I have been working on a book for a few years now, a guide actually: How Not To Climb Mountains. I am skilled at the basics: wait for the worst weather, never take a map and always go alone. Today I added an optional feature: stuff pottery in the backpack before climb.
I don’t regret it though. The plate was from Umeda, a friendly and charming small pottery at the foot of Tsukuba-san beside a forest of plum trees – all planted by the Umeda family I discovered later. I hadn’t planned a pottery stop, but after getting off at the wrong bus stop then getting lost looking for the trail entrance, Umeda seemed a sensible place to stop and try to get a sense of where I was going.
Pottery scares me a little. It involves dexterity and patience and I don’t usually have time for that kind of thing. But I do love the imperfect shapes and textures created in many of the traditional Japanese potteries that dot the archipelago. Umeda was no exception.
A kind and patient old lady guided me around, first showing me the noborigama outside – a chambered kiln on a slope. Only used once a year now, it takes 3 whole days to heat it up with constant stoking of the fire with pine wood, domestic and imported. The noborigama are incredible things to see, elevating pottery into a kind of magic. 亀裂 cracks like lines on turtle shells, appeared after the 2011 earthquake but all have all been fixed.
The history of the pottery amazed me as much anything. The main potter, Mr Umeda fled here with his family in 1945 from a starving Tokyo. He was just 12 years old then. Their family started a farm here, trying to grow food in the sandy shallow soil at the base of the mountain. According to the pamphlet, at first it was a 晴耕雨読 (plough in the sun, read+study in the rain) lifestyle. Mr Umeda only started training as a potter as late as 1982, before that he spent 20 years working as a salaryman.
Mr Umeda was not around on my visit, but an ‘excellent student’ was working away in the studio. The two staff also told me a Frenchman called Bruno has been visiting and working there for many years. Umeda was is an amazing place, such a fragile trade – the 2011 earthquake destroyed their every single display piece apparently. I hope it’s relying for customers on more than lost climbers like me.