Horses are considered a symbol of good luck in Japan on the first firing of a new kiln. The character for horse is often found written on pots that are fired in a new kiln, the character for horse 馬、however is written backwards and then bares a similarity to the character for dance, something that we do in times of celebration.
Indeed our neighbour’s horse, Luke was present at the kiln during the 火入れ hi-ire ceremony to light the kiln and having seen the fine results of the firing maybe it was the horse that did bring the good luck.
Since we had never fired the kiln before and we didn’t know the character of the newly built kiln, we could not predict the results. The first firing took place during the last week of October after much anticipation and preparation, one month was spent sawing, splitting and stacking off-cuts of larch that had been delivered to the kiln site. This wood however proved to be problematic during the firing since a lot of it was damp, the moisture content was increased by the fog banks that rolled into the field in the nights before the firing.
Luckily, there was a large stash of dry wood kept in the field shelter, covered in cobwebs, it proved to be a gold mine on the third day of the firing when we struggled to raise the temperature over 1100 celcius. So many times that night during my stoking shift I re-witnessed the battle of Hastings over and over again, the pyrometer reading at 1066, it seemed to obstinately swing and fluctuate around this temperature.
The firing lasted for five days, and with the use of dry wood, the temperature was taken up to 1207c and the pyrometric cones 8, 9 and 10 had bent and fallen. The last stoke happened at 3.30 am, after and we decided to let the temperature drop to 700c before bricking up the firemouth. During the temperature drop as the flames subsided and pots cooled from a pinkish white hot colour, we could see the considerable ash melt and colour that had developed on the large pots at the front and we knew somehow that we had done alright.
Before bricking up the firemouth, we decided to do some ‘hikidashi’, pulling out pots from the kiln while they were red hot. We used a steel bar and just after pulling out the first glistening bottle, my mother arrived on the scene with cups of matcha latte for us. In return we presented her with the first pot to come out of the kiln, it was a beautiful piece.
My getaway, after an intense week with the kiln, was swift and just what I needed, by evening I was on the other side of the country in Norfolk staying with friends. A trip to the magnificent beach of Holkham restored my parched soul; water, sand and sky after all that fire. It was a delight to witness the cantering of two grey ponies on the sandy shore and inspired me to write a haiku:
autumn sea –
the cantering sound of
A week later, we were back at the cooled anagama kiln to take out pots, the kiln unload was done in just a few hours even though we stayed up to 4am to finish it and take all the pots down to the house. The tsubos at the front had a fine natural ash glaze, and further back the pots showed ash marks albeit of a subdued and quiet tone; none of the pieces were crying out for attention, they had a beauty often referred to in Japanase as shibui, understated elegance.
The vases in the gallery came alive once they had flowers placed in them. The chawans for drinking matcha tea showed their wabi-sabi beauty once they were placed on tatami mats in the tea-room. Out of all tea bowls, my favourite were a pair that we called the kissing chawans, since they had ever so slightly stuck together during the firing. In fact, it was this kiss, that created playful trails on their surfaces. The tea bowls and mizusashi, fresh water container were used in the tea ceremony that we held later that day. It was a ceremony to thank those who gave a lot of love and put effort into the firing, even though some of those were not present at the ceremony. The tenth month is referred to as 神なし月 kannatsuki, the month without gods, somehow I feel the gods were with us and were on our side.