Echizen ware, produced in Fukui Prefecture in the Hokuriku region (which also encompasses Kanazawa), has been designated as a traditional Japanese craft by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. This craft has an extensive history dating back 800 years, and is one of the most famous types of Japanese ceramics. Echizen ware does not use any “yuyaku” glaze that is known to create a glassy coating, and instead is known for having patterns created by being fired with straw and ash, a unique technique that continues to this day. Many enthusiasts love its simplistic texture and appearance.
The History of Echizen Ware
Echizen ware (Echizen-Yaki) has a long history. It is a type of ceramic made mainly in the town of Echizen in Fukui Prefecture, located in central mainland Japan on the coast of the Sea of Japan. Echizen ware is known as one of the “Six Ancient Kilns of Japan,” which are six representative “schools” of ceramics (and their production areas) that have existed since before the Kamakura Period (1185 – 1333) up to the present day. Other than Echizen ware, there is the “Bizen ware” from the city of Bizen in Okayama Prefecture, “Seto ware” from the city of Seto in Aichi Prefecture, “Tokoname ware” from the city of Tokoname in Aichi Prefecture, “Shigaraki ware” from the city of Koga in Shiga Prefecture, and “Tamba ware” from the city of Sasayama in Hyogo Prefecture. Echizen ware is characterized by its reddish-brown color and rustic texture, which comes from its rich iron content. Most Echizen ware is produced without the use of any glaze or “yuyaku” in Japanese. This is a glass-like coating on the surface of ceramics that serves to waterproof and add color and a glossy finish to the product. Without the use of any glaze, one of the beautiful characteristics of Echizen ware is the green pattern formed by ash from the firewood melting and fusing onto the surface.
The history of Echizen ware dates back to around 850 years ago. From the end of the Heian Period (794 – 1185), many Echizen ware pots, jars, mortars, sake flasks, and other everyday items were produced. Echizen ware was used to store water, sake, and grains by common people as it was leakproof and very durable. During the Muromachi Period (1336 – 1573), Echizen ware spread throughout Japan, carried by ships sailing from Hokkaido to Shimane, along the coast of the Sea of Japan. The Fukui Prefecture ports of Tsuruga and Mikuni were known as two of Japan’s leading port towns, and it is thanks to the presence of these large ports that Echizen ware was able to spread nationwide. However, in the Meiji Era (1868 – 1912), due to modernization and changes in lifestyles, the demand for Echizen ware pots and jars plummeted. This led to a gradual decline in the popularity of Echizen ware. In response to these changes, the production of tableware such as “tokkuri” (a flask used to serve sake) and tea vessels began. However, this new style of Echizen ware was not very well received, leading to the closure of many kilns. After World War II (1935 – 1945), Echizen ware began to regain its popularity. The historical value of Echizen ware was re-evaluated through a study on ancient kilns conducted by researchers such as Fujio Koyama and Kyuemon Mizuno. Fujio Koyama went on to dub the areas that the aforementioned six types of ceramics (“Bizen ware,” “Seto ware,” “Tokoname ware,” “Shigaraki ware,” “Tamba ware,” and “Echizen ware”) came from as the “Six Ancient Kilns of Japan.” As a result, Echizen ware—previously considered to be items for daily use—came to be known as a traditional Japanese craft.
The Characteristics of Echizen Ware
Echizen ware is characterized by its simple look that is brought out by the fine texture of soil. By using locally-sourced red clay that is rich in iron, the product is fire-resistant and highly durable. Most Echizen ware is produced without the use of glaze or coloring. When baked at a high temperature, ash from the firewood sticks to the clay, melting into the surface and creating a unique finish. Interestingly, Echizen ware is technically classified as a type of stoneware, not pottery or porcelain. Stoneware has properties that place it midway between pottery and porcelain, and it is durable and water-resistant.
One of the distinctive techniques of Echizen ware production is the coil-molding technique known as “nejitate seikei.” First, a layer of clay is formed into the base. Clay is then rolled into long coil-like pieces, which are piled on top of each other around the base layer to form different shapes. In 1986, this distinctive molding technique was registered as an intangible cultural heritage of Fukui under the name “Togei Echizen Ogame Nejitate Seikei”.
Echizen Ware Today
In 1971, the Echizen Pottery Village was built in an effort to make Echizen a hub for regional development and to promote the growth of the Echizen ware industry. As a result, potters from all over the country flocked to the area and the number of pottery workshops increased. Today, many potters continue the techniques and traditions handed down from ancient times, and are working hard to create new pieces. In 1986, Echizen ware officially gained the government’s designation as a traditional Japanese craft. It is possible to enjoy Echizen ware at a variety of locations near the Echizen Pottery Village, including the Fukui Prefectural Museum of Ceramics, the Industrial Technology Center of Fukui Prefecture, and the Echizen Yaki no Yakata (pictured above). The area also has a variety of lodging available, making it a wonderful place to visit for a cultural experience. In addition, a new project in Fukui Prefecture called “RENEW” was organized and launched by the cities of Sabae and Echizen, as well as the town Echizen. The project aims to help create sustainable development in the region by opening seven different craft studios to the public, including Echizen ware. By organizing studio tours and workshops, visitors are able to understand the crafter’s thought processes, see them in action as they work, and even purchase crafts to take home. This example makes it clear that it is really the entire community that is involved in not only passing down the techniques of Echizen ware but also promoting the further development of the craft.
RENEW Website: https://renew-fukui.com/ (Japanese only)
If you want to give feedback on any of our articles, you have an idea that you’d really like to see come to life, or you just have a question on Japan, hit us up on our Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram!
The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.