I Came to Japan Because of the Chopstick

Timms account of a personal journey through Japan and South Korea and the traditional history of fine pottery crafts that accounts for a large degree of Eastern culture. He here explores the distinctions and connections between Eastern and Western material culture as exemplified through the life and role of the chopstick.

Some years ago I joined one of the late Connie Dryden's pottery tours of Japan and South Korea. Of the dozen or so in our group, all besides myself and two others were potters. We travelled the length and breadth of Honshu and Kyushu, crammed into mini-buses, trudging on foot, waiting on railway platforms, struggling with the language, and occasionally getting on each another's nerves.

But our spirits lifted whenever we arrived in a new city or village to find a ceramics museum of fabulous wealth and beauty, or when we visited a revered potter living in the lap of luxury. There was much excited whispering amongst our group about the unbelievable price tags on their pots.

It was hard for the potters among us not to think, with envy, regret and even resentment, about their own tiny studios at the bottom of the backyard, and those chilly Saturday mornings behind trestle tables at local markets selling coffee mugs for a few dollars each.
Why, they wanted to know, can't Australians appreciate ceramics as the Japanese do? Why do potters have so much more status here than they have in the West?

An answer to those questions came not from a Japanese potter but an Hawaiian: Robert Okasaki, who has a studio in southern Kyushu. 'How does an Hawaiian come to be living and working here?' we asked him, relieved to be with an English-speaker at last. 'I came to Japan because of the chopstick', was his casual response, then the subject changed and the moment was lost.

Later, as I thought about this, it struck me as the most enlightening thing I'd heard during the trip.

To explain why, let me take you back to Paris in 1825. In that year, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin published The Physiology of Taste, to this day a standard reference for chefs and gourmets. It explains food preparation and presentation, how to eat for good health, to avoid obesity and drunkenness, and, in particular, how to appreciate fine food and wine.

What Brillat-Savarin fails to mention, however, are the utensils for serving and eating food. Astonishingly, there is almost nothing at all about platters, bowls, cups, plates or forks.
Intrigued by this, I did a quick survey of the cookbooks in my kitchen, to find that not one of them says anything about vessels or utensils, except for practical advice such as 'use a heavy-bottomed saucepan'. It's odd, isn't it, that Delia Smith and Jamie Oliver can be so particular about what asparagus tips to choose and how to maintain their colour and texture, then casually say, 'arrange them on a plate with the sour cream', without thinking to recommend any particular plate.

Compare this to the attitude of Rosanjin Kitaoji, one of Japan's leading culinary experts. He was so dissatisfied with the containers and utensils available to him in his Tokyo restaurant in the 1920s that he decided to make his own. Today, paradoxically, he is more widely known for his ceramics than for his cuisine.

As far as Rosanjin was concerned, no-one could legitimately call themselves a gourmet until they had fully mastered the harmony between food and utensils. 'If the containers are dull', he said, 'the food will be dull'.
I have at home a book entitled Japanese Cuisine. It is the perfect foil for Brillat-Savarin's Physiology of Taste, for its 315 coloured photographs all show plates, bowls, cups, boxes and stands, with hardly a single item of food to be seen.

So how can we account for this vast difference in approach between East and West? I think Robert Okasaki had it right when he nominated the chopstick. When we eat in the European manner, the plate stays firmly on the table. We stab the food with our fork then hack at it with the knife: a hard, aggressive action that makes a hard aggressive sound. Restaurants and cafes are a cacophony of these clattering and scraping sounds. The plate we eat off is little more than a means of preventing damage to the table. Plates and bowls are not supposed to contribute to our enjoyment of a meal, they are just necessary background.

This is why we prefer all the plates on the table to look exactly the same. Uniformity means invisibility. We're not supposed to notice the plates we're using, let alone to make any comment on them.

If knives and forks are a way of attacking food, chopsticks are a way of caressing it. In one hand we cradle the vessel while the other manipulates the chopsticks as though they were extensions of our fingers. Instead of cutting, we gently prize each morsel apart. When we pick up the bowl we're eating from, a whole new dimension is added to our meal. Senses other than taste and smell are suddenly awakened.

The novelist Junichiro Tanizaki claims that while Western society is hard, bright and loud, Japanese society is soft, dark and reticent. 'We' (the Japanese), he writes, 'prefer a pensive lustre to a shallow brightness ... a polish that comes of being touched over and over again, a sheen produced by the oils that naturally permeate an object over long years of handling – which is to say, grime ... For better or for worse we do love things that bear the marks of grime, soot, and weather, and we love the colors and the sheen that call to mind the past that made them.'

Tanizaki doesn't much like ceramics for eating because they are too cold and hard. He much prefers lacquer. Here is his exquisite description of eating soup from a lacquer bowl:
'... lacquer ware is light and soft to the touch, and gives off hardly a sound. I know few greater pleasures than holding a lacquer soup bowl in my hands, feeling upon my palms the weight of the liquid and its mild warmth. The sensation is something like that of holding a plump new-born baby ... With lacquerware there is an extra beauty in that moment between removing the lid and lifting the bowl to the mouth, when one gazes at the still, silent liquid in the dark depths of the bowl, its colour hardly differing from that of the bowl itself. What lies within the darkness one cannot distinguish, but the palm senses the gentle movements of the liquid, vapour rises from within, forming droplets on the rim, and the fragrance carried upon the vapour brings a delicate anticipation ... a moment of mystery, it might almost be called, a moment of trance.'

What's remarkable about this description is that Tanizaki brings to mind all the senses – lacquer is soft to the touch, makes no noise, feels warm, and reveals the weight of the soup, enhancing its colour and substance, allowing you to sense its movement, to smell its fragrance, to feel its steam on your face – all, that is, except taste. The pleasures he describes are erotic pleasures, pleasures of anticipation, not those of fulfilment.

Nevertheless, I think he's a bit hard on ceramics. As one of my Japanese cookbooks points out: 'In the cold months one yearns for the natural, unassuming warm colour of clay. What better way to forget the bitter cold outside than to gather friends around a hearth with a large earthenware pot in the center from which everyone dips out fish, meats, vegetables and tofu ...'

Or, as another famous writer, Kawabata, puts it: 'The excitement of beauty calls forth strong fellow-feelings, yearnings for companionship'. Perhaps this is why today we seem to place so little value on beauty, because we tend to see art not as a spur to fellow-feelings and companionship, but as the competitive expression of the individual ego.

We've all had meals that were memorable for some reason, but how many of us remember a meal because of the plates it was served on? I recall several such meals in Asian countries, but only one here in Australia, in a large old house in the New South Wales countryside. I don't remember whose house, or why I was there (it was twenty five years ago) and I don't remember what we ate. What made the whole evening memorable, however, was the Les Blakebrough dinner service on which it was served, in particular its warm earthy brown colour and exuberant decoration. That dinner service seemed to focus the entire meal, without drawing undue attention to itself. In Kawabata's words, it called forth strong fellow feelings of companionship.

That pleasure was not as rich or varied as it might have been had we been using chopsticks. It was not the erotically-charged experience Tanizaki describes. It came mainly from the knowledge that the plates we were eating from were handmade. It does make a difference. There is a certain delight, when the conversation lapses, in comparing the way the calligraphic swirl on your dinner plate matches, yet is subtly different from, that on your side-plate, from noticing how the glaze has crept from the edges, leaving them a slightly lighter hue than the centre.

It strikes me that, just as Western chefs hardly ever mention utensils, potters rarely talk about food. One who does is the Japanese-born English potter, Takeshi Yasuda. 'The objects I make', he says, 'are completed only with the active participation of the user. The creativity of the maker only takes it half way. So unless my work is used creatively it is not complete.'

But what does he mean, 'used creatively'? It means being less goal oriented, seeing everything we do as having value in itself, not just as a means to some other end. It means reintegrating those aspects of our lives we now think of as separate and compartmentalised.
When he first went to live in England, Takeshi was dismayed at the way people separated cooking a meal (generally considered a chore), from eating it (which is the pleasurable part). In Japan, he says, 'you just perform the daily rituals of preparing, serving and eating food without thinking of them as separate activities.'

Takeshi is especially concerned that our approach to art is almost solely visual. The crafts, along with painting and sculpture and even architecture and garden design, have been impoverished by the primacy we place on the visual at the expense of the other senses, especially touch.

I'm fortunate in owning a large bowl made by Takeshi in which I serve salads in summer and soups in winter. It was thrown on the wheel upside-down ('on the hump' I think is the colourful expression potters use). When it was leather hard, Takeshi turned it rightside up and, holding it in both hands by the rim, gave it a slight downward shake, to make it sag. Big chunky handles like green frogs were perched on the rim, and the inside was decorated with a cream and brown Sansai glaze.

It's a very beautiful bowl, but it's not flashy, so it doesn't draw attention to itself at the dinner table. It's well mannered and knows its place. Yet, as the salad is passed around the table and each person's hands enfold those froglike handles and their thumbs instinctively fall to rest in the grooves made for them inside the rim, they notice how that gentle sag makes what is, in fact, a quite heavy bowl seem almost fluid.

My dinner guests may not even be consciously aware of the experience, so involved are they in conversation. But you can see by the way they pause and look at the bowl as it's handed to them that something of the pleasure of the touch has been awakened. An extra sensual experience has been added to their evening.

A ceramics student at RMIT once told me during a tutorial that making useful objects was too restrictive. She demanded the freedom to express herself. Given that she was making sculptural forms that looked rather like angular Henry Moores, I wondered why she thought the conventions of British modernism offered any more freedom than the conventions of the dinner table. Her bid for freedom of expression was, paradoxically, hemming her in, because not only had she simply replaced one set of conventions with another, but she had failed to understand the fundamental point that real freedom is not simply the absence of restrictions but rather the result of overcoming them.

To illustrate, let me return to Les Blakebrough. In the late fifties, when he was training at Sturt Workshops in Mittagong, he learned how to make a simple coffee mug by throwing the same form over and over, destroying each one as soon as it was completed. Only when he'd made and discarded a thousand mugs did he feel he had mastered the form.

Freedom, then, is something you have to earn, not just something you grant yourself at will. And, once earned, that freedom gives you the capacity for further freedoms. As the famous Zen saying goes: 'draw bamboos for ten years, become a bamboo, then forget all about bamboo when you are drawing'.

A Secret History of Clay, an exhibition shown recently at the Tate Gallery in Liverpool was, according to its publicity, a ground-breaking exhibition that would 'change the way we look at the medium' by challenging 'the neglect of fired and glazed clay by art critics and art historians'.

In fact, according to one critic, A Secret History of Clay told an entirely familiar story, challenging nothing. For while it contained hundreds of objects which supposedly covered the story of fired clay since the beginning of the twentieth century, from Duchamp's urinal, through Picasso, Vlaminck, the Cobra Group, Cindy Sherman and Jeff Koons, there was virtually nothing by anyone we might call a ceramist. No Hamada or Leach, no Rosanjin, no Gwynn Hanssen Pigott or Lucie Rie or Ruth Duckworth.

Not having seen this exhibition, I imagine I would have found it a fascinating yet rather depressing experience. For it illustrates what happened to ceramics when it left our kitchens and dining rooms and took up residence among the plinths and glass cases of the art museum.
I'm not, of course, arguing that we should empty out our cutlery drawers, throw away our white porcelain dinner services, and adopt the chopstick. Aping the customs of other cultures is just another kind of slavery. I think we all sense, when we go to an 'authentic' Japanese restaurant and sit cross-legged on Tatami mats balancing morsels of eel in our chopsticks to the exotic strains of the Koto, that we're indulging in a bit of theatre, however pleasant it may be. What we must do, instead, is to find our own ways to re-invigorate our senses, to be newly alert and sensitive to our surroundings, and to bring beauty back into our lives.

The rituals of eating and drinking, which are crucial to calling forth those strong feelings of companionship that Kawabata talks about, seem to me to be a very good place to start.