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Thursday, Oct. 14, 1999
It's a grill, it's a mini-kiln, it's a shichirin!
By YUKO NAITO
Pottery making is one of the most popular hobbies in Japan. Thousands of amateur potters reach the semiprofessional level, but they seldom fire their works by themselves. Unless they have their own kiln, they have to ask pottery schools or professionals to fire their pieces -- a service for which they must pay.
To solve this problem, Ome-based professional potter Akira Yoshida has developed an innovative method, which utilizes a shichirin, a small open-topped grill. Shichirin were commonly used for grilling fish or meat in Japanese households until a couple of decades ago. These days they are still available at super markets or department stores for less than 3,000 yen.
According to Yoshida, you can fire quite a variety of pottery using shichirin, including Shigaraki, Bizen, Shino wares and even pieces adorned with gold and silver, all by yourself, almost anywhere outdoors, without any special devices -- and inexpensively. According to Yoshida's calculations the cost of making one guinomi (sake cup) is about 170 yen at most.
Yoshida started making pottery using a shichirin when he was a junior high-school student. Last year when a TV director asked him if there was a way for ordinary people to fire their pots more easily, he suggested using a shichirin.
Many people had their doubts.
"Those who have studied pottery making for more than a couple of years are especially suspicious [of the method]," Yoshida says, "because they have been brainwashed by their teachers, who tell them this is bad or impossible."
It had been generally believed that the temperature in shichirin does not rise higher than 850 C, which is not high enough to fire ordinary pottery. Yoshida's studies proved that it can actually reach 1,230 C or higher.
Furthermore, the charcoal ash in the shichirin is melted by the heat and adheres to the pottery's surface, which often creates the similar effect to those fired in a kiln.
"That is why amateur potters are fascinated [by the shichirin method]," Yoshida says. "You can never achieve such tasteful effects with a gas or electric furnace."
The basic creative process is as follows: First, knead the clay. Coarse clays such as Jiki-tsuchi and Bizen-tsuchi are easier to deal with than fine clay. Form the clay into whatever shape you want (but don't make the pieces too big). Dry the pots with a hair dryer for about 30 minutes until completely dry.
Start the fire in the shichirin, get the charcoal glowing well and put the grill on it. Place the shaped clay on the grill and raise the temperature gradually. After heating the pieces about 15 minutes, remove the grill and put the pots in the shichirin, directly on the charcoal. Five minutes later, remove them from the fire and let them cool.
Glaze the pots as desired and put them back on the grill over the fire. Fire the pots directly on the charcoals one by one at a high temperature, fanning the flames with the hair dryer. When the glaze melts, take the pieces out of the shichirin.
It takes only a couple of hours to go through the whole process. "You can start making a cup in the afternoon and drink sake with it that evening!" Yoshida says.
The details of the entire process are explained in Yoshida's book "Subete ga Dekiru Shichirin Togei," published in March by Futabasha.
To examine shichirin-fired works, visit his exhibition Oct. 14-20 at Gallery Yufuku in Minami-Aoyama, Tokyo. Only works fired with the shichirin will be in the show.
"Pottery making is really fun," Yoshida says. "I hope more and more people will enjoy pottery making by shichirin.
"After making your pots you can grill fish or make stew on the shichirin, and have a party!"
Gallery Yufuku is open 10:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. daily, and till 4 p.m. on the last day. For more information, call the gallery at (03) 5411-2900.