The Road Through Miyama by Leila Philip


Recently I read a book by an American woman living in Japan who wrote about her experiences there including taking a pottery class. That moved me to look for this book which I read many years ago and I found it to be as wonderful to read again as the first time. It is the story of a college-age woman who spent 1983 to 1985 in a “folkcraft” village, Miyama, in Japan apprenticed to a potter.

Seventy Korean potters were “brought” to the southern part of Kyushu in 1598 to develop the industry. That region has continued to have its own distinctive pottery style, called Satsuma, a dark utilitarian pottery. Other forms of Satsuma developed later. The connection between Japan and Korea over the centuries is fraught and complicated as are the experiences of the descendants of those Koreans in Miyama.

It was quite unusual for an American woman to be an apprentice to a recognized potter, notable in that Japanese women could not be potters at the time. Kazu Nagayoshi is both an innovative potter making artistic pieces as well as a craftsman producing countless identical tea cups and rice bowls. At the time Leila was in Japan the average household used factory-made tableware, but owned a set of handmade ceramic dishes or a piece from a major pottery center. The traditional pieces were greatly valued; I wonder if that is still true.

In fact I wonder how much has changed generally in the years since she was there. In Kagoshima, the province where Miyama is, she encountered a traditional culture where the dialect is distinctly different. The success of the 14 potteries in the village depended in part on maintaining those traditions; to some degree they were selling the idea of Japan of another era.

Leila actively sought a wide variety of experiences in the village and found interesting people to talk to. She spent time with Nagata-san, a 60-something cranky widow who made her way by growing rice and doing kitchen work in one of the potteries. Her reaction to Leila’s interest in helping plant rice was, ” ‘A foreigner in a rice field? Impossible!’ she answered. ‘You don’t even have the right shoes.’ ” Leila showed up after the paddies were irrigated and was found herself knee-deep in mud that “reeked worse than any cattle wallow.” And then there were the snakes. Still, she made it through the day and made connections with the over-50 women who did this work.

While I don’t have a knowledge of pottery or even have the vocabulary to know exactly what she’s describing, I enjoyed reading about the drama of learning how to make the pots and firing them. The art of firing pots is quite complicated and unpredictable.

Here’s a link to an image of a Kazu Nagayoshi sake cup in the Freer/Sackler collection with references to this book. [Update: ┬ánot surprising that the link has changed. Now to see Kazu Nagayoshi work, you need to enter that name in the search box that appears on that link.]

Leila Philip, The Road Through Miyama, Random House, 1989, 264 pages. Available at the UVa library and from Amazon. To my surprise a week after I checked it out from UVa, it was recalled for another patron.

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