The Passing of a Great Master
Master Ceramic artist of Asahiyaki
This month we mourn the loss of a great man. Fifteenth generation ceramic master Hosai Matsubayashi has passed away. His son Yusuke informed me a few weeks ago. It is a great loss and I hope that we can all pass our condolences along to his family and honor the legacy he left behind. If you would like to leave a note at the bottom, it would be most kind of you. After one week’s time, I will forward them on to Yusuke and his family.
In 2014, I visited Asahiyaki’s home base in Uji with the Kyoto Workshop participants. When I said this would be a once in a lifetime visit, I don’t think any of us fully understood. Yusuke was away in Singapore, opening a new private bar with some of the members of Japan Handmade. His father was kind enough to welcome the group and spend a good four hours taking us through the history of their family and what it means to make ceramics for over 400 years.
We were ushered into a tatami mat-tea room and served matcha while Hosai explained some of the highlights of the workshop and answered everyone’s questions. The full extent of the conversation might take ten pages of text, but one highlight that stood out was that the clay they use was harvested by Hosai’s great grandfather in the 1800’s. Yes, the clay they are using came from the bed of the Uji river before the Industrial Revolution ever hit Japan. The level of foresight needed to collect enough clay for 6 future generations is mind boggling.
Hosai was the 15th generation of the Matsubayashi clan, Yusuke the 16th generation. They have been making ceramics, specifically for the tea ceremony, almost since its inception by Sen No Rikyu in the 1600’s. It is a rather incomprehensible number, especially when I consider that I don’t own an Apple product that’s lasted ten years. And even more impressive is that the operation has run consistently, without disruption, the entire time. All the while, they have refined, experimented, and expanded the aesthetic we now know as Wabi-Sabi.
But contrary to the impression one might receive from a 400 year old family run operation, Hosai spoke to us at length about his approach to keeping tradition alive. When I asked him about the recent collaborations that his son Yusuke had done for the international markets (Asahiyaki for Japan-Handmade), he said, “It is important for Yusuke to find his own path. I see the DNA of Asahiyaki in all he does…but it must be done in his voice.”
The balance of past, present, and future is not something every craftsman masters. Some fall victim to shrinking markets, family infighting, or the trappings of obscurity. But at Asahiyaki, Hosai continued their work and training so that even in his passing the tradition will continue to thrive.
As a photographer who spends most of his time with master craftsmen, I guess I should not be shocked when one of them passes away. But Hosai is my first loss. He was the first craftsman I knew who slipped from this world to the next. It was a tremendous honor to spend time with him and feel his presence. We often talk about legacy and how tradition passes from one generation to the next, but when it happens…it becomes clear whether a craftsman has really succeeded.
The combination of Hosai’s philosophy, historical awareness, masterful design, and forward thinking attitude certainly insured him a place in history. It is not just what we make, but how and why we make it that matters. I cannot think of a better embodiment than Hosai.
With our greatest respects to the Matsubayashi family and everyone at Asahiyaki.