Just off of a tiny road with farming fields and trees all around is Shussai Gama, a pottery shop and studio known for a particular shade of blue glaze.
Like many shops, museums, or restaurants in Izumo, Shussai Gama sits inside of a traditional-style Japanese house. Inside, shelf after shelf displays handmade plates, bowls, cups, flower vases, planting pots, chopsticks’ rests, sake sets, teapots, teacups, mugs, and other wares. Each of these items was made in the studio next door, and all are considered local cultural treasures.
Shussai Gama, and other places like it around Shimane, create and display arts of the Mingei Movement, the Folk Crafts Movement. Begun around the Meiji Period and influenced by Europe’s Arts and Crafts Movement, the Mingei Movement encouraged people to rethink the ways in which objects are made. It claimed that art is not just something created to suit specific tastes, but something used in everyday life that people have been creating for centuries. In other words, the movement taught that there is beauty in the practical objects of everyday life. Moreover, potters, textile workers, metalworkers, and anyone who creates things while inspired by the movement’s core principals are artists and living national treasures in their own right.
Summed up, Mingei art is:
- Produced in large quantities by hand. The handmade aspect ensures that the people creating the items have a relationship with what they create from the beginning of the process to the end. Adding to that, making large quantities of Mingei art ensures that the art is accessible to a large number of people, and can be used by a large number of people.
- Mingei art is supposed to be inexpensive, practical, and simple in design. Simplicity is thought to be part of what gives Mingei art its charm. This and a design that rises to best suit the needs of those who use it, allows for further accessibility.
- Mingei art is supposed to be both functional and used by a number of people. The founder of the Mingei Movement, Soetsu Yanagi, believed that the everyday use of Mingei items added to their beauty. He believed this also helped the items maintain authenticity to a region and culture.
- On the note of regions, Mingei art is also supposed to represent the place it was made in. This gives each piece a cultural legacy, which adds an intangible value to each object.
Traditionally, Mingei artists were also anonymous, but modern attitudes have caused that to change. Now, many people and communities celebrate Mingei artists and their works.
Shussai Gama fires over 6,000 pieces of pottery every four months. Each piece is made from locally-acquired clay and finished with homemade glazes. In particular, the deep “shussai blue” is unique to the region. According to the studio’s potters, if an expert were to take a look at this shade of blue glaze, they would immediately know it came from Shimane.
While each piece has the makings of priceless pottery, though, they are in fact just the opposite. There is something for everyone in this shop, and what you like can be surprisingly affordable. The first time I visited this shop, I bought two Japanese-style teacups at about $10 each. To give some perspective, I’ve seen plenty of mugs in tourist gift shops and Starbucks that sell for about that much if not more, and those mugs weren’t made by hand in the studio next door.
My absolute favorite thing about this shop is the fact that they take everything one step further in letting visitors experience everything that’s made. Except for Sundays and New Year’s holidays, visitors to the shop can walk through the studio where the pottery is made.
Here, you get to see pottery at every stage in the creation process from the shaping to the glazing.
Also, inside the main shop, turn left from the front entrance, and you’ll enter a room where you can enjoy a free cup of coffee or tea using one of the shop’s cups.
The far wall of the tearoom is a floor-to-ceiling window so that you can relax and enjoy the scenery outside. Inside this room, you can also enjoy seeing other Mingei art in action. Aside from the cups, the vases on the tables and the soap stands by the sink were all made by Shussai Gama. Other decorations in the room come from other local shops that also produce some kind of Mingei art. I always have to stop at this room before I leave Shussai Gama, because it lets you feel what it’s like to be surrounded by beautiful, handmade arts that you’re allowed to touch and use.
Going along with that, Shussai Gama makes a point to promote other local places that produce some kind of Mingei art. On the second floor of the shop, you can find textiles, metalwork, and glassware. All are handmade and all were made in Shimane.
I could go on and on about how much I love this shop and the ideas that it creates for. I love that it creates art without being pretentious. I love that when you use one of these items, you feel as though you’re holding a piece of Shimane (and in the case of the clay of the pottery, you are). I love that Shussai makes soap stands of all things along with it’s other items. I love that the Mingei Movement can classify that soap stand by the sink as art!
Though I would never call myself an expert in any of it, art is something I’ve always liked and appreciated. Now, the Mingei Movement is something I’m especially drawn to. I think intentionally or unintentionally, it’s so easy in this day and age to disconnect yourself from the things you use in your life. Maybe you have no idea where the vegetables you eat come from. Maybe the things in your kitchen or living room were made in places you have no connection to. Maybe for reasons of money or location, that’s not your fault.
The Mingei Movement and the Arts and Crafts Movement actively decide to work against the idea that this disconnect is the norm, though, and that’s what draws me in. In a few days, I will have lived in Izumo for nine months, and I’ve come to adore and appreciate everything about this area. For that reason and many others, I can’t get enough of the places big and small that are entirely the work of the people and the land of this prefecture. I hope that despite being a little-known place, that Shussai Gama and all the other Mingei artists of the prefecture are able to keep creating for years to come.