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The timeless art of "wa" (和): 4 must-visit pottery towns in Japan

The timeless art of

Pottery stands as one of Japan’s most esteemed art forms and among its oldest cultural traditions, dating back over 10,000 years to the Jomon Period. A timeless craft, it permeates all facets of Japanese culture and daily life, from tea ceremonies to flower arrangements. 


One of Japan’s oldest cultural traditions fusing art and heritage, pottery embodies the Japanese concept of beauty in imperfections. (Image credit: Adobe Stock)


What captivates admirers of Japanese pottery all over the world is the allure of imperfections inherent in each handcrafted piece, epitomising a refined and natural beauty—a manifestation of the Japanese aesthetic principle of wabi-sabi (わびさび). Beyond its utilitarian function as tableware, Japanese pottery embodies artistry and spirituality, remaining an integral aspect of daily existence.


"The Six Ancient Kilns of Japan" (日本六古窯)

Climbing kilns in Shigaraki, home to one of The Six Ancient Kilns of Japan. (Image credit: Adobe Stock)


While pottery production takes place in various locations across the nation, there are six renowned areas collectively referred to as “The Six Ancient Kilns of Japan” (日本六古窯). 


These towns—Echizen (越前), Seto (瀬戸), Tokoname (常滑), Shigaraki (信楽), Tanba (丹波), and Bizen (備前)—have been crafting pottery since medieval times, preserving culturally-rich and distinctive techniques. Unlike pottery traditions influenced by techniques from mainland China and Korea, these regions represent pure Japanese pottery production.


The culmination of time has resulted in as many as 50 pottery towns in Japan boasting unique styles and techniques, distinguishing them from one another and contributing to Japan's diverse pottery heritage.


Let's explore some of the top pottery towns renowned for producing some of Japan's esteemed cultural treasures!


1. Arita-yaki from Arita, Saga Prefecture

Arita-yaki is reminiscent of Chinese porcelain. (Image credit: Adobe Stock) 


Arita-yaki (有田焼), one of Japan's renowned ceramic styles, originates from the area surrounding Arita Town (有田町) in Saga Prefecture (佐賀県). It gained prominence as the birthplace of Japanese porcelain following the discovery of kaolin, an essential clay component, in a nearby quarry during the early 17th century. This emergence coincided with a decline in Chinese porcelain exports, prompting the production of Arita-yaki


Characterised by its painted designs, early Arita-yaki predominantly showcased the contrast of cobalt blue against the elegant white porcelain surface, imparting an oriental aesthetic reminiscent of Chinese porcelain. However, as the Edo Period (1603–1868) progressed, Arita-yaki evolved to include vibrant hues like red, gold, and yellow in its designs. 


Also known as Imari-yaki (伊万里焼), porcelain fired in the Arita region was exported from the vicinity of the Imari River (伊万里川) estuary during the Edo Period, contributing to the development of a local pottery industry and the widespread adoption of the name ‘Imari-yaki’. It was also during this era that Arita-yaki was exported, primarily to European countries, where these vibrant products gained global acclaim at the World Expo.


Vibrant hues of yellow, red and gold were later incorporated into Arita-yaki pieces made during the Edo Period. (Image credit: Adobe Stock)


From the 18th century onward, Arita-yaki surged in popularity among the Japanese populace, finding widespread use in everyday life, notably as tableware. Crafted from porcelain, Arita-yaki proved to be more resilient than ceramicware fashioned from alternative materials. In contemporary times, Arita-yaki pieces from the Edo Period are labeled "Ko-Imari" (古伊万里) or "Old Imari" to distinguish them from modern versions.


Renowned for its smooth texture, exquisite white porcelain, and vibrant decoration, Arita-yaki continues to be cherished for its practicality in daily use and exceptional durability, appealing not only as household essentials but also coveted as collector's items worldwide.


2. Kutani-yaki from Kaga, Ishikawa Prefecture

Home to one of Japan’s most highly regarded national treasures, Ishikawa Prefecture boasts the elegantly and intricately designed Kutani-yaki. (Image credit: photoAC)


Kutani-yaki (九谷焼), distinguished by its vibrant colours and creative patterns, stands as one of Ishikawa Prefecture (石川県)’s emblematic crafts. Its origins lie in the small village of Kutani (九谷) in Kaga Province (present day Ishikawa Prefecture), dating back to the Edo Period when porcelain clay was initially unearthed.


The initial production of Kutani-yaki began in 1655 when Toshiharu Maeda (前田利春), the feudal lord of the Daishoji Domain (大聖寺藩), now Kaga City (加賀市), introduced ceramic techniques from Arita to the region. While the production was short-lived, it experienced a revival with the proliferation of kilns across the area, leading to its widespread popularity. 


During the Meiji Period (1868–1912), Kutani-yaki witnessed increased exportation as a trade commodity. Its international debut occurred in 1873 at the Vienna World Expo, propelling this exquisite art form to global acclaim. As Kutani-yaki grew popular in Europe, Japanese artisans came to embrace Western painting and glazing techniques to cater to the Western market, resulting in contemporary Kutani-yaki designs bearing striking resemblance to the tableware found in noble European homes.


A highly complex method is used to glaze the Kutani-yaki, allowing the distinctive colours to achieve a delicate balance, achieving a seemingly 3D-design, a trademark of the craft. (Image credit: Adobe Stock)


Kutani-yaki is distinguished by its use of both underglazing and overglazing painting methods, as well as its sophisticated and lively colour palette. The term uwaetsuke (上絵付け) denotes the process of applying colour and ornamentation to porcelain that has already undergone firing, followed by another round of firing in the kiln. This technique results in the pigments melting and fusing with the surface, creating a translucent texture in the clay. 


Renowned for its ornate designs, Kutani-yaki employs various techniques to achieve its distinctive aesthetic. These include aote (青手), characterised by the absence of red and the prominent use of green, yellow, dark blue, and purple tones; iroe (色絵), a painting technique incorporating all five colours—red, yellow, green, purple, and navy blue, collectively known as Kutani Gosai (九谷五彩); and akae (赤絵), which highlights the colour red. 


Boasting the prestigious title of "The King of Overglaze Porcelain", Kutani-yaki employs specialised techniques that contribute to its esteemed status as a highly regarded and protected craft. With its vibrant colours, intricate details, and seemingly three-dimensional decorations, this esteemed art form transcends its utilitarian function as everyday tableware, serving also as exquisite ornaments for special occasions, a testament to the high artistic value it holds.


3. Bizen-yaki from Bizen, Okayama Prefecture

Beloved for its reddish-brown rustic appearance, the Bizen-yaki is celebrated as one of the oldest forms of pottery in Japan. (Image credit: photoAC)


Renowned as one of Japan's Six Ancient Kilns, the area of Bizen (備前) is celebrated for its ancient pottery tradition, Bizen-yaki (備前焼), which roots can be traced back to the Heian Period (794–1185). Initially influenced by the manufacturing methods of Sue pottery (須恵器), an earthenware imported from the Korean Peninsula and utilised for everyday purposes, Bizen-yaki flourished into a quintessential Japanese craft, buoyed by Okayama's favourable climate and the exceptional quality of its hiyose (ひよせ) clay.


An inherent characteristic of Bizen-yaki is its absence of glaze, imbuing it with the earthy warmth of clay and a rustic simplicity distinct from other Japanese clayware styles. Its renowned reddish-brown hue derives from the application of hiyose clay sourced from the Inbe (伊部) region, fired at exceptionally high temperatures. Due to this unglazed nature, Bizen-yaki undergoes a prolonged weathering process lasting years before it becomes usable, emphasising the importance of employing top-quality clay capable of withstanding intense firing conditions.


The very embodiment of wabi-sabi, Bizen-yaki is appreciated with all its imperfections including the unevenly coloured and even concave surfaces, each unique in its own way. (Image credit: photoAC)


Throughout the firing process, pine tree ash within the kiln adheres to the clay, naturally enhancing its surface with a subtle glaze. Hence, each piece's final appearance remains unpredictable, rendering the creation of identical pieces impossible. This distinctive trait is thus a testament to Bizen-yaki’s ability to embody the very essence of "the art of earth and flame".


Although the rough surfaces of Bizen-yaki may appear simplistic to those unfamiliar with the craft, its value lies precisely in the exquisite nuances that lend it a natural and distinguished charm. Revered by Sen no Rikyu (千利休), the renowned tea ceremony master of the 16th century, for its embodiment of wabi-sabi aesthetics, Bizen-yaki embodies a fundamental aspect of Japanese sensibility: the appreciation of the fleeting beauty of imperfection inherent in all things.


4. Mashiko-yaki from Mashiko, Tochigi Prefecture


Made using pure clay without additional ingredients, the Mashiko-yaki displays a rustic and robust quality. (Image credit: Adobe Stock)


Nestled in Tochigi Prefecture (栃木県), Mashiko Town (益子町) is renowned for its vibrant Mashiko-yaki (益子焼), one of the youngest forms of ceramics with roots tracing back to the late Edo Period. Alongside Kasama-yaki (笠間焼), it stands as a quintessential ceramic art form of the Kanto Region (関東).


The production of Mashiko-yaki dates to the Edo Period when Keisaburo Otsuka (大塚啓三郎), a ceramist trained in Kasama-yaki, relocated to Mashiko in 1853, marking the beginning of its rich history. Drawing from his expertise gained in Ibaraki Prefecture (茨城県), Otsuka crafted pieces using a pure clay rich in silicic acid and iron, known for its pliability and high resistance to fire. Using clay without additional ingredients, the results were pieces that displayed robust, rustic, and a warm tactile quality.


Artisans are allowed to have limitless creative control over the designs of Mashiko-yaki pottery. (Image credit: photoAC)


The characteristic sandy texture of Mashiko-yaki, attributed to its high concentration of sand particles and the clay's low adhesiveness, restricts the creation of intricate details, thus often resulting in thick, rounded pottery. However, its glazing process, employing a blend of stone and scrap iron powder, enables artisans a surface to showcase their creativity by utilising traditional techniques like white slip and brush marks. 


Designated as a National Traditional Craft in 1979, Mashiko-yaki maintains its allure as functional ware, showcasing a soft and rustic luster stemming from the harmonious fusion of its unique regional clay and glazing methods.


Preserving the art of 和, one pottery piece at a time

Japan’s pottery remains as timeless pieces that tell the stories of places and times long gone, while binding the hearts of individuals together to a common identity. (Image credit: photoAC)


Transcending its practical utility to become a testament to artistic excellence and the enduring legacy of craftsmanship, Japanese pottery embodies a timeless elegance that bears the marks of its maker and the passage of time. Whether gracing the tables of fine dining establishments or adorning the shelves of collectors, Japanese pottery remains a cherished symbol of beauty, authenticity, and the enduring spirit of creation.


Header image credit: Adobe Stock


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