I still have the feeling of the ceramic cup that held my water. The way this small work of art’s round and slightly rough shape felt on my fingers and hand. The beauty of its grey color mottled with a light yellow and slight wabi-sabi imperfection made by Nara Artisan Tsujimura Yui. I can remember the energy the vessel radiated that with every sip I took from it, how made me feel awake and alive in this amazing present moment of my life here in Japan.
If you are looking for the soul of Japan, look to its ceramics. From sake vessels to tea ceremony ceramics to ikebana vases to art sculpture, Japan lives and breathes mindful artisan and meaning through this beautiful ceramics art form called Yakimono. And one man is devoted to promoting and protecting this art created by approximately 60 Japanese artisans of more than 40 traditional styles across Japan.
I visited World-Renowned Japanese Pottery Expert and Art Dealer Robert Yellin’s Yakimono Gallery in Kyoto last week. Yakimono means fired thing. It’s an important term that encompasses the entire ceramic culture of Japan, he writes on his websites that are replete with the history, tradition and splendid art of Japanese ceramics. Take a virtual tour of his gallery here! Yellin also sells artisans’ work online.
Yellin wrote about Japanese ceramics for 10 years for the Japan Times. I’m still poring through his prolific writings on his website that include his amazing repository of culture, history and brilliance. It’s a must read for amazing detail into the work, history as well as amazing deposit of knowledge of Japanese culture, far beyond what I can explain here! Be sure to have a look!
I have just begun to devour all of its amazing information. Yellin still writes for numerous publications, not to mention lecturing worldwide, including at Yale University Art Museum. His book, Ode To Japanese Pottery, highlights sake cups and flasks by approximately 100 modern and contemporary potters.
Visiting and spending time with Yellin at the gallery is a peaceful and philosophical journey in itself. The gallery, which represents living and deceased Japanese Yakimono artisans alike and their one-of a kind ceramics, is a work of art too.
Nestled up convoluted stone steps near Kyoto’s famed Ginkaku-ji Temple, or Silver Palace, and the beginning of the Philosopher’s Path, the gallery is in a historic refined and elegant architecture of a Sukiya-style house, which uses natural wood materials and is based on the tea house aesthetics.
Originally from New Jersey, Yellin was 9 when his family moved to Hollywood, Florida. Yellin moved to Japan in 1984 for the aesthetics he was curious, including poetry, another one of Japan’s famous arts. Poetry is how I met him too, as he performed some of his poetry at the Writers in Kyoto annual Poetry Reading I MCd on June 24.
“The same techniques and elements found in traditional Japanese pottery centuries ago are still being applied here,” Yellin explained – being made with water, air, clay and fire. In a sense you get a glimpse of eternity because this same process from hundreds of years ago are being used today in each piece. It wakes me up to the now just to hold one of these pieces, each having their own energy and unique form as well as the essence of the artisan who made it.
That deep sense of connectivity is felt with the pieces Yakimono is a central figure in Japanese folk art, Mingei, meaning “folk arts” or “arts of the people.” The Japanese folk art movement relates the purpose of Japanese functional art – art that is used and created by regular people to enrich their everyday life. Something I first learned about when I visited the Japan Folk Museum in Osaka. It’s not about a millionaire celebrity artist. It’s about real people, real art, real purpose and utility.
“Any work of art belongs to everyone, because it is whatever each person sees in it,” said Kawai Kanjirō, a potter and key figure in the Mingei movement Yellin introduced me to and showing me his some interesting books. “It is the same with people. We are all one. I am you. The you that only I can see.”
Kanjirō worked with natural glazes and innovative forms, and was also a poet and refused the designation of Living National Treasure in 1955, the first year it was designated, preferring to be an artist in search of beauty rather than one heaped with accolades. “When you become so absorbed in your work that beauty flows naturally then your work truly becomes a work of art,” said Kanjirō.
“Everything that is, is not. Everything is, yet at the same time, nothing is. I myself am the emptiest of all,”Kanjirō said. Deep thoughts to ponder while holding a gorgeous cup that will bring me a lifetime of memories and enjoyment, such that I had visiting Yellin and his gallery. I’m so glad I visited and even found a great birthday gift for my hubby, who used to do pottery himself. Prices range for a few thousand ¥ to a few million of ¥. The difference, Yellin explained, in that older living artisans’ work is more valuable. As elders, they are honored and experienced in the craft.
And each finished product took countless hours of intensive labor, skill and dedication to the craft to make. Very valuable indeed! what a great philosophy. Something rare in a global-monoculture of factory reproductions. Only one more reason why I love Japan so much. Plus it’s a small price to pay for such a beautiful object that will give you years of enjoyment! And save your sanity and the world, too!
Yellin writes in his book, Yanagi Sōetsu, the founder of the Japan Crafts Movement, wrote in his classic book, The Unknown Craftsman, “On reflection, one must conclude that in bringing cheap and useful goods to the average household, industrialism has been of service to mankind – but at the cost of the heart, of warmth, friendliness and beauty.”
And I would like to add to these words, “at the expense of nature and the precious resources of this glorious yet fragile home we all share, Earth.” If we use objects in our daily lives that move the heart and help us transcend our daily routine and thinking, we may be able to uplift our spirits to a plane that will incorporating caring for the Earth as part of existence. And nothing seems to be more appropriate than using pottery, which brings together earth, air, fire and water – the special elements that give us life.
The Community House and Information Center in Kobe in association with the Kobe Women’s Club is also hosting a tour of the gallery September 11 that you won’t want to miss. Do pay a visit! If the taxi driver has a hard time finding it, just give Yellin a call and hand him the driver the phone to direct him! Because you won’t want to miss this wonderful experience and beautiful art!
As I was leaving, Yellin gave me some issues of Sake Today and The Japan Beer Times. He also recommended I visit one of his favorite temples, the nearby Honnen-ji Buddhist Temple that is a mere 12-minute walk from the gallery along the Philosopher’s Path.
The heat and cicadas buzzing accompanied me to this beautiful spot, of which along the route I found Kisaki, a fabulous traditional Japanese restaurant that served vegan and vegetarian options. The delicious chilled tofu, tempura and pickled veggies and tea was just the recharge before being stunned by this temple’s silent splendor.
I recommend it too!
Robert Yellin Yakimono Gallery in Kyoto
Japan Domestic 075-708-5581
Int’l (81) 75-708-5581
Fax Japan Domestic: 075-708-5393
Fax Int’l: (81) 75-708-5393
Robert Yellin Yakimono Gallery
Sakyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto-fu