Reading the Air: Haniwa soul pots



We don’t walk very often. Your weak leg injured in a serious traffic accident almost 20 years ago, doesn’t allow you to enjoy walking. You say it’s not that it’s painful, but simply that it’s extremely tiring to limp, even a little. So, when we do walk, it is a sacred act.  The walking place needs to be conveniently placed, with parking, so that as little effort as possible is expended. How fortunate then that the most magical and convenient place to walk is nearby.

I have always marvelled at the surprising arrangement of the land around this area called Abu-Yama, Abu mountain. There is no longer a mountain, but among the neat housing developments built in stark white mediterranean style instead of the usual concrete beige, there are islets of land fenced off and always tightly planted with bamboo trees. Around them a ring of water is deliberate, almost architectural.

The easy walking place is a huge island with a wide and deep moat all around it. The island is veiled by bamboo clumps, their straightness is like green pencils issued to represent the wild.  We walk around the island and its moat on a wide grassy pathway lined with tall clay pots; they drive us on round and round without a starting or ending point. Always the island is over our shoulder as we stroll and breathe. Few words are needed or desired because the atmosphere is solemn, and the serried pots somehow hush us.

I could be intellectually curious, desperate for an explanation of this place, but my mind is silent, cordoned off by chains and dust. I refuse to ‘know’ this place, categorise it, to rank it and file it away, because I am certain that it was not meant to be a fragment tossed into my collection of similar shards picked up on the beaches of experience.

We walk on under the shade of chestnuts, you with difficulty and me out of the dream of knowledge. The sentinel pots, not different from my own lobes of flesh, are whistling as the afternoon breeze plays over their various holes: large openings, small openings like pig’s nostrils, soldier’s buttonholes, the chimney of a house. The spirits passing in and out of these smooth ports, blend with ours. They are protected and conveyed by terra cotta within the island domain into which we are not allowed.

I feel this royal island is very important in my skin as it bubbles and behind my eyes as I Intuit. I have heard that Emperors are divine but I know nothing of them, unlike Kings and Queens. But I feel them this walking day, buried in deep tombs on islands in the suburbs, flanked by their soul pots.

I do not experience them, rendering them dead and incarcerated, and I certainly do not know them using the grinding tool of thought to erode. Instead, I become them, and still do when I want to. I am emperor and clay soul pot, so experience and thought are redundant, just cheap tricks.

My bright awareness of your emperors and their tombs walks effortlessly by your side this day. We do not talk, just whistle and pass through the soul holes of the pots and nobility of these archipelagos. Our heels go newly down into the earth with each step, our souls roll with novelty towards the toes of the heavens. We will not make fossils of this sacred place with our petty acquisitive minds.


Nearby where I live in Kansai, in the west of the main island Honshu, Japan, there are many preserved Emperors tombs. During the 4th to 7th centuries, when Nara was the capital city of all Japan, and the seat of the imperial family, there were many emperors reigning in this area. Thus there are many collections of Haniwa, unglazed terra cotta cylinders and hollow sculptures that decorated the surface of the great mounded tombs (kofun). Haniwa sculptures could be as tall as 1.5 metres tall, and were made in a variety of forms: houses, human figures, animals, and a variety of military, ceremonial and household objects. But the basic common shape was the simple cylinder, averaging 40-50 centimetres in diameter and 1 metre high. The word Haniwa means clay ring. They were used to surround the tomb, standing in long lines, and each one had several holes made in their structure to allow the spirits to move through them. 

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