Mingei isn't just about making things, though. What Yanagi championed was items for living and a way of living," Yamamoto explains.
For Yamamoto early inspiration of mingei as a way of living came when he was invited to Yoshida's house and saw a painting on display by Bernard Leach, the influential British potter who had a close relationship with Japan and who embraced the simple, utilitarian style of mingei.
"I really admire Leach. He was inspired by people like William Morris and William Blake and started to create pottery. I was only in my first year at high school but I was interested in the things they were doing. When I went to sensei's house and saw Leach's work I thought this is the kind of lifestyle I want to live."
The journey to that lifestyle, though, was perhaps driven by Yamamoto's own idea of what mingei is - a way of life in which you take the initiative and surround yourself with that which you think is good.
It was maybe young enthusiasm, though, which drove Yamamoto at 18 and still in high school to hitchhike from Tottori all the way to Tokyo in the hope of meeting his idol Leach who was visiting Japan at the time.
"I read in a newspaper that Leach was coming to Japan, so I hitchhiked on a truck to Tokyo to meet him without having the fare to get back home," he recalls.
Yamamoto did get his meeting with Leach. After that encounter and after graduating high school, he took an apprenticeship at a kiln in neighboring Shimane Prefecture and started to surround himself with those things that he felt were good, much of them made by his own hands.
The cafe we're sitting in - Kissa Hana - is one of three main buildings at Craft-kan Iwai-gama built by Yamamoto. Another houses a workshop and exhibition space displaying examples of tableware fresh from the kiln. The third building, the Sankou-kan, is a "reference hall" showcasing items that have inspired Yamamoto over the years. The hall also serves as an event space.
After coffee and cake in the cafe, served using items of folk craft, Yamamoto gives us the tour.
"I wanted to create in one place somewhere where I could make my own products, where they could be put to use, and where I could have a space to show those crafts and other items that inspired me in the creation of my work."
The Sankou-kan reference hall is a bright and airy space with wooden beams supporting a high-arched roof. Among the cherished items here is a table-cum-counter designed by Yamamoto, chairs from Turkey, and a bed from Afghanistan (by way of Ginza).
Opening up a large wooden chest Yamamoto sifts through the myriad of boxes within, opening one to reveal a mug made by his idol, Leach.
Up in the hall's attic room we are shown some of the Korean-style pottery that inspired a young Yamamoto as well as some of the leading figures of the mingei movement.
"It's not enough that only those people who like pottery come here though. I had to create a reason for others to want to visit so we started holding events here like rakugo (comic storytelling) and live music."
These days Craft-kan Iwai-gama receives around 10,000 visitors a year, according to Yamamoto. Some stay just down the road in the hot-spring town of Iwai Onsen. Others have driven from as far away as Cape Soya, the northernmost point of Japan's northernmost main island of Hokkaido.
Had others timed their visit to match ours, they would have arrived at an Iwai-gama appearing as if soaked in a tropical languor after a rainy spell during Japan's lingering summer. Rising above the tiled roofs of the kiln buildings the trees on the hillside are lush and green. Across the road from the entrance a terrace of rice fields climbs slowly toward mountains in the hazy distance. It's a quite beautiful setting.
In one of his essays on mingei, Yanagi Soetsu wrote of an "idyllic kingdom of beauty," an ideal world where all crafted objects are beautiful. At this moment it doesn’t feel like it would be much of a stretch to say that Iwai-gama could be an idyllic kingdom that Yamamoto has built for himself and others, whether consciously or not.
Hana, the resident dog, certainly looks very content with her surroundings in a corner of the kiln courtyard, rising only from a midday slumber to receive some fuss from the cameraman.
For Yamamoto though, there’s work still to be done. He remains influenced by Yoshida sensei and the support the mingei producer gave to the craftspeople of Tottori like himself. He wants to return the favor.
When Yoshida opened the Takumi Kogei-ten store in 1932 he created a vital outlet for local craftspeople where they could showcase and sell their folk crafts. Today, Takumi Kogei-ten, located next door to the Tottori Folk Crafts Museum, is regarded as the oldest existing folk art specialty store in Japan and a key factor behind the strength of the mingei movement in Tottori, according to Yamamoto.
"(My generation) started out on its own but there was always someone we could sell to, someone who would give us money in advance. That's what Yoshida sensei did for us. That's how we grew."
"(The mingei movement) now needs to support those people who are yet to make sales, the young craftspeople. People like me can be put to the side."
Yamamoto laughs at the latter statement but it reflects a belief held by the early champions of mingei, that folk crafts be made by the anonymous craftsperson, indistinguishable among the masses. Accordingly, Yamamoto doesn't stamp, mark, or attach his name or that of his kiln to his work.
"In 30 years time I'll be gone and it won't matter if a particular folk craft item was made by me. But if that item is good enough, it will still be around. That’s for sure."
Ushinotoyaki Kamamoto is another of Tottori's kilns to have been directly influenced by Yoshida. It was here that Yoshida began designing the items which he believed would bring Tottori's folk crafts into the modern age.
Bent in concentration over his rokuro potter's wheel in a dimly-lit kiln workshop, Takao Kobayashi demonstrates the technique of kezuri, shaving off unwanted clay to shape the base of the dish he is making.
Outside, the broad and bright rural landscape of mountains and fields, south of Tottori City, unfolds. In the late summer the rice fields appear almost golden and ready for harvest and the greens of the mountainsides are highlighted by brilliant red patches of spider lilies.
This is the satoyama, that border area of foothills between mountains and city where people make their living from the resources that the land provides.
For the 72-year-old Kobayashi, this living starts with shuffling piles of earth dug out of the hillside up the steep driveway to a storehouse next to his workshop where he breaks it down to something finer. From this he can filter out, process, and produce the clay used to create Ushinotoyaki's folk craft pottery.
"It's tough, really. No one likes doing this so they just buy their clay. It's rare to do it like this."
Kobayashi speculates that he might be the only potter in Tottori Prefecture to be making his clay from scratch, and by extension then, the finished items of folk craft.
Despite the hardship of the task, he breaks into a beaming smile at our city-softened reactions of shock at the prospect of getting hands dirty in the course of a day's work.
Behind the workshop, Kobayashi shows us one of his noborigama kilns "climbing" up the steep hillside. This particular kiln is no longer in use after suffering damage during an earthquake some years ago and now appears at risk of being consumed by the surrounding vegetation.
In this setting, amid the raw, natural beauty of the satoyama, Kobayashi appears every bit the anonymous, humble craftsperson that the founders of the mingei movement so championed.
Appearances can be deceptive though. Among the folk crafts made at Ushinotoyaki are some of the most recognizable examples of Tottori mingei - the black and green glazed tableware which bears the touch of Yoshida himself.
Yoshida visited Ushinotoyaki in 1931. At that time the kiln, under the stewardship of its fourth generation potter, was largely producing suribachi mortar bowls, pickle jars, water jugs and tokkuri sake bottles. It was at the kiln, though, that Yoshida began designing his folk crafts, including the green and black glazed somewake plate that is perhaps among the most iconic pieces of Tottori mingei.
Yoshida advised the Ushinotoyaki potters to fade out production of the jars and jugs and focus more on the modern mingei tableware that the kiln continues to make today, images of which can be seen in a myriad of Tottori tourism materials. Or come and see the real thing at the kiln.
"Now when we say 'mingei,' we know what it means. But back then it was like, what kind of thing is mingei?" Kobayashi tells us. "The potters paid attention to Yoshida's advice, even though I think it would have been normal for them to have felt annoyed with this noisy person telling them what to do," he jokes.
It would be a few years after Yoshida's passing, though, that Kobayashi, a native of Fukushima in Japan's northern Tohoku region, would join the kiln and become its sixth generation potter.
No direct contact with Yoshida then, but Kobayashi appears no less serious about the region's mingei movement.
"It's the basis of my life. I can't live without it, financially or spiritually," he says.
We press him on the spiritual aspect. What does he think about when making pottery?
"Nothing! Well, except maybe what I'm going to have for lunch," he responds with another joke before getting serious again.
"I want to do work that keeps me grounded. I have no desire to make things that are flashy. My work doesn't have to be admired, I just want it to be used for a long time."
Whether Kobayashi likes it or not though, Ushinotoyaki is admired by many. And up here, in the glorious landscape of the satoyama, it's easy to be in admiration, almost envious in fact, of the lifestyle behind it, even if it does mean getting those hands dirty.
At 41 years old, Yoshiyasu Yamamoto is the next generation of potter in Tottori. Or maybe the current generation. He has no direct connection to Yoshida and only started producing folk crafts around 10 years ago at his family's Kokuzouyaki kiln in the city of Kurayoshi, in central Tottori Prefecture.
When Yamamoto's grandparents founded the kiln in the late 1800s, it was as producers of kougei - more artistic crafts where practical purpose is not the be all and end all.
It was through a request from Takumi Kogei-ten that Yamamoto first started creating folk crafts and he is now involved, too, in exhibitions at the Tottori Folk Crafts Museum.
"At that time I didn't really feel like I was making mingei. I wasn’t conscious of it," he says of his early efforts at folk craft production.
"When I started helping out (at the museum) though, I had the chance to discover old mingei items. I took the opportunity to absorb knowledge from this and when I started creating things by incorporating these older forms I began to realize that I was creating mingei."
Today, one of Kokuzouyaki’s most popular folk craft designs is inspired by the Tottori Sakyu sand dunes, itself one of the most iconic sights in the region.
Time a visit to the dunes right and you might see on their surface a pattern of wind ripples, or "fumon," - ridges of sand created by Sea of Japan winds, forming gentle lines that appear to move across the face of the dunes.
Yamamoto recreates this fumon pattern using the tobigana technique to create the ripples as lines of chattering dots across the surface of the tableware.
"Actually, I had been working with the tobigana style already but many people commented that it looked like the dunes so I started taking that approach to it," Yamamoto says with casual ease and humility.
When it comes to folk crafts, Yamamoto is open to the ideas of others in the pursuit of creating items which are comfortable and enjoyable for people to use. Unlike some of his predecessors, he doesn't have a hard and fast stance regarding his approach to mingei, in production or in lifestyle. Indeed, Yamamoto appears to move with ease between the worlds of mingei and kougei. The two crafts also look comfortable rubbing shoulders in his kiln’s exhibition space.
"There was an expectation that I would remain active in kougei, so I still produce both. Mingei is something to be used in daily life. Kougei is more about artistic appreciation and if it is made for use, it's more likely to be for special occasions. That's the difference between the two. Other than that, I don’t think about any spiritual or philosophical divide."
Yamamoto does, however, remain committed to protecting Tottori's craft traditions.
"I want more people to know about the culture of pottery here. How we use local resources to make the kinds of things we do," he tells us.
In order to reach younger audiences, Yamamoto collaborates with stores that young people are likely to visit, to put Kokuzouyaki's crafts on the shelves.
One of these stores can be found in Kurayoshi's Shirakabe Dozo-gun district, a traditional townscape of quaint streets and trickling streams.
Inside the area's white-walled storehouses and townhouses are craft stores, galleries, and workshops, among them Cocorostore where Yamamoto has some of his folk crafts on the shelves. Pay attention to the store's lampshades hanging from the ceiling - they were also made by Yamamoto at the request of the store, according to the owner.
The old townscape of Kurayoshi is just the kind of picture-perfect, Insta-friendly setting likely to delight the younger Japan traveler, especially those coming from the larger cities and from overseas. And here they can also have an encounter with Tottori’s folk crafts that might inspire them to create an idyllic kingdom of beauty to call their own, surrounded by things that bring them comfort and joy.
In a broader sense, this is Tottori's mingei experience, one which brings visitors into remarkably beautiful landscapes and settings, the kind you want to shout about, to meet humble craftspeople and encounter the quiet beauty of their folk crafts.
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