Bizen Ware Guide: Japanese Ceramics (Pottery)

Bizen ware, created in Okayama Prefecture in western Japan’s Chugoku region, has been designated as a traditional Japanese craft by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. It has a history that dates back 1,000 years, and is widely used in Japanese tea ceremonies due to its association with the Japanese “wabi-sabi” aesthetic. It does not use any yuyaku glaze to create a glass coating. Interestingly, it has many different appearances, even if several are being fired in the same kiln, depending on the way the ash layers on the wares. As it is fired at an extremely high temperature, it is known for being quite sturdy.

The History of Bizen Ware

Bizen ware, known as “Bizen-Yaki” in Japanese, originated in Okayama Prefecture in the Chugoku region, which lies in the western part of mainland Japan. It was created around 794 during the Heian Period. This so-called “pottery with a 1,000-year-old history” has been beloved throughout Japan for centuries. Its ancestor is an earlier form of earthenware called “Sue pottery,” which were used by people of the past as everyday utensils. Bizen ware came into existence thanks to Okayama’s mild climate and its natural resources, including the local, high-quality clay and red pines used in their kilns.

Bizen ware dishes with concave surfaces have been produced since the Kamakura Period, which began in 1185. As time went on, the discovery of new kinds of clay as well as the spread of the potter’s wheel made it possible to mass-produce Bizen ware. Around 1573, at the end of the Muromachi Period, Bizen ware utensils became especially prized by masters of the tea ceremony. Over the years, many kilns were constructed in different areas, leading to fierce competition. Thankfully, potters continued to pass their techniques down to the next generation, allowing this ancient Japanese craft to survive to this day.

Eventually, the craft started being safeguarded by the country, but the person who most contributed to its prosperity was the potter Toyo Kaneshige. For his efforts, in 1956, he was named a Holder of an Important Intangible Cultural Property (i.e. a Living National Treasure). With this designation, the popularity of Bizen ware spread not just in Japan but also around the world, giving birth to other Living National Treasure artisans such as Kei Fujiwara or Toshu Yamamoto.

The Characteristics of Bizen Ware

People love Bizen ware for its distinct reddish-brown color, which it gets thanks to the precious hiyose clay found in the Inbe region. Bizen ware is fired without glaze and isn’t painted afterwards to bring out its natural, warm earthen features.

There are four kinds of Bizen ware. There is the dark grey “yohen,” the “goma” (lit. “sesame seeds”) characterized by sesame seed-like sprinkles in its finish, the “sangiri” which uses copious amounts of charcoal, and the “hidasuki” which is characterized by patterns achieved by firing the pottery while wrapped with straw or string. The exact patterns on Bizen ware will differ depending on the firing or contact with the ash, so even items in the same form never come out exactly the same, which is part of their charm.

Bizen ware tenpo kiln

Bizen ware is fired in all sorts of kilns, from classic cellar kilns to modern electric kilns and also traditional “ascending kilns.” An ascending kiln is a large furnace built on a spacious, sloped area. Using this difference of elevation, multiple chambers are built atop each other, and dishes can be fired differently by placing them in different chambers. When using this type of kiln, potters must be careful about where to place each dish to fire it correctly. Firings happen only a few times a year, producing a limited number of products.

Bizen ware is incredibly durable. It’s said that being fired at extremely high temperatures makes this pottery impossible to crack, even if you throw it. Indeed, much like Echizen ware which was developed later, Bizen ware is technically earthenware, with properties between pottery and porcelain.

Another characteristic of Bizen ware is its irregular surface. The porous surface allows you to enjoy the fine texture of individual beer bubbles and makes drinks taste smoother. Bizen ware is also air-permeable, so it can be used as a flower vase. As you can see, Bizen ware is both beautiful and functional, which is why households have long used it for all kinds of purposes.。

Bizen Ware Today

Japan’s oldest, most noteworthy “schools” of ceramics which have survived from the Middle Ages through to the modern day are referred to as the “Six Ancient Kilns.” They were designated as Japan Heritage in 2017, and Bizen is of course one of them. Many modern furnaces today keep its history alive.

If you visit Okayama, you’ll of course be able to buy Bizen ware tableware or vases, and there are also numerous restaurants that serve food in Bizen ware dishes. The prefecture naturally has museums and galleries, but you should also directly visit a kiln if you ever get the chance.

Old Bizen ware goldfish and tortoises

Bizen ware can come in all sizes and shapes and serve all sorts of functions. Bizen ware craftsmen go far beyond the traditional items and make various ornaments that express their individuality. But, as mentioned before, while they’re certainly beautiful and decorative, the real charm of Bizen ware is its functionality. They need to be used to be fully appreciated, and thanks to their durability, they will stay with you for a long time. And the more you use them, the more their surface irregularities will be worn down, causing the utensils to fit perfectly into your hand. So, please enjoy the simple beauty of this Japanese craft with both your eyes and your hands.

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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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