Experience the Mingei Movement: Izumo’s Shussai Pottery

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.

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Shussai Gama Pottery

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.

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

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This unassuming glaze becomes shussai blue.

Here, you get to see pottery at every stage in the creation process from the shaping to the glazing.

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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.

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Shussai mug and flower vase along with ginger candies and a place mat made in other Izumo shops.

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.

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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.

 

 

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Sunrise Izumo: Western Japan’s Sleeper Train

This was just a fraction of the view I had from my seat about an hour outside of Tokyo. I had left Izumo the night before, and was waking up on the other side of Japan.

According to the research I’ve done, sleeper trains used to be much more common in Japan. However, as bullet trains became the norm, many of them were discontinued. Now, the Sunrise Express is one of the last sleeper trains in Japan.

The Sunrise Express is made up of two trains that separate down the line: the Sunrise Izumo, which runs between Tokyo and Izumo, and the Sunrise Seto, which runs between Tokyo and Takamatsu on Shikoku island. At either end of the line, you fall asleep on the trip, and then wake up at your destination.

When I rode the Sunrise Izumo back in March, I had chosen the cheapest seat, the nobi nobi zaseki. These are long, carpeted seats arranged in double-decker rows with curtains that close around the front for some privacy. This seat also came with my own window. Once I got settled in, the first thing I did was turn off the seat light and watch Shimane passing by. We seemed to go just about everywhere from Matsue station, to train tracks that intersected tiny rural roads. Fun fact, these seats are free if you have a JR Pass!

Definitely my favorite thing about riding this train was, true to the train’s name, watching the sun rise. I woke up a bit earlier than I planned, only to look out my window and see the sun over the Pacific Ocean. I grabbed what I’d brought for breakfast, and headed straight to the lounge car. There, I got to watch houses and cherry blossoms go by as we passed through Yokohama and rocked along towards our final stop. Normally, I don’t like waking up early, but it was something special to get to see the landscape before it had woken up completely. The fact that I don’t normally get up for sunrises made it even more special!

If you’re looking for a unique way to get to Shimane, you should definitely look in to the Sunrise Express. I will forewarn this, though, I’m five feet, six inches tall (about 160 cm), and I couldn’t help but notice that my head wasn’t too far away from the ceiling in the nobi nobi zaseki. If you’re much taller than me, you might want to get a single sleeper or twin sleeper, since those are actual rooms, with higher ceilings. Also, there’s no food served aboard the train, no pillows in the nobi nobi zaseki, and no towels provided for the shower, so make sure to be prepared and pack these things with you.

If you’re looking for some more information about sleeper trains in Japan, check out the JR pass website. Happy travels!

https://www.jrailpass.com/blog/night-trains-sunrise-express

Shimane Sakura Highlights

Hanami season has come and gone, and I thought it would be a good idea to shed some light on the cherry blossom sights of Matsue and Izumo! I didn’t get the chance to get around to Unan City this year, but I’ve heard from multiple ALTs that the riverside near JR Kitsuki station is absolutely gorgeous in the spring. Plus, they have festivals stands set up in time for full bloom. If you have any particularly good viewing places to add to this post, please let me know! In the meantime, I hope you enjoy these photos!

Izumo Taisha

The extensive grounds around this shrine make for some fantastic blooms. I especially liked the blossoms around the pond next to the entrance to the shrine grounds.

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The pine-lined path leading up to the shrine also has some beautiful groves.

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In addition to taking a walk around the shrine, I would also recommend taking a walk around the gardens of the Museum of Ancient Izumo. From here, you can see the blossoms blooming on the mountainsides. As someone who comes from a place where the mountains are covered in evergreens, getting to see mountains covered in different shades of pink and green is a really memorable experience.

Matsue Castle and Gessho-Ji

I’ve heard Matsue Castle is one of the top cherry blossom viewing spots in all of Japan, and I would agree.

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The castle sets up lanterns and festivals stalls for the duration of the blooms. The lawns around the castle are also the perfect place to have a Hanami picnic.

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Best of all, if you climb to the top of the grounds and the castle, you can see a bird’s eye view of the city in bloom. Don’t forget to stop at the tearoom next to the castle!

Spring is also a good time of year to ride the Horikawa sightseeing boats. These river boats take you around the Matsue Castle moat, and the city’s old canals. This ride gives you the opportunity to view some historical sights, wildlife, and views of Matsue that you’ll only find on the water. One of the docks for these boats is next to the Castle, and they have discounts for foreign tourists.

If you’re looking for a flower-viewing spot that’s a little quieter, I recommend taking the Lakeline bus to Gessho-Ji temple. When I visited, there was only one other person walking the grounds. This heavily-wooded temple offers views of cherry blossoms, as well as forsythia and other plant life.

Besides these, Gessho-ji also has the graves of the lords of Matsue Castle and a giant turtle statue.

It’s said that if you rub this turtle’s head, you’ll be blessed with long life. Also, a stone pillar rests on his back to keep him from wandering around at night.

Bonus: The Adachi Museum of Art

This museum is about an hour away from Izumo over in Yasugi. It’s been voted the best traditional garden in Japan for the past fifteen years! It’s designed to have good views year-round, and admission includes access to seasonal galleries with works of some of the greatest classic and contemporary painters in Japan. There’s also cafes within the museum that let you enjoy different areas of the garden with a hot drink.

You can find out more about the Adachi Museum and see a livestream of the gardens here!

https://www.adachi-museum.or.jp/en/

Cherry blossom season is one of the best times to travel in Japan. For this reason, though, many well-known tourist spots are extremely crowded. Luckily, Japan is full of hidden corners that offer unique experiences with much fewer people. Shimane is definitely one of these hidden corners. If you get the opportunity to travel in Japan this time of year, why not explore a hidden treasure?