From Gifu to the world: an exhibition in Los Angeles to present traditional Japanese pottery

To promote the charm of Minoyaki (Mino pottery) – traditional ceramics produced in the Tono area of ​​the former Mino province, now in Gifu prefecture – an exhibition of Minoyaki ramen bowls is held at the cultural promotion center Japan House in Los Angeles.

With ramen growing in popularity overseas, “The Art of the Ramen Bowl,” which kicked off March 18 and will run through July 5, features bowls made by local potters and aims to introduce the rich art of Minoyaki to the world.

One of the potters is Sumiyasu Kato, 63, president of the Sanyu Seitosho pottery workshop, which makes 3,000 bowls of ramen a month with three of its employees. The studio is based in the city of Toki, a mountainous area in the Tono region which is a major producer of Minoyaki bowls.

At the studio, there are piles of unglazed ramen bowls. Kato carefully dips them into the glaze, one by one, using a special tool.

Ramen is now known around the world as part of Japanese food culture. However, few people give much thought to the dish-making process that enhances the experience of a hot bowl of ramen.

The exhibition in Los Angeles was sparked by an idea from graphic designer Taku Sato, 66.

From 2014 to 2015, the Tono Region Chamber of Commerce and Industry held a special exhibition in Tokyo featuring Minoyaki ramen bowls. The exhibition was planned and supervised by Sato and Mari Hashimoto, writer and editor.

Recalling the idea of ​​using ramen bowls for the Tokyo exhibit, Sato said, “If we use popular ramen as a gateway, people might get interested in Minoyaki culture.”

Sato, who has been involved in promoting Minoyaki since around 2012 at the request of the local community, said his goal was to introduce Minoyaki to the world from then on.

The idea grew with the popularity of ramen in the United States. According to Yuko Kaifu, manager of Japan House Los Angeles, pork ramen became popular about 15 years ago. The boom was followed by salt and soy sauce flavored ramen, and now there are even vegetarian versions.

Takumi Ando talks about his passion for minoyaki works in Tajimi, Gifu Prefecture. | CHUNICHI SHIMBUN

Kaifu, who wanted Americans to know more about ramen, learned about the Tokyo exhibit from Hashimoto, a friend of his. Kaifu eventually succeeded in holding the exhibition at Japan House, which is one of the foreign centers of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the promotion of Japanese culture and technology.

Kaifu says she wants Americans to know the history and regional characteristics of ceramic bowls in addition to enjoying the taste of ramen.

The centerpiece of the US exhibit is a bowl designed by renowned artist Tadanori Yokoo and produced by Sanyu Seitosho. The company has been producing ramen bowls as its main product for 70 years since its establishment, and its products are used by famous restaurants in Japan and overseas.

Kato of Sanyu Seitosho aims to make “bowls that enhance the taste of ramen”. The body of the bowl is machine formed, but the rim is shaped by hand using a razor-like tool. He uses his fingers and his sense of touch to adjust the edges, to create a smooth texture.

He decides bowl shapes based on the preferences of each restaurant that places an order, as ramen looks different depending on the size and shape of a bowl.

At the exhibition, Kato wants to show the United States the high level of technical skill used to produce Minoyaki. “Even an ordinary bowl has its own ingenuity. I want people to see that,” he said.

The term Minoyaki refers to a wide range of pottery produced in the Tono region, from industrial products to ceramic works and tiles.

At their peak, sales of Japanese tableware produced as Minoyaki reached 51.9 billion yen in 1994, while sales of Western tableware reached 61.9 billion yen in 1985. But over the years, sales declined as cheaper Chinese products entered the market.

The crisis affecting the catering industry amid the coronavirus pandemic has also hit potters in the region hard, with Sanyu Seitosho seeing a 30% drop in production.

Kato isn’t optimistic that the US exposure will immediately lead to increased sales. But he thinks it might give him the opportunity to showcase Minoyaki’s charm on the world stage.

“If there are even a few people who are interested in the possibility of doing something like this with Minoyaki, (our efforts) may pay off somewhere.”

Takumi Ando, ​​52, another local potter and director of the Mino Togei (Ceramic Art) Association, recalled his excitement when asked to make a bowl of ramen for the LA exhibit. .

“I was thrilled to bring our ceramic culture abroad,” he said.

The Tono region is known as a major hub for mass-produced ceramics, but many traditional ceramic techniques used for tea ceremony wares during the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1568-1600) have also been passed down from ancient times. centuries.

At the American expo, ramen bowls made with different styles of Minoyaki are on display, all of which use traditional techniques from the early modern period.

Ten potters in their 40s to 60s from the Tono region created ramen bowls and ceramic spoons using their special techniques and glazes. Among them, a technique called Oribe, which originated from the tea ceremony culture and features a dark green glaze, and Seiji, which was introduced from China and uses a grayish-green glaze.

Ando exhibits a bowl using the Shino technique. Shino has been used since the Azuchi-Momoyama period and is characterized by a pale pink glaze and thick texture. White clay and a white feldspar glaze give it a unique look.

Ando also makes full use of the “kneading” technique, in which he mixes several types of clay that emit different colors when fired. He managed to create an exquisite blend of peach and gray tones that brings beauty like an evening scene.

Within the Japanese pottery culture, which has been influenced by the respective Chinese and Korean cultures, Shino is considered a technique unique to Japan.

“Shino was born from the combination of high quality clays and the Japanese sense of beauty. It must be something new for people overseas,” Ando said.

The exhibition project was conceived by the Ceramic Valley Council, a voluntary organization of young professionals from ceramic and tile manufacturers and trading companies in the Tono region.

The council, created in 2021 to promote and develop Minoyaki, chose ten styles of pottery from around fifteen traditional techniques and asked potters specializing in each of the techniques to produce them.

It was also an adventure for the potters. Ando had little experience making ramen bowls, but he needed to create a piece that would be instantly recognizable as a ramen bowl to people overseas.

“I thought of a shape and color that would show off the ramen in the bowl. I was also particularly mindful of the shape itself, to make it look neat and clean,” he said. .

Ando and his fellow potters, who have carried on the traditions of Minoyaki for generations, are excited about this new challenge. “Minoyaki is filled with a sense of beauty unique to Japan, such as ‘cracks’ and ‘deformations’. I believe visitors will be able to feel this beauty when they see our works,” he said.

This section introduces topics and issues of the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original articles were published on March 8 and 9.

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