A balmy Sunday evening. In a neighbourhood filled with eateries, groups of revellers with their drinks on the sidewalk. I pass by a Takoyaki street stall with a queue, smoke billowing out from the grill. Standard Bookshop is nearby for foreigners like me searching for an indie book haven. I almost miss the front of the shop because the entrance is up on the second floor. Walking up the creaking wooden stairs, the air already turns quieter. Stepping into the calm of the store, I feel a rush of emotion swell up in my chest. Rustic wooden furnishings, gentle pools of light perfectly illuminating the displays of ceramic ware, a brazier taking pride of place by the bar counter, assured in its glory.
The feeling that I’ve arrived at a kindred friend’s home.
With that feeling growing like a warm candle in my chest, I settle at the table in the corner by the window. There’s just a bit of evening light spilling in, allowing me to appreciate the rugged surface of the irregularly shaped cup of water that’s been speedily placed in front of me. I’ve arrived a little too late in the day for matcha, though I’m sure that’s what they’d be good at making, given the authentic equipment available. I order Zenzai, a sweet red bean soup dessert with mochi, thinking it’ll be a small, management bite sized snack that will keep my growling tummy comforted till dinner time.
While waiting for it to be prepared, I look around. The Chawan on display along the wall behind the bar counter is breathtaking. Each piece so disparate yet exquisite in its own way. It’s exactly the sort of place I love to be in. Surrounded by the warmth of handmade ceramics. By the warmth of people wanting to share in their passion for these ceramic wares.
Each piece I see is almost like a lightbulb that goes on inside me. Can I possibly make that one day? Something like a vase with that shape, showing off such smooth masculine shoulders yet intimately revealing its rough textured skin?
The Zenzai that arrives takes my breath away. Nestled in a voluptuous bowl that feels made for the cup created by both my hands together, I feel its warm spread against my fingers and my palms. The skin of the mochi has been grilled to perfection. No easy feat grilling the surface of a mochi while keeping its shape as it tends to melt with heat. (Failed attempts at grilling my store bought mochi back home in the kitchen have taught me that. Most end up as sticky flat sheets stuck interminably to the plate). The lumpiness and irregularity of the pieces of mochi are endearing, in a way that only homemade goods can be. I savour each crispy bite of mochi with relish, feeling as if in this quiet space the sound of my chewing is reverberating through the room.
All the ceramic ware used here is imperfect. Even the Hashi-oki (箸置き）or chopsticks rest with its weird crawling glaze looking as if the glaze tried to wrap the clay up like a blanket but never quite managed to get to all the corners and split halfway while trying… It’s ceramics like these that tug at a string in my heart. The beauty of imperfection. Though Wabi-Sabi is a word that has taken on overtones of excessive commercialisation for me, at its heart, it is this. Beauty in a form as it is. Imperfect and proudly so.
With just a little bit more mochi left in the bowl, I walk around the store, hoping for that which I have eaten to digest a little faster. It’s surprising how seemingly innocuous mochi can expand so rapidly to fill up stomach space. There are a few cabinets of ceramics on display. As I look at them, the staff gently inform me that I can open the cabinets to take a look and touch the pieces as I so wish. It’s always a surprise when the store trusts you enough to handle such precious merchandise. There is an urge to have a feel of each and every item. Those rugged textures call out to be stroked. Is the thickness of those walls as uneven as its shape? My course starts in a week but I want to have a feel of these objects, these works of art as much as possible to learn how they should feel like.
I met the owner, Kobayashi-san, went I stare at a bunch of postcards on display on a table outside the backroom toilet. It’s common for artists to print their own postcards advertising their personal exhibition or store on the front. He cheerfully asks me to take as many as I’d like and, upon seeing my stare intently at the works displayed in the cabinets (probably with some drool escaping my mouth subconsciously), offers to take out any item I’m interested in having a feel of. It was that easygoing friendliness that gave me the courage to speak to him, to ask him questions about the works on display. He was showcasing works of a various artists from different parts of Japan. The way he rattled off their names without hesitation and the enthusiasm with which he spoke about those pieces touched me. He had been running this cafe for around 9 years. He had always been interested in ceramics due to his father’s influence. They would go to various pottery towns in Japan picking up ceramic pieces on their journeys and it was that passion for ceramics that made him want to share it with others. He had been thinking of a way to share ceramics in a more modern fashion and figured a cafe would be the best way to introduce people to it. I mentioned I would be visiting Tachikui Village to take a look at Tanba Pottery with a friend the next week and immediately, he pulled out a scrap of paper and wrote down a few names of artists he knew who were working there. He would sometimes visit the artists and accompany them to dig up clay in the nearby mountains for their works. We chatted a little longer till I realized I still had leftover mochi in my Zenzai to finish.
It’s encounters like these that bring to mind the saying of Ichigo Ichie 一期一会. Truly, a once in a lifetime chance encounter. Feeling like I’d stepped into the living room of a kindred spirit. To be able to provide such a feeling of warmth to others, is truly a gift that I was so grateful to have received.
wad cafe. wad because 和道 (the Way of things Japanese) is pronounced Wa-Dou which sounds like wad pronounced in the Japanese way. 😉 おもてなしに預かりまして、ありがとうございました。