Arriving into the town of Arita, Saga prefecture there was a distinct ancient feel to it and the houses looked much older that some of the modern places we drove through to get here. We arrived to meet the president of Gen-emon, Mr Kaneko and the head of sales, Mr Fuji. Our business cards were exchanged with a bow and then we were invited to sit in the showroom and promptly served tea in their beautiful porcelain cups.
I don’t know what I was expecting but I suppose in a way it was a small workshop with a few potters working away but Genemon is a highy esteemed, multi award winning business established in 1753. They employ around 40 people now, half of whom are men, half are women. Mr Kaneko lives in the grounds which has beautiful traditional Japanese gardens and the many workshops and production rooms surrounding it.
We were taken to the traditional workshop and the beautiful smoky wood smell mixed with the drying porcelain is such an incredibly nice welcome. All the people working away on different parts of the process sit in traditional, Japanese style wooden studios working away in silence, calmly intent on their task. There are rows and rows of cups and bowls all in production, placed on simple planks resting on the beams above their heads, one of the workers expertly pulls one out and walks off with a line of 10 cups balancing on his shoulder as if it’s the easiest job in the world. Mr Kaneko jokes they are lucky in this area that they don’t have many earthquakes.
One of the most surprising things since being in Japan is the collective sound of the tea break tune, which rings out twice a day and also at lunch time and is actually a rendition of the Westminster chime, nobody seems to know exactly why, even in the remote island of Tokashiki there it was, on loudspeaker for the whole island to hear without fail. The tea break sounded at exactly 3 and it was like the spell was broken as we watched the workers suddenly jump into action and resume the speed of normal people again.
Gen-emon is a Ko Imari kiln, based in Kuyshu which is the cradle of Japanese porcelain. In the late 1500s, Lord Nabeshima brought the Korean potter Ri San Pei and other potters to the Arita area close to port Imari. Ro San Pei discovered discovered high quality kaolin in Aritas Izumiyama quarry. With instruction to perfect the art of porcelain, the Ko Imari or old Imari tradition was developed in 1616.
Every single piece is carefully hand made, hand painted and fired in a wood burning kiln, which is capable of reaching extreme temperatures to bring out porcelains natural strength and beauty.
Here is a piece from Gen-emons philosophy “the centuries old legacy of gen-emon can be attributed to the kiln being steeped in a philosophy of balance and harmony, nature and soul, mind and spirit colour and thought. The extraordinary designs and vibrant colours of Gen-emon reflect the true nature of the Japanese mind and soul, the love of nature and life. To this day, Gen-emon resides in the suburbs of Arita surrounded by the beautiful mountains where the Ko Imari mind and spirit have been breathing quietly but strongly.
We were taken through the entire process right from the raw material, the firing stages and to the hand painted stage – one of the interesting facts here is that the men paint the straight lines and the women fill in the decorated patterns in between. . A match made in heaven!
The signature blue glaze has to be fired at 1,300 degrees because the blue is so stable and strong for high temperatures. Watching the hand of the painter work away so expertly is so mesmerising, I could sit here for hours. The brush they use comes from Kumano and is famous for the cosmetics brush and for calligraphy.
One of the amazing things about Gen-emon is that they have mastered the almost impossible skill of fusing porcelain to metal which made the production of table utensils, jewellery and many other works of art possible. Porcelain shrinks 15% when fired so one of their major challenges was creating a fountain pen which they did in collaboration with Salor Fountainpen in 2007. The Japapese imperial palace purchased a set of dishes for the crown princes engagement and they have also made special pieces for Pope john Paul II, collaborated with Nendo Co and donated two detailed plates to the White House amongst many others. One of their first contacts in 1972 was with Tiffany, New York for limited and unique leaf pattern in celadon glaze.