(You Will) Set the World on Fire
Words Takamasu Kikuchi
Photographs Julia Grassi
Taki Nakazato mixes the traditions of Karatsu ceramics with a thirst for both experimentation and discovery-by-accident, producing his unique, modern take on the Mingei folk art movement…
At the north of Japan’s Kyushu island lies the coastal city of Karatsu, in the Saga prefecture. From here it is only 200 kilometres across the Tsushima Strait to Busan in South Korea. The name Karatsu translates as ‘Port to China’, a reference to its status as a hub of international trade. Acting as a major node of commerce between Japan, China and the Korean Peninsula, Karatsu became a gateway for continental cultures and established itself as a centre for pottery production. Korean potters settled here over 400 years ago, their particular talents of craft and production forming a significant influence that has defined the pottery culture of Karatsu ever since.
From the centre of Karatsu, a 20-minute drive through gentle hills leads to the Ryuta Pottery, nestled at the bottom of a valley surrounded by rice fields. Walking through this peaceful, rural landscape, down a gently sloping path that follows the stream flowing into the site, one arrives at the Ryuta Pottery atelier and its kiln. Founded in 1974 by Takashi Nakazato – a descendant of the most prestigious family of pottery craftsmen in Karatsu – the space is washed by soft sunlight which streams in through the building’s tall windows. Inside, four potter’s kick wheels – a traditional and simple technique for pottery production – are lined up.
For the past 30 years, Takashi has shared his pottery with son Taki, who has become renowned for his unique style, atypical of conventional Karatsu-ware. Taki instead seeks to enhance the everyday, focusing on achieving a sense of beauty found in the ordinary. But it is, of course, a very different kind of ordinary…
Was it an easy choice for you to follow in your father’s footsteps as a potter?
I simply did not enjoy life at home in Karatsu when I was young. My father invited his friends and assistants over for dinner at our home every evening, and I didn’t like watching them get drunk. I was into sailing and had the opportunity to go to university in Tokyo to continue my maritime studies. So I left Karatsu and was happy to get away from my family.
What made you come back?
My time away made me appreciate the high standard of life back home in Karatsu – I mean the importance of paying careful attention to everyday life. In Tokyo I was living in university dorms and eating tasteless food off plastic plates. In Karatsu, pottery is used for every meal, every day, and plays a central role at meal times.
So for you pottery is about eating? And vice versa?
Food served on beautiful pottery makes it look delicious. People who use high-quality pottery tend to spend more time and care over their cooking. In Tokyo, I started to think that perhaps pottery could effect change and actually enhance your life. So after graduating I went home and started my pottery career, taught by my father.
Was he a good teacher?
My father taught me to make a minimum of 500 pieces a day. This speed, achieved through the traditional Karatsu kick wheel, gives our pottery its dynamic, lively and efficient appearance. In Karatsu, the more pots you can make in a short period of time – and the faster the potter’s wheel rotates – the better. Elsewhere in Japan, potters tend to use a hand-operated wheel.
Would you say your pottery is typical to Karatsu?
My pottery is slightly thicker and is fired at a higher temperature than typical Karatsu-ware, so it’s more durable and practical for everyday use. But you can’t escape the soil. In general, Karatsu-ware employs a coarse soil, which contains little iron. But for me, it’s difficult to shape pots using this soil. I use soil from the hill behind my workshop, which has a greater iron content. I filter the soil and then leave it in a water barrel before pressing it into action.
Do you enjoy the physical processes?
Sometimes I’m frustrated by my inability to fully control what happens inside the kiln; but really the most exciting part of pottery is in the surprise and accident, so I’ve come to enjoy it. You can’t control the behaviour of fire in the kiln but I try to predict it by varying the space between pieces or by stacking the pieces on top of each other – experimentation manipulates the colours and patterns in the pottery. When you fire Aogaratsu (blue Karatsu), the kiln fills with monoxide, and the resulting lack of oxygen has an effect on the glaze, absorbing oxygen and creating a deep and saturated appearance.
‘The most exciting part of pottery is in the surprise and accident’
Do you pay much attention to Japan’s Mingei (‘folk craft’) movement?
I often visit the Japan Folk Craft Museum set up by Soetsu Yanagi in Tokyo. Every time I go there I feel very calm, surrounded by these beautiful craft works. These objects were meant for every day life. I’m not sure exactly how the movement affects my pottery, but I respect it and feel sympathy with it.
Which qualities would you say define your work?
Ninety per cent of my pottery is tableware and the rest is vases. I’m not interested in making art pieces. I make pottery that is used and enhances everyday life.
‘I’m not interested in making art pieces. I make pottery that is used’
Where will you be showing this year?
exhibition project with a Japanese restaurant. I much prefer this to exhibiting in a white cube-type of gallery. We invited my customers to the restaurant and presented my pottery, paired with the restaurant’s food. Presenting my work in this way makes it easier for my customers to think how pottery should be used.
It seems that your work has a quietly political element…
I think the Japanese contemporary lifestyle offers a lower quality of living. People make little effort to find a deeper meaning to life. I believe that happiness comes from simple things, like enjoying a meal with family and friends. I hope that my pottery can contribute to an enhancement of the meaningful in everyday life.