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Which One Is Best?

trusting intuition in times of choice

On my first visit with the Ishiwata family they treated me to a remarkable evening, during which I saw and held and fondled pots from their personal collection. It was, they said, “just a small group of things we like”.   In actuality, the collection included 3000-5000B.C. Jomon-era shards (which they had dug up while uprooting a palm tree in their back yard), 9th-century Chinese pots, 13th-century Korean pieces, 17th and 18th-century Japanese work, and finally an amazing collection of contemporary Japanese pots.  After they showed me this prodigious array of collectible works, Mr. Ishiwata proposed a test. 

Actually he demanded that I comply to his testing.  He brought to the table three sake bottles from among the fifty or sixty pots that he had shown me earlier in the evening.  “Which one is best?” he asked.

The pots were from three different traditions within Japan – actually one each from three of the six traditions considered to be the “old kiln” traditions  (those traditions which have been continuous for nearly 1000 years).  One was from Shigaraki – with heavy natural ash glazing and bulging feldspathic contaminants in the clay – a real beauty.  One originated in Tokoname – wrapped in rice straw during the firing, orange-red salt-flashing striations encircled the piece – a dramatic example.   And one came  from the Bizen tradition – a rich reddish brown pot with a varied texture of ash accumulation – quiet, serene, and understated. 

Of course to try to answer Mr. Ishiwata’s question was a near impossibility.  All were part of his collection, so I knew he favored each one.  And I recognized that each tokkuri was a superior, museum-quality example of its respective tradition.

I tried, in an evasive way, to explain to Ishiwata-san what I appreciated about each one – “NO! Not good enough!  I have been the teacher tonight. You were to have been the student!  Weren’t you paying attention?  Which one is best?” he repeated.

I tried another end-run  – “NO!   You must answer the question, because the one you choose will be the one you will take home with you!” 

This, I had feared from the start, and was one reason I’d chosen not to indicate a preference.  For in Japan it sometimes happens that you may receive as a gift something for which you have expressed a liking or preference.  I wanted to be careful not to take unfair advantage of their wonderful hospitality.

“I cannot accept one of these fine pots,” I said.  “But I would love to discuss each one.”

Now you have to imagine and remember that all of this conversation, that I have just reported, had happened as an interpreter slowly and rather painfully explained to each of us what the other had just said. 

At this point, Ishiwata san stood up, put his palms flat on the table, leaned toward me, and with a wry smile challenged, in Japanese, “What’s the matter?  Don’t you like them?  Aren’t they good enough for you?  Choose!  Which one is best?”

I had run out of excuses.  Any more stalling on my part would have constituted rudeness to my host.  A quick conference – in English – with my translator, confirmed that I really was “on my own”.  She had absolutely no advice for me, either on how to handle this unusual situation, or regarding the relative quality of the pots.  But she concurred that I had to make some kind of an answer.  (Actually, her exact words to me were these:  “You are in deep sh*t.”)  I told her, that I was just going to follow my intuition and see what happened – all the while wondering just what, exactly, was going to come out of my mouth when I began to speak.

I told Ishiwata-san that while I could not accept his generous offer of a gift of one of the pots, I believed that I knew which one was best.  “The little Bizen piece is the finest,” I said.  “While the ash deposits are quiet and subdued, they are still noticeable and varied, and speak for themselves with a clear voice.  With sensitive fingers”, I said, “even someone who is blind could ‘see’ this piece by feeling the ‘firing story’ that the surface of the pot has captured.  The Bizen piece is the best one.”

Ishiwata san slumped to his chair with a sigh. “I have tested you, and you have passed,” he said.

Content that he had been a good teacher, and that I had been a good student, no amount of refusals or polite dodging on my part could thwart the inevitable:  the pot was packaged in an exquisite handmade wooden box, it was placed in my hands, and I was ushered to the door. 

But before allowing me to leave, Ishiwata san said this:  “I believe that you have made the right choice. Now let me tell you what you have. While I cannot afford to buy the works of Living National Treasure artists, this artist, Mr. Yu Fujiwara, I predict, will become a Living National Treasure in the Bizen tradition someday.  If I am right, you have made the right choice.”

As you may know, in 1998, Mr. Yu Fujiwara DID receive the highest designation afforded a living artist in Japan:  Ningen Kokuho –  Living National Treasure.

The next day, I rode in the car with Mrs. Ishiwata – she was taking me to Mashiko.  I tried explaining to Mrs. Ishiwata, as we drove, that I would consider myself the caretaker of this piece, not its owner.

She responded by telling me, very quietly, that the little Bizen sake bottle had been her husband’s favorite, that he had used it every day, and that it had become more beautiful with use.  “Take good care of it, and use it every day,” she instructed.

While I was still uncomfortable (and remain that way, somewhat, to this day) with the prospect of Mr. Ishiwata having given me this important piece; and while I still wonder about the cultural nuances within this experience that I have yet to comprehend, I did find this to be, for me,  a “teachable moment”. I have learned to better trust my intuition even in the times – perhaps especially in the times – of great difficulty. Intuition is a legitimate source of wisdom when there seem to be no “right” answers, when I feel myself to be between a rock and a hard place, when the way ahead is not clear.

(By the way, after I returned home in 1992, I sent to Mr. and Mrs. Ishiwata the absolutely finest saggar-fired pot that I had ever made – my  attempt at an approximate “thank you”.)

As a post script to this story:  In May of 1999 I had two exhibitions in Japan:   one in Tamba, and one in Shigaraki.  At the Shigaraki show, Mr. and Mrs.  Ishiwata came to visit me.  I noticed him the moment he entered the gallery.  He was looking out over the top of his glasses, trying to spot me.  The moment he did, he made a bee-line for me.  I quickly got the attention of my interpreter, and as we three met, the first words out of Mr. Ishiwata’s mouth were these (and I might add, with a king-size twinkle in his eye):  “I knew I should never have let you talk me out of that Fujiwara piece.  You know what happened, right?  I was correct in my prediction!  I shouldn’t have let you talk me out of it!”

I had been prepared for just this moment, and without flinching I asked my interpreter to tell this to Mr. Ishiwata:  “I think you are correct.  You should never have let me talk you out of that piece.  How about this:  why don’t we trade?  I will give you back the Fujiwara pot, and you can give me back my saggar-fired pot, OK?”

Ishiwata san, a quicker wit than I will ever be, eyes twinkling all the brighter, countered:  “Oh no you don’t!!  I have already let you talk me out of one excellent piece; I am not about to let you talk me out of another!”

This (pre-edited version) article is reprinted with expressed permission from the March 2008 issue of Ceramics Monthly Magazine, PO Box 6102, Westerville OH 43086-6102, USA; www.ceramicsmonthly.org

copyright Dick Lehman

August 2002

All Rights Reserved