Stoking an ancient flame: Ceramics intensive in Tamba

Japanese ceramics photo

In light of the ongoing global COVID-19 crisis and worldwide travel restrictions, which are expected to remain in place for an indefinite period of time, Stanford University is suspending all BOSP Summer Quarter 2019-20 programs (see full announcement).


Please Note:

In making selection decisions for this seminar, priority will be given to students that have been accepted for the BOSP Autumn Quarter 2020-21 Kyoto program. Applications for the Kyoto program are currently open and are due on January 26, 2020. Please visit BOSP’s application portal to apply.

Seminar Quick Facts

Location: Tamba, Japan

Faculty Leader: Hideo Mabuchi, Applied Physics

Arrival date in Osaka, JapanAugust 26, 2020

Departure date from Osaka, Japan: September 18, 2020

Information Session: January 6 (4pm - 5pm) in Shriram Center for Bioengineering and Chemical Engineering room 262

Program Cost: $600 program fee. Fee covers room and board, transportation and course activities during the program. Fee excludes airfare to/from the program location. Financial assistance towards the program fee and cost of travel may be available. Please visit the Overseas Seminar Overview webpage for complete information.

Academic Prerequisites 

Additional Program Requirements
1) Ground Rules - In order to optimize safety during the program, students will be required to agree to and sign Ground Rules that may restrict behavior throughout the program. These Ground Rules are in addition to the BOSP Participation and Assumption of Risk, Release of Claims, Indemnification and Hold Harmless Agreement that all students sign and agree to at the time of program application. Students’ parents/families will also need to sign these Ground Rules to confirm that they acknowledge the specific dangers of travel to the program location.

Activity Level
For a full list of program activity levels refer to the Overview page. 

Moderate: Participants should expect to spend multiple hours each day engaging in physical activity such as hiking or snorkeling. For a full list of program activity levels refer to the Overview page.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention: Health Information for Travelers to Japan

US State Department Country Information: Japan

Visa Information: Consulate General of Japan

General Information: Visit the Overseas Seminars Overview page

Application Deadline: January 26, 2020 at 11:59pm (applications will open in December 2019). Please visit BOSP's Application Process page for more information.

Questions? Schedule an appointment with a BOSP staff member.

General Description

The Tamba region near Kyoto, Japan, has been a center of pottery production for over eight centuries.  In many ways, medieval stoneware pottery of Tamba and Japan’s other “six ancient kilns” can be seen as forebears of what we now know as the wabi-sabi aesthetic of Japanese tea culture.  Today, surviving heirloom pieces such as jars (tsubo) and flower vessels (hanaire) serve as inspirational archetypes for surging international interest in the revival of styles and methods of traditional Japanese wood-fired ceramics (yakishime).  In this Bing Overseas Seminar, Stanford students will travel to Tamba to undertake an intensive introduction to forming and firing clay.  Lectures, discussions and studio demos will build a broad view of traditional aesthetic elements of yakishime, but at the same time, students will be encouraged to explore a modern individualistic approach to creative process to help them develop their own expressive forms.  The seminar culminates in a traditional wood firing reaching kiln temperatures in excess of 2300F, which is a process that one must experience first-hand to viscerally comprehend.  A final critique of student work will probe the complex interplay of natural materials, creative vision, manual skills and serendipity in this most ancient yet vital paragon of the arts of fire.

Students will:

  • explore traditional methods for forming clay by hand and with a potter’s wheel
  • develop a basic understanding of materiality as an aesthetic consideration in ceramic art
  • experiment with approaches to creative process that embrace serendipity
  • learn some of the history of Japanese pottery in its cultural and artistic contexts
  • seek meaning in the practice of ancient ways of making


Tamba lies in central Hyogo Prefecture, about an hour’s drive from historic Kyoto or from the major urban centers of Kobe and Osaka.  A traditional pottery village in Tamba was profiled in a widely-read and influential book written in 1970 by American potter (and one-time Stanford faculty member) Daniel Rhodes.  Largely as a result, Tamba melds together with nearby Bizen and Shigaraki in the minds of many western potters to represent a sort of semi-mythical motherland of traditional wood-fired ceramics.  Ceramists across the world dream of making pilgrimages there to seek some sort of personal connection with their art’s ancient origins.  But we cannot actually travel back in time—Tamba today remains somewhat rural but Hyogo Prefecture has generally rocketed along with the rest of Japan as part of the globalized post-agrarian 21st century.  Rhodes wrote that “the feeling which had informed the old Tamba potter is a thing forever lost”, extinguished with the passing of a traditional rural way of life in which famers expediently made utilitarian pots in what precious little spare time they had, with what meager materials they were fortunate to glean from the hillsides around their villages.  As can be the case when visiting many historic centers of contemporary Japan, we may find ourselves asking, where are the old roots and how can one graft onto them?  Our search will be based first and foremost in the studio, where we will work to hone our sensitivities to material and process in a way that brings to life the aesthetics for which traditional Japanese wood-fired ceramics are so renowned.

Living and Travel Conditions

Students will stay in double rooms in a hotel in Tanba-Sasayama, Japan for the duration of instruction (transit lodging in Kyoto may be arranged as necessary to facilitate arrivals and departures from Osaka).  Transfers to/from Tanba-Sasayama will be by bus, and daily travel within the Tanba-Sasayama area will be by bus/van.  We will have boxed/catered lunches at the studio most days, and a mix of catered studio dinners and dinners at local restaurants.


Hideo Mabuchi (Professor of Applied Physics) received an AB in Physics from Princeton and a PhD in Physics from Caltech.  His early scientific research was focused on understanding open quantum systems, quantum measurement, and the quantum-to-classical transition.  In recent years his research group has turned towards fundamental issues of quantum engineering, such as quantum nonlinear dynamics, quantum feedback control, quantum model reduction, and quantum information science.  In parallel with such work, Mabuchi has developed a deep personal interest in exploring the interface of modern science and traditional craft, and in novel teaching initiatives to help resurrect the ideals of liberal education in the modern university.  He is exploring relationships among materials science, materiality, and material agency.  As a maker, his studio practice focuses mainly on thrown-and-altered stoneware vessels for atmospheric firings (ceramics), and weaving.

Prerequisites and Expectations

This summer seminar has no prerequisites—students with any level of prior exposure to ceramics are welcome (including no prior experience); activities will be adjusted on an individual basis to suit each student’s level of studio expertise.  Students will be expected to devote themselves to an immersive learning experience in wood-fired ceramics, including studio techniques, creative process, and aesthetic/historical/cultural contexts. We will work together through full days, most days of the week.

Application Process

Decisions will be based on application materials. There are no interviews. The seminar capacity is 10 students.

Grading Basis

This course is offered for a letter grade only.  Students will be graded according to timely completion of all studio and homework assignments, earnest effort invested in executing assignments with care and creativity, and willingness to learn-by-failing and to explore outside their comfort zones.

Passport and Visa

Students are solely responsible for obtaining their passport and visa (if applicable). Every BOSP participant MUST have a signed passport that is valid for at least 6 months after the scheduled RETURN date from the overseas program. Students who do not have a valid passport must apply for a new or renewed passport immediately. For information on obtaining or renewing a U.S. passport please visit the State Department website.

To determine whether a visa is necessary for your program, visit the Consulate General of Japan. You may also consult with the recommended visa service providers listed below.

VisaCentral by CIBT
VisaCentral by CIBT offers online Stanford rates, or contact the local office:

In person: 555 Montgomery St. Suite 700, San Francisco, CA 94111
Walk-in hours: 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
By phone: (877) 535-0688

Health and Safety

Students on international programs should be aware that attitudes toward medical conditions, disabilities, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression and psychological conditions vary by culture and under the laws of the host countries. These differences impact the level of treatment and accommodation available abroad. Students should give serious consideration to their health and personal circumstances when accepting a place in a program and should consult with their clinician.

While the benefits of international travel can be enormous, it is often associated with certain health and safety risks. Thankfully, a number of interventions exist to mitigate these risks including vaccines, use of certain medications, and specific behavior changes. Health concerns vary by the particular destination, time of year, the health of the individual, type of accommodations, length of stay and specific activities. Participants should be up to date on all their regular immunizations, check the CDC website for vaccinations and immunizations. In addition, specific travel vaccines such as typhoid, yellow fever, or rabies vaccines may be indicated. Various types of medication may also be needed to prevent life-threatening malaria or altitude illness; or to treat traveler’s diarrhea. Finally, students should learn and utilize insect precautions, food and water precautions, and general safety precautions. These can prevent illnesses such as dengue fever, schistosomiasis, HIV; or accidents such as those involving motor vehicles. In spite of all the precautions, occasionally students do become ill or sustain an injury while traveling. Thankfully, most of these are minor. However, it is critical that students have a clear plan of care in case of an emergency on their trip. The travel clinic at the Vaden Health Center has produced an online travel health module that provides comprehensive strategies to help you stay safe and healthy while traveling.

Students must review the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for complete information regarding the health concerns and vaccine recommendations specific to Japan. Students must also discuss with the on-campus Vaden Health Center Travel Clinic or a travel health specialist about the best ways to protect their health.

Students must review the U. S. State Department’s Country Information for complete information on safety and security in Japan.

As with any foreign travel, students are advised to be alert to their surroundings, and be particularly aware of any health and safety advisories for the area in which they will be visiting. Students should consult with their health care provider(s) to be prepared for potential illness. Additional issues of personal health and safety and precautions will be discussed in detail during the mandatory pre-seminar preparation and upon arriving in the country.

If you are uncomfortable traveling under such conditions, you should not apply to this seminar.

Program Modification and Cancelation

Stanford reserves the right to cancel or modify the Program before or during its operation for any reason, including natural disasters, emergencies, low enrollment, unavailability of facilities or personnel, or compliance with the University travel policy at