2000s Archive

Form Follows Food

Originally Published August 2005
On Japan’s southern island, Kyushu, even the most exquisite pottery is designed with the menu in mind

The words “Ambitious Japan” are emblazoned on the side of the bullet train that speeds me out of Tokyo—and, at 170 miles per hour, I have to say I do feel more ambitious. But when I reach my destination on the southern island of Kyushu, both the speed and the slogan seem out of place. The countryside here is quiet and idyllic, valleys of rectangular neon-green rice fields framed by thick forests of cedar, cypress, and pine, and, in spots, by bursts of bright bamboo. I’m in Japan’s Deep South.

Kyushu is 750 miles from Tokyo, but it might as well be in another country. This slice of Japan is rarely visited by American travelers, and I wouldn’t be here myself if it weren’t for the clay dug out of mountains that surround a town called Karatsu, or rather the striking pottery fashioned from it by local artists. Since I fell in love with Japanese ceramics at the Smithsonian’s Sackler and Freer galleries a decade ago, I’ve been to Kyushu a half-dozen times. Pottery hunting propels me out of the Tokyo-Kyoto tourist orbit and allows me a glimpse of Japanese life I couldn’t experience otherwise.

It also opens a door to another passion of mine—Japanese food. For here in Japan, the vessel is as integral to eating as the ingredients themselves. Food here “wears” pottery as one might wear clothes: to strike a mood, to convey a sensibility. Each dish reflects the subtlety, texture, contrast, variety, and season of the food it carries. In the heat of summer, shades of blue suggest the sea, a cooler, lighter feel. In winter, earth tones achieve the opposite effect. Traditionally, much of the surface of these dishes remains empty so that diners can appreciate their beauty. And, unlike our sets of dishes, the plates in Japan don’t match one another; instead, they match the foods they hold.

Karatsu has been a major pottery center ever since Japan tangled with Korea in the 1590s in the Pottery War, when entire populations of vanquished pottery-producing Korean villages were forced to migrate to Japan. The innovations they brought to this area boosted production so much that the term Karatsu-mono, or “Karatsu-ware,” became practically synonymous with pottery. Karatsu ceramics are unpretentious and lyrical, whether functional vessels for everyday use or delicate works of art for the tea ceremony. Their colors are influenced by the grainy local clay, white and sandy or hazel toned, sometimes speckled with black flecks of iron ore. Their natural ash glazes are made from pine, oak, orange trees, ferns, and rice stalks. It’s exquisite stuff.

I drive my rental car along a dramatic stretch of coast edging the Sea of Japan to reach the studio of a distinguished Karatsu potter named Jinenbo Nakagawa. I arrive to find him standing in the driveway, balancing an 18-pound plate of clay on one hand as he grasps a huge ladle with the other, pouring a stream of mocha glaze over the piece. Three apprentices scoot around him with blue plastic bowls, trying to catch the drippings.

“I’m surprised to see you,” he says with a smile as he invites me into his home. His English-speaking apprentice explains that I’m one of only a handful of foreigners ever to visit. A strong, slim man with a Vandyke beard whose name, appropriately, means “nature boy,” Nakagawa tells me that “Japanese beauty is minimal; it tries to simplify.” He combines this theory with traditional Karatsu techniques to express his own breathtaking artistic vision—as in his stunning, asymmetrical katakuchi, a traditional spouted sake bowl that’s glazed in black iron before being roughly brushed with a white rice-stalk glaze to form swirling, crackled streaks.

Potters here prize the wood-burning kiln, the furnace that sears its own imprint on its contents as the ash flies, the glazes melt, and the clay fuses. Wood firing adds unforeseeable depth and spirituality. “I never know the results until I open up the kiln,” Nakagawa says. “Look at this.” He hands me a recently fired katakuchi, pointing to a thick glassy-green dollop of glaze stuck to the inside of the white vessel. “The kiln did this,” he says, satisfied.

In his living room, we sip frothy green tea from a bowl. Nakagawa enfolds the vessel in his hands, thumbs resting along the lip, as though cupping water fresh from a stream. I can tell that he enjoys the sensual feel of the pottery as much as the tea.

I decide to find out if I do too at Hisago, a small restaurant in nearby Arita. As I sit on one of only six seats along the pristine ginkgo-wood dining bar, chef Hirofumi Maeda prepares a nine-course, 15-plate seasonal menu directly in front of me. The omakase (chef’s choice) is superb and surprising. My favorite dish seems more New American than Japanese: a slice of grilled eggplant stacked with broiled sea bream and a soy-sauce-flavored fresh tomato chutney. Also surprising is the computerized record the chef keeps for each customer: “So I don’t repeat a plate.” Maeda brims with pride when I ask about his tableware. “I can remember where I bought each piece,” he says.

Entering his kitchen, he shows me two stainless-steel cabinets the size of armoires. Inside, the mother lode: round celadon porcelains; stoneware crocks in moss, salmon, and ochre; bowls with ivory, cobalt, and sienna glazes poured over them like molten chocolate; square plates; rectangular basins; white porcelain cups painted with azure swirls. I count 300 of these treasures, collected, Maeda tells me, over 19 years. I stop and consider: That would be 300 dishes for an 18-seat-restaurant.

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