Title: The Road Through Miyama
Author: Leila Philip
Philip recounts her trip in 1983 to Miyama, at the southern tip of the islands of Japan, where she studied with a master potter. Although she was already a potter and fluent in Japanese, her two-year stay required constant adjustment to a totally different culture, described here with sensitivity and clarity. Apprentice, woman, and foreigner, she was at times put in a subordinate position, at other times free to do what a Japanese woman could not, such as participate in rice planting and harvesting (to the amusement of the Japanese). (from Goodreads- cover from Amazon)
Thoughts: Between 1983-1985, Leila Philip was a pottery apprentice in Miyama, a small village on the south end of the island of Kyushu in southern Japan. Miyama was founded in the beginning of the 17th century, when the local lord went to Korea, kidnapped several potters, and settled them in Miyama for the purpose of producing Korean style pottery for his sole use. Today, the descendants of these Korean potters continue to make their living by crafting pottery and farming. In The Road Through Miyama, Philip relates her unique experience of living and working in a small traditional Japanese pottery village.
This is a very quiet, very meditative, and very beautiful book. Although I know nothing about pottery unlike (unlike two of my sisters who have dabbled in it, and my aunt who at one time wanted to be a professional potter) this book was a pleasure to read. Philip did not go into too technical detail about the process of creating pottery, instead, she focused more on the feeling behind her apprenticeship: her frustrations in struggling to shape correct forms, her mistakes and disagreements with her teacher, and her successes, as she moved from fashioning teacups, to rice bowels, to small plates, to small flower vases.
As much as this book focuses on her work in the studio, just as much, if not more, space is given to her interactions with Miyama’s villagers. She helps the old women of the village plant and harvest rice, she attends a traditional tea ceremony and the monthly shrine services, she shadows a master pottery carver and painter, and, in her daily walks around the village, she describes the bamboo thickets, the paths through the hills made out of centuries of discarded black pottery, the grey ash falling from the nearby volcano Sakurajima, and now disused crumbling communal pottery kilns and the abandoned traditional Korean graveyard.
Philip weaves into her experiences discussions about the history of the village and Japan, and life in the ‘modern’ Japan of the early 1980s. Talking to an elderly village man about his life during and after the war, she explains the hard times the village faced in the 1950s and its blossoming under the ‘craft boom’ of the 1960s. When attending a tea ceremony and the village shrine services, she talks of the extreme importance tea has in Japanese culture and of the traditional Korean religious services that were held in the village up til the mid-1960s. She thus not only opens the life and history of Miyama to us, but the whole of Japan as well.
I can’t explain how much I enjoyed reading this book and visiting Miyama as it was in the early 80s. I originally became aware of this book through the book 500 Great Books by Woman and the list I compiled from it of books that I wanted to read. I was very impressed by her quiet attention to detail her skill in narration, where she shifts from describing a particular scene to historical cultural background, other related events that she experienced, and jumping back to the present day seamlessly. Not knowing, or even particularly caring, about pottery in no way dampened my enjoyment of this book. I was somewhat disappointed that since this book Philip has written only one other- A Family Place: A Hudson Valley Farm, Three Centuries, Five Wars, One Family where she talks about her parents apple farm and the difficulties her family encounters after her father’s death-which, although I will most definitely read, I still want to read so much more by her!
The Road Through Miyama is a wonderful and evocative portrait of an apprenticeship, an art, a village, and a nation. A few years from now I can see myself most happily rereading this- I may even buy a copy! Most highly recommended!