Sol Lee: Ceramics at Asahiyaki Studio

Before I arrived in Japan, I knew that I had to pick an activity for the Community Involvement Project, otherwise known as CIP. Because Kyoto has a long history and culture of artisans, I decided that I wanted to involve myself in the arts in one way or another. There were so many options but the reason I chose ceramics in particular is that I had thoroughly enjoyed my experience when I took a ceramics class back in my senior year of high school. I honestly would not have minded choosing something I had never done before but at the same time, CIP was something I was committing myself to for the entire semester. As a result, I chose something that I had at least some exposure to so that I had a clear idea of what I was getting myself into.

Now, I knew that taking pottery classes was going to be a bit expensive but I was willing to pay up to a certain amount. With the help of my Japanese teacher, I found two that I thought were reasonably priced and made plans to visit them. The cheaper of the two, unfortunately, was not taking students as the teacher was not in Kyoto that often. As a result, I ended up at the slightly more expensive and slightly further studio called Asahiyaki in Uji, Kyoto. It is about an hour commute for me but Uji is one of the most serene, and most beautiful places that I have ever been to that I feel it is always worth the time to make that trip. To be completely honest, I buy a bento and sit by the Uji River every week before pottery class to reflect on my life and my experiences (lol).

Learning to throw pots at Asahiyaki has led me to many interesting observations. The first thing I noticed was how casual the teacher was with me. Knowing Japanese society and having studied some keigo at this point, I found it very interesting that the teacher omitted all forms of desu/masu and spoke as if I was a friend. However, I noticed this with not just myself, but with the other students as well — and by students, I mean the elderly. The pottery classroom is mainly full of adults and the elderly, which, in retrospect, makes sense. After several weeks of going there, I believe that I am the only college-aged student that goes there regularly. But I digress. My teacher is young, but she is definitely over a decade older than me. She definitely has the upper position in not just status, but also age and therefore, can speak casually with me. What really surprised me was how casually she spoke with the elderly and how they responded in polite form. This led me to believe that in a classroom, no matter the age, the teacher is the one with the most power — the most “erai” person. But still, being that casual with the elderly — some parts of me believe that that is really just my teacher’s friendly personality.
Having grown up in America, many of Japan’s customs and culture is somewhat of a culture shock because the two countries are so different. However, as a Korean, I often notice many similarities between Japan and my own culture and many of these differences suddenly become “understandable” to me. But that does not mean that I fully understand how Japanese society works so studying pottery at the Asahiyaki studio has definitely been a meaningful experience for me. It has allowed me to see a classroom dynamic that is not only different from the traditional school setting, but also different from America’s classroom setting.

6 thoughts on “Sol Lee: Ceramics at Asahiyaki Studio

  1. It sounds like such a relief to be able to be so at ease with your teacher. Did it seem that your fellow students were similarly happy with how casual she was with them? To me, it’s as if decades of schooling and stressing of status has made です/ます instinctual to them.

    • Hey Alan, thanks for the comment!

      Actually, it was a very interesting classroom dynamic because the majority of the classroom was older people and I think because these people were there to just relax and have fun, it seemed to me that they really appreciated the casual atmosphere. I was really surprised at first because as you said, keigo and polite speech is so engrained in Japanese society but the really shocking part for me was that the students are much older than the teacher (like grandpas and grandmas). Yet, the teacher was speaking casually and the elderly were speaking politely to her. Although I say they were speaking politely to the teacher, they were always smiling while talking with everyone and it was a very informal & friendly atmosphere!

  2. It’s great that you found differences among cultures, I think. I understand the “good custom” of respecting teachers over the elderly as this idea comes from Confucius, but it is still mind-refreshing that Japanese also have it in their culture. I haven’t been to any American school (those that are similar to this pottery school) so I actually have a question: How do you think is the school setting different from American school setting?

    • Thanks for the comment!

      Back in America, I took ceramics in high school so I only have the traditional school setting experience from home whereas my experience in Japan has been more recreational. That being said, I definitely experienced more of the respect for teachers in a classroom setting while in Japan. Back in America, on the other hand, I rarely felt this type of reverence. As the teacher clearly has a lot more experience, my high school classmates often asked her for her opinion but perhaps because the English language doesn’t have different forms of respect when speaking like Japanese does, the respect was not as evident. I know I didn’t articulate that quite well but I hope it answered your question!

  3. Uji is indeed a serene place, so I’m glad you found a way to enjoy a new setting as well as a new cultural experience! With that said, going into ceramics with prior experience, how would you compare the way ceramics is taught in Japan versus America? For instance, how much control and influence your sensei and learned ceramic techniques have over the outcome of your final work in Japan in comparison to that in America?

    • Thank you for the comment ~

      To be honest, I have noticed several differences from the get-go. For example, when I throw on the wheel, I realized that I’m only able to do it with the wheel going counterclockwise (in retrospect, I believe this is because that was how I was taught back at home). However, my teacher as well as all of the other students at my studio throw clockwise. Another difference is that back in America, I would have a slab of clay and make one piece of work with that on the wheel. In Japan however, you put a really big slab of clay on the wheel and throw several pots/plates, etc. I would say those two were the biggest differences for me and it was also something my teacher always brought up. Because the studio that I go often has foreign visitors, the teacher is actually very accommodating to different techniques and she always stressed that I could do it whichever way I preferred. I still can only throw well counterclockwise so that is one thing that I have kept to, but as for the others, I have definitely tried to incorporate more of my teachers styles because afterall, that is why I am learning pottery in Japan! My sensei always tells me the kinds of food that can be plated with the pots/plates that I create so I definitely think that my work has been largely influenced by what kind of Japanese food I can place in my bowl, haha.