By Brandy Culp

“Ichi-go ichi-e. One time, one meeting describes the Japanese thought of treasuring the moment. The term is often translated as ‘for this time only,’ ‘never again,’ or ‘one chance in a lifetime.’” —The Art of Travel

There is an art to traveling and I am not referring to the way you can pack more things in your small suitcase than necessary, or a knack for finding cheap flights. While in search of contemporary Japanese ceramics for a client, I set out to explore how travel can be as carefully curated as an exhibition, so that the world becomes your museum — and in this museum without walls you use all of your senses to explore, learn, interact … and maybe even better understand your place on this globe.

Around the subject of ceramics, I explored Kyoto and its surrounds, including the medieval pottery centers of Uji and Shigaraki, as if I was conceptualizing an exhibition in my museum where galleries and kilns were like individual object cases and the roads that I traveled the platforms on which stories of Japanese culture were told. It was my second visit to this region; this time, my goal was to explore art and history through the works of contemporary ceramics artists and the people who connect visitors to these craftspeople.

How might we push the boundaries of heritage tourism? Fortunately, the Art of Travel is an innovative company specializing in handcrafted itineraries to create unparalleled access to Japan and to provide cultural experiences otherwise unavailable. At the Art of Travel, Executive Director Evelyn Teploff-Mugii helps lead a team of artists, writers and travel professionals who work with an extensive network throughout the country that “includes everyone from artisans to architects and geisha to gardeners.” The one thing this diverse crowd has in common is their passion about and knowledge of Japanese culture and the Art of Travel was helpful in pointing me in the right directions as well as providing excellent introductions.

Founded five years ago by Yoshi Kenji as a consequence of his efforts to raise awareness of Japanese traditional arts, the Art of Travel specializes in connecting small groups or individuals — some of whom are private collectors — to their specific interests. It is easy to see “finished work” in galleries and museums, stated Teploff-Mugii, but “when a guest has the opportunity to see firsthand the process of creation and to hear the stories firsthand, a whole new world opens for us.” She continued, the Art of Travel connects visitors with experts and artists of various backgrounds, “so not only National Living Treasures or established artists, but lesser-known, up-and-coming artists as well — the next generation — as this cycle and continuation is critical to sustain the arts.”

Of all of the arts, according to highly esteemed scholars and connoisseurs, Japanese ceramics are one of the most integral to understanding the culture and rich history of this country. Unlike the Western world, the Japanese make little distinction between art and craft; when an object is used, its spirit unfolds and, in this belief, functional objects, such as ceramics, engender great respect and reverence. Noted collector Gordon Brodfuehrer has rightfully claimed, pottery “is a part of the collective unconscious of the Japanese people. Ceramics are just a part of their life. I have often joked that if you do a thorough blood test of any Japanese, you will find some clay.”

Connoisseur, collector and ceramics dealer, Robert Yellin, who has helped build many internationally noted Japanese ceramics collections and also has the distinction of being the descendant of American Arts and Crafts metalsmith Samuel Yellin, will be the first to tell you there is no parallel criteria for Western Civilization to understand the significance that ceramics have played in Japanese culture.

In Yellin’s Yakimono Gallery, located within his 120-year old traditional Japanese house, harmony pervades and the richly colored ceramics represent the very elements of creation — earth, fire, air and water. For Yellin, he explained, “What attracted me to Japanese ceramics [a habit he likens to an addiction] is not only the functional beauty and the random colors and designs that come out of the kiln, but the spirituality that the Japanese associate with these objects, particularly with tea and sake.” While sake drinking is certainly less complicated to socially navigate with less rules of engagement, both are cultural performances and gastronomic experiences integrally linked to Japan’s ceramics tradition.

Then as now, art, beauty and life are seamlessly and integrally intertwined in Japan — and a case in point is sake drinking and the tea ceremony as well as the daily meal, which is transformed into artistic expression through the careful curation of foods and the presentation of beautifully rendered ceramics and dining accoutrements, even in express food settings. Thus, the experience of eating was as significant as visiting the kilns of Japan’s most esteemed artists, but for me, the culinary arts were only a supporting subtheme in my ceramics story and a way to understand this artistic medium’s cultural significance.

It was with the Art of Travel staff’s and Yellin’s guidance that I ventured outside of Kyoto to Uji, known for tea cultivation and ceramic teawares, then to Shigaraki, a small town in the mountains with more than a thousand-year pottery history. On a chilly winter day, I stood beside the glowing, warm kiln of the Takahashi family, who I had originally visited 15 years before and watched Takahashi Rakusai IV feed wood into the fire that would transform the white, feldspar embedded Shigaraki clay into reddish wares with deep greenish-grey natural ash glaze. Takahashi Rakusai IV and his daughter Takahashi Yoshiko carry on an over 180-year-old family tradition.

With several kilns to choose, at times they still fire from the family’s historic noborigama (climbing kiln) as his father, now 91, watches two generations working within traditional boundaries to create contemporary wares. Even among studio potters, tradition and history remain a conscious inspiration. Born near Tokyo, Ishiyama Tetsuya, whose historic house and kiln is located nearby the Takahashi’s property in an old ceramics factory, stood among his large tsubo (jars) richly textured by his artful manipulations of the uncontrollable elements within the kiln and said, “I feel time — I feel time in the earth and the pottery.” With so many of the artists and collections that I visited, I too felt the spontaneous movement of the past as it was naturally transformed into the new.

Japan is not as big a leap for a Charleston gal as one would imagine, nor is it wholly disconnected from the city’s own history and artistic traditions. Many local artists of Charleston Renaissance fame were inspired by the arts of Japan, either indirectly through the study of Japanese objects or directly through their travels. While Alice Ravenel Huger Smith studied her cousin’s Japanese ukiyo-e print collection, Anna Heyward Taylor travelled to Japan in 1914, as did Elizabeth O’Neil Verner in 1937 where she was inspired to draw in pastels on silk, which she later called “Verner Colors.” Charleston Renaissance artists and their peers closely studied and often paid direct homage to Japanese art and craft in style, technique and composition — the actual influence and connection rather than the old quip about both cultures having in common eating rice and worshipping one’s ancestors.

These artists would have agreed with me that Japan is one of the best places to explore the art of travel and to craft an enriching cultural experience, especially for a Charlestonian. The Japanese frame the world around them, the creation of objects and collecting art in manner that was incredibly familiar; we are simply stewards of the objects with which we surround ourselves and Kyoto, like the streets of Charleston, is a place where you feel time. It’s also a place where generosity and kindness are palpable.

A deep embedded sense of hospitality without expectation — omotenashi — pervades all interactions and no matter how innovative and future driven society becomes, there remains an appreciation of tradition, reverence for the past and great respect for protocol in Japan. While teaching me the intricate expectations of the tea ceremony, Nishio Yumico, tea master and expert at Asahiyaki Pottery (active 1600s to the present), emphasized that at the heart of this elaborate dance between master, participant and the beautifully crafted ceramic objects is a desire to make others happy and to impart the warmth of hospitality.

Throughout this journey dependent on hospitality and in search of ceramics, I collected experiences that contributed to my understanding of self and the art of travel; now all of these memories and the knowledge gained are a part of my museum without walls called the world.

 

The author wishes to thank the Art of Travel (theartoftravel.net) and Robert Yellin (japanesepottery.com) as well as many others who made this experience possible.

 

Independent curator and art consultant, Brandy S. Culp is currently leading a Huguenot Heritage trip to England with Tessa Murdoch, deputy keeper of the Department of Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics and Glass at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. To find out how you can be a part of this curated journey, contact Ms. Culp at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. You can also follow her pursuits on Instagram, @charlestoncurator.

 

Mercury newspaper racks are located at the following locations:

The Meeting Street Inn

Clair's Service Station at 334 Folly Rd.

Harris Teeter on Houston-Northcutt Blvd.

The Square Onion in I'On

Mt. Pleasant Library on Mathis Ferry Rd.