We are spending a few days in the industrial city of Kurashiki to enjoy its non-industrial, historic, perfectly preserved village of Bikan. Bikan has been called “the Venice of Japan” (as if Japan needs Italy as a reference!) and “Japan’s most beautiful village.” It was once a merchant’s quarter in the Edo period, generally the 17th century. Its location on the road between western Japan and Tokyo (then called Edo) made it an essential asset in Japan’s national economy — so the Shogun himself managed it.
These days, Bikan’s 300 year-old warehouses, shops and houses have been re-purposed into anything that will attract shopping, eating, instagramming tourists. We grouse a little about hanging out in a neighborhood that bears little relationship to any reality except tourism, and Bikan draws us away from anything else in Kurashiki, like the docks and the fisheries and the young people coming up with new ideas. But we are hooked. Bikan offers surprising moments of calm and reflection in spite of the souvenir stores. We have found small restaurants where we sit at counters with locals eating local specialties like yakitori and Japanese curry. We can feel a sense of history in the architecture and the boats that meander down the canal.
Kurashiki is an easy train ride to another historic village – Bizen in the town of Imbe — so yesterday, we met Yiya there to make pots. Bizen is one of Japan’s most important places for ceramics. Bizenware has been produced there since the 12th century.
Bizen ceramics are distinctive because they are earthy and imperfect, which is associated with the Zen Buddhist view of things. Their rise in popularity hundreds of years ago is attributed partly to a rejection of Chinese ceramics, which were mostly refined and painted in exacting detail. Bizen pots are not even glazed, although they get a glazed finish from the natural minerals, especially iron, in the local clay. The contents of the kiln and how the pieces are positioned when they are fired also affect the finish. Bizenware is used in formal Japanese tea ceremonies, but also in homes and restaurants.
Our pottery-making experience was a nice meditation — and we will get our pots sent home to California! They will arrive in about two months because the firing process can take up to 20 days. No one knows what they will look like after they are finished, but the mystery is part of what makes Bizen ceramics so special.