Hagi Ware Guide: Japanese Ceramics (Pottery)

Hagi ware
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Designated as a traditional Japanese craft by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, Hagi ware is mainly produced in Yamaguchi, the westernmost prefecture of Honshu, Japan’s main island. The most well-known characteristic of this simple pottery style are the tiny cracks on the surface called “kannyu,” the result of the difference in the rate of shrinkage between the “yuyaku” glass coating and coarse clay after baking. Hagi pottery has long been used to make tea sets because the more you use it, the more liquid seeps into the kannyu cracks, changing a piece’s color over time. This quality has earned the craft many fans as it slowly transforms each Hagi ware into a one-of-a-kind piece.

The History of Hagi Ware

The origins of Hagi ware (Hagi-Yaki) are somewhat complex.

After the Battle of Sekigahara (1600), the feudal lord Terumoto Mori moved his stronghold from Aki (in modern-day Hiroshima Prefecture) to Hagi (modern-day Hagi City, Yamaguchi Prefecture). Then in 1604, Mori established the Hagi Domain’s “goyogama” kiln with Korean craftsmen brothers Shakukou Lee and Kei Lee at its helm. A “goyogama” is an official kiln, under the protection of a feudal domain, that is established for the purpose of creating gifts for the feudal lord and shogun. The techniques brought to the kiln by the two brothers are considered to be the beginning of Hagi ware.

During the Edo Period (1603 – 1868, the era in which the Tokugawa shogunate ruled the entirety of Japan from Edo (modern-day Tokyo)), Hagi ware was mainly created for the daily use of the local feudal lord or as gifts for the Tokugawa shogunate. Only select nobles could use Hagi ware, and common people did not have access to it.

Hagi ware tea utensils have long had a strong reputation, particularly the “chawan” (small bowls traditionally used for drinking tea), and local feudal lords and shogun are said to have used Hagi ware chawan in their tea ceremonies.

Up until the formation of the Meiji Government through the revolution known as the Meiji Restoration (1853 – 1867), the “goyogama” kiln operated under the protection of the local feudal lord. It was then privatized in the Meiji Period, causing a business dilemma for the kiln. Since then, due to changing lifestyles and economic depression, Japan saw a decrease in demand for traditional handicrafts. In response to this, the production of Hagi ware for daily use began, including items such as teacups and bowls, instead of just traditional tea ware.

During the Pacific War (1941 – 1945), the number of craftsmen working as individual artists began slowly increasing, and in 1957, Hagi ware was recognized as an Intangible Cultural Asset of Yamaguchi Prefecture. In 1970, Miwa Kyusetsu X was recognized as a Living National Treasure, followed by Miwa Kyusetsu XI in 1983. Through the actions of these masters, the artistic value of Hagi ware continues to be appreciated and thus the culture is preserved.

The Characteristics of Hagi Ware

The characteristic trait of Hagi ware is its subdued appearance that makes use of the texture of the clay and fine cracked patterns known as “kannyu” (crazing). Kannyu refers to tiny cracks that form on the surface during firing due to the different rates of contraction of the coarse clay and the pottery glaze. Through extended use, tea or sake penetrates the tiny surface cracks and the color of the glaze will gradually change. This phenomenon is known as “Hagi nanabake” and is praised throughout the world.

The secret of Hagi ware’s popularity is that its appearance changes the more you use it, making each vessel a one-of-a-kind piece.

Rather than from added decoration, the charm of Hagi ware’s appearance comes from the mixture of clays used and the way the glaze is applied, making each piece look as though it were created accidentally. For this reason, specialty clays such as “Mishima,” “Mitake,” and “Daido” are used to produce the texture of the clay.

You will often see a notch cut into the bottom of Hagi ware tea bowls or other pots. This is something known as “kirikodai” (cutting foot). The “kodai” or “foot” is the ridge that skirts the base of the vessel. It stabilizes the vessel to prevent it from falling over, and also allows someone to hold the hot bowl without burning their hands.

There are various theories about the notch in the foot, but it is commonly said that this began as a way to circumvent the rule against common people using Hagi ware. The Hagi ware was damaged by deliberately making a cut so that it could be sold to common people. This technique of cutting a notch into the foot is not exclusive to Hagi ware, however, and you may also see pieces without the notch in them.

Hagi Ware Today

There was an increased interest in the Japanese tea ceremony and a heightened demand for ceramics during Japan’s post-war economic boom (1954 – 1970). In 2002, Hagi ware was officially designated as a traditional Japanese craft by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

Modern-day Hagi ware is not limited to traditional tea ware. An extensive range of pieces are produced, such as small teapots like the one pictured above, cups, and plates. As they can be purchased inexpensively, they are highly popular as daily-use items.

There are also now innovative projects underway, such as the development of sake drinking vessels in cooperation with sake breweries and collaborations with Instagrammers.

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

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