My father-in-law is a shokunin, a craftsman. He makes a style of traditional Japanese pottery called Shino-yaki. In Japan, the shokunin’s attitude and commitment to craft are embodied in the term shokunin-damashi; damashi means ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’, so this indicates ‘the craftsman's spirit’ – a willingness to go above and beyond one’s commitment to their craft, leading to creations in which the craftsman’s time, effort, and continual development of expertise are embodied in their creations. 

I observed shokunin-damashi first-hand in 2002 when my father-in-law went to extremes to capture a certain aesthetic in his tea ceremony bowls. He had decided to build an anagama, a mountain kiln, with the ambitious goal of producing Momoyama pottery using traditional firing techniques dating back hundreds of years and resulting in a very specific style of glaze. 

Momoyama pottery

A 2002 Japanese Times article written by ceramics specialist Robert Yellin, titled “Pottery worth giving it all up for,” articulates the significance of Momoyama pottery: 

‘Say the word “Momoyama” to any Japanese pottery connoisseurs, and their eyes will inevitably light up. Most ceramic enthusiasts would give up any Saturday-night vice to own just one Momoyama Shino, Bizen or Karatsu guinomi (sake cup) or chawan (tea bowl).

Allow me to explain. Many of Japan’s greatest pottery styles (and other art forms) matured under those who shaped the cultural landscape of the Momoyama Period (1568-1715). Most of these artistic “directors” were powerful warlords and Zen monks connected to the Way of Tea. These men forsook expensive imported Chinese items to focus on humble-yet-sublime native pieces and Korean wares.

These tea wares, however, lost much of their popularity in the colorful Edo Period (1603-1867) through to the Taisho Era (1912-1926). It wasn’t until a Momoyama revival occurred in the early Showa Era (1926-1989) that these treasured wares were again appreciated for the glory and pride they have given to Japan’s splendid ceramic heritage.’


What my father-in-law was trying to achieve was a longshot. The project was huge, requiring the support of his family and his local village community. He had to carve out and hand-build a mountain kiln into a sloped section of land specially purchased for this endeavour. The investment in firewood alone ran into the thousands of dollars.

Along with his brother and sons he prepared several hundred pieces of pottery that were fired over a period of five days via a trying and tiring process. Someone had to stay by the kiln at all times; my father-in-law even slept beside it. After the first firing, they could only wait hopefully while the kiln slowly cooled. Unfortunately, it was a failure; hundreds of macha-jawan pieces he had hand-shaped over hours of diligent work had all been lost – burnt, broken, or blistered. 

A second firing produced the same result, yet I never saw my father-in-law express any hint of disappointment or frustration. He only spoke with a matter-of-factness about what went wrong. In his factory a few days after the second firing had failed, I suggested that he must have been disappointed with the result. Without looking up from what he was doing he just matter-of-factly stated, ‘We can’t reach the necessary temperature.’

Each firing of the anagama was a learning experience taking him a step closer to what he was hoping to create. He displayed a sense of coherence despite the two failures – comprehending the problem, managing it, and extracting meaning from it, which allowed the failures to have an overall positive effect. A year later, he tried again. His persistence and craftsman's spirit did pay off to some degree. Although the fire failed again during the third attempt, there were several pieces that achieved the glaze he was hoping for; these were sold or gifted to friends. 


In his factory one day, when he was wrapping and boxing several of the pieces, he taught me the term wabi-sabi. This was a significant moment, as my father-in-law had never taught me any Japanese. He was definitely wanting to express something meaningful to me, yet, like a true Japanese craftsman, made it clear that I would have to explore and find meaning in the word on my own; he wasn’t going to make it easy for me.

Outside of Japan, wabi-sabi is mistakenly understood as an adjective; the word is often used in interior design magazines or books to describe artwork or furniture as being imperfectly beautiful. In Japan, however, wabi-sabi is a noun that articulates an aesthetic that you can sense. In the case of my father-in-law’s craft, it is the naturalness and earthiness of the pottery.

When I look at my father-in-law’s pieces, when I am in a calm or yutori state, I can feel them communicating to me, like they are calling to me, a fading echo of his creative spirit reaching out to me. And for a brief moment my attention is captured. I sense something as my state changes. I am lost to his work, fused with the pottery somehow, connected to something that speaks to my soul. A calmness comes over me and I feel I have returned to a familiar source of energy, the captured flow, transfixed and unaware of the world around me. I am sensing wabi-sabi. Then a thought, an external distraction, will break the connection and the moment passes.

I called my father-in-law to interview him about his anagama experience and discovered that over the past thirteen years since our departure from Japan, he had made seven more attempts to produce Momoyama pottery. He had actually successfully recreated the aesthetic in his factory gas kiln where he could control the temperature, but the craftsman in him wanted to achieve the glaze in nature and perhaps achieve that wabi-sabi aesthetic.

Hikidashi-guro macha-jawan

In fact, he had added an additional goal to his pottery endeavours: to produce a hikidashi-guro macha-jawan, a pulled-out (hikidashi) black (guro) tea ceremony bowl. Like Momoyama pottery, hikidashi-guro is an ancient Japanese style of ceramic highly prized by Japanese pottery connoisseurs. To achieve the black glaze, the macha-jawan must be pulled from the kiln and quenched in a pail of water as it is reaching almost white light (1250 degrees centigrade or 2300 Fahrenheit). 

While trying to recreate Momoyama pottery was never a commercial endeavour for my father-in-law, he was able to sell a single hikidashi-guro macha-jawan for $3000, giving him some return on all the firewood he had invested in. This amount reflects the appreciation others have and are willing to pay for shokunin-damashi.

For my father-in-law, what matters most is the satisfaction he hopes that the macha-jawan will bring his customers every time they use his bowls in tea ceremonies. My father-in-law refuses to sell pottery online, believing it is important for his customers to touch and connect with his pieces before making a purchase. It is this connection with the client through his unique pottery pieces that perhaps satisfies him most.

At the end of our conversation, my father-in-law said:

‘I failed, but I learned something. I learned that I can't do it. I would have to change the structure of the kiln and I'm too old and not strong enough to do that now.’

As with our previous conversations in the pottery factory, this was said with matter-of-factness and captured the sense of coherence experienced by a man who has achieved a deep sense of satisfaction from pursuing his ikigai for decades.