Life as an Apprentice (Story Below)

David McDonald on Woodpile Duty. Entire stacks of firewood needed to be moved occasionally, to ensure even drying. In this case moved from the open and into the covered wood sheds.


The shokunin, from left, Mitsuyan Ohbuka, Sabuyan (the woodcutter), Fukuyan Kamiya, (the foreman), Shoichi Kamiya, horse around with Tony Marsh and Toshiki Igarashi.


Tony Marsh cultivating rows of tobacco plants. Important skills for the well rounded pottery apprentice.


David McDonald at the rokuroba. His (my) companion at the right is Yoshisan, (or Bachan, Grandmother). During work she would constantly give me new Japanese words to learn. When I looked too puzzled, she would say "jibiki", referring to the dictionary I always carried in my back pocket.

Toshiki Igarashi at his wheel.


Tony Marsh trimming the foot on a cup, using a kezuri no dai, or trimming chuck.

David Vitarelli watches the kiln as the noborigama casts its amber glow.


During his time at Shimaoka's in 1968, Vitarelli built this dog house using techniques he learned from the Japanese carpenters, who were there building a new studio!


Using a tombo, or "dragonfly" measuring tool, I check for size consistency on this cup before I remove it from the wheel.


Throwing "off the hump" on a kerokuro, or traditional Japanese kickwheel, I work to complete my quota of these small saucers.

One day I joined Hiroshiyan Kamiya in weaving straw mats from rice stalks. These mats are laid out on the ground during the rainy seasons, to make walking about the pathways of the compound less of a mucky mess.


Toshiki Igarashi and Tony Marsh, at one of Mr. Shimaoka's exhibitions in Tokyo.

Life as an Apprentice

My apprenticeship at Mr. Shimaoka's in Mashiko was quite eye opening, all along the way. From the early realization that the three years of college education I brought with me didn't amount to much, to the observation that there was more to being an apprentice that making pots, my two years there proved to be a unique education.

Each day began at 7:30 a.m. with a broom made from bamboo branches. The grounds to the pottery complex needed sweeping every morning, whether there was any new debris lying about or not. In time, I learned to appreciate this quiet warm up to the day. I came to realize that, as in any activity, there was technique involved in sweeping, and awareness skills to be embodied. It helped bring a sense of humility to that young man, and attitude adjustment. The colder seasons required that the kerosene stove be lit in the studio, and the water kettle filled and placed on the stove. This was the only source of hot water in the studio, and the shokunin (craftsmen) would need warm throwing water for their bowls when they arrived to work at 8:00 sharp. Cold mornings like those brought pins and needles to my fingers, and cheeks, and after the sweeping was done I could warm up by the hot stove which was waiting in the studio. Intense pain replaced the pins and needles before any sense of comfort could be re-established.

When I first arrived in Mashiko in July of 1977, there were two other apprentices already there, making them my senpai, or senior students.

The first was Toshiki Igarashi, who was in his first year, and was serving as Mr. Shimaoka's personal apprentice. Igarashi San took the place of Ken Matsuzaki, who was there before him. Matsuzaki now had his own studio and home just down the road from the Shimaoka Setojo (Pottery).

The other was David Vitarelli, an American who came there a year before me, and who was to stay for yet one more. David and I occupied two of the six wheels in the main workshop. The other four wheels were used by the shokunin, or full time craftsmen. David Vitarelli first came to work at Mr. Shimaoka's pottery in 1968, so this was in a sense a completion of his apprenticeship.

One year into my time at Mr. Shimaoka's, yet another American arrived. His name was Tony Marsh. Tony ended up staying for a total of three years. One and a half years in, Tony became Mr. Shimaoka's personal apprentice, as Toshiki Igarashi graduated and left to begin his own studio in Gunma Prefecture.

One of the duties of an apprentice at that time was to learn to throw the basic teacup shapes, and to slowly graduate to the larger and more complex forms. By the end of my two years, I had moved through the two banchawan and senchawan shapes, kohi kappu (coffee cup), kyusu (small teapot), tokkuri (sake bottle), guinomi (sake cup), and sara (small plate). Each firing cycle of 5 weeks duration required one to start all over with the needed quota for each form before moving on to the next.

Other duties included helping to carry wareboards full of pots out of the workshops to dry in the sun, glazing, and preparation for the loading/unloading of the kilns. Hauling bundles of firewood about was a very regular occurrence.

One day, in early December of my first year, the group of us deshi and shokunin set about to clearing the weeds and brush from the hillsides surrounding the pottery. Bending over, and using small hand sickles, we progressed up the hillsides, forming piles behind us that were to be burned later. At the end of that day I surveyed our progress. Seemed like a lot of ground had been covered. Little did I know at the time, but we had only just begun on what was to eventually be the clearing by hand of the entire mountainside!

A reward was at hand at the end of the year though. For the Bonnenkai (end of year celebration), Mr. Shimaoka accompanied us all to Kinugawa Onsen, a mountain hot springs resort several hours away in the mountains near Nikko National Park. Soaking in the springs, relaxing, and eating good food for two days were revitalizing.

As an apprentice at Mr. Shimaoka's pottery, I learned much about hard work and its rewards. I owe a great deal to the people who shared their time with me there.


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This Page Was Last Updated on December 02, 2016