Karatsu wares are a traditional Japanese craft designated so by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. They’re produced in Saga Prefecture in northern Kyushu, and boast a history over 400 years old. Karatsu pottery is well known for its many decorations and yuyaku (glazing) techniques, and for being frequently used in Japanese tea ceremony. Karatsu wares come in all sorts and varieties, from the “muji-karatsu” style featuring a plain base with only a single type of glazing applied, to brilliantly colorful “akae” and “uwae” varieties.
The History of Karatsu Ware
Karatsu ware (Karatsu-Yaki) is a type of Japanese ceramic predominantly produced in Karatsu, Saga Prefecture in the northern part of Kyushu. Made with coarse clay, it has a simple and warm appearance, and is known for the numerous ways it can be decorated. It has long been acknowledged as part of the proverb that goes “ichi-Raku, ni-Hagi, san-Karatsu,” (one: Raku, Two: Hagi, Three: Karatsu), a ranking of the types of Japanese tea bowls used for “sado” (the Japanese tea ceremony which pursues the traditional Japanese aesthetic of wabi sabi). The proverb thus places Karatsu in third place after Raku ware from Kyoto and Hagi ware from Yamaguchi. Karatsu ware was used not only for tea bowls, but also for everyday utensils as well, and spread to prefectures in western Japan such as Osaka and Kyoto via Karatsu Port, becoming beloved among the common people. This is why “karatsu-mono” (Karatsu pieces) has become synonymous with ceramics in Western Japan.
There are many origin stories for Karatsu ware, including that Korean artisans were brought back to Japan from the Korean Peninsula after the Imjin War (1592 – 1598), when Toyotomi Hideyoshi invaded Korea twice. However, it was recently discovered that Sen no Rikyu (the founder of “wabicha,” which led to the modern tea ceremony), who passed away 1591, owned Karatsu ware tea bowls, which means that it is highly likely that Karatsu ware was already being produced by around 1580, before the Imjin War.
Karatsu ware originated from the Kitahata district in Karatsu, Saga Prefecture, at the foot of Mt. Kishidake. Mt. Kishidake was also the location of Kishidake Castle, home of the Hata Clan, a family of warriors that was active in the Hizen Matsuura area (modern-day Saga and Nagasaki Prefectures) from the end of the Heian Period (794 – 1185). In the 1580s, the Hata Clan set up kilns and brought over artisans from Korea and China who then made Karatsu ware.
In the beginning, Karatsu ware was mainly used for everyday tableware and was beloved by the warrior class. When cha-no-yu (Japanese tea ceremonies) grew in popularity, the warm appearance and simplicity given off by Karatsu ware clay was highly regarded amongst practitioners, and Karatsu ware started to be used as cha-no-yu vessels.
In the Edo Period, the Nabeshima Clan took power from the Hata Clan. The Nabeshima Clan determined that the mountain was overcrowded with kilns, so they decided to demolish many of the kilns and ordered them to move to Arita (which remains in modern-day Saga Prefecture). Due to this, the number of kilns producing Karatsu ware was drastically reduced, but some kilns continued to produce large quantities under the protection of the Nabeshima clan. After the Meiji Restoration (a revolution which brought about the Meiji government) occurred from 1853 to 1867, the protection from the clan was lost and the production of Karatsu ware began to decline.
Characteristics of Karatsu Ware
Karatsu ware is known for having both a warm and strong appearance. Another characteristic is that there are many ways to decorate the pottery and many types of “yuyaku” glaze (a glass coating that covers the surfaces of pottery and porcelain) are used.
Various styles of Karatsu ware exist, such as the “e-karatsu” style, which features designs such as flowers and birds that are painted with iron-infused paint before being glazed with yuyaku and fired; the “muji-karatsu” style, featuring a plain base with only a single type of yuyaku applied to it; the “madara-karatsu” style, which uses yuyaku with ash from rice straw as its main ingredient, causing a speckled pattern to appear on its surface; or the “chosen-karatsu” (Korean karatsu) style, which uses both black and white yuyaku sectionally to create a stunning contrasting border.
Karatsu ware also utilizes various techniques when it comes to shaping the unglazed pottery, with many traditional techniques still being used today. Most pottery is created on a pottery wheel called a “rokuro,” and nowadays electric pottery wheels are often used. However, Karatsu ware is still created on manual foot-powered pottery wheels called “kerokuro,” as well as by a technique called “tataki-giho,” which involves rolling the clay into cylindrical pieces, coiling them on top of each other, and then hitting it from the inside while supporting the outside with a wooden paddle to remove the air.
In 1988, Karatsu ware was designated as a traditional Japanese craft by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
Karatsu Ware Today
Although Karatsu ware was once on the decline, it gained popularity again at the beginning of the Showa Period (1926 – 1989) when the 12th generation Nakazato Tarouemon revived old Karatsu ware techniques. He was later recognized as a Living National Treasure in 1976. Today, there are many events, ryokan (Japanese inns), and food establishments that offer cha-no-yu experiences with Karatsu ware.
Karatsu ware, which was once on the decline but since has had a great comeback, is now not only beloved for tea ware, but also for everyday use.
[Sake Bottle] Chosun Karatsu Tokkuri
This exquisite piece exhibits a color scheme that’s very typical of Karatsu pottery. One of the most common types of Karatsu is called “chosen-karatsu” (Korean karatsu) which uses white and black glazes sectionally with clearly defined borders. However, this tokkuri (a flask used to serve sake) features a deep black-and-white gradation coloring. A sake cup in the same style is also available, making this the perfect purchase for any sake lover.
Size: φ3.14″ x H5.31″ (Φ8.0 cm x H13.5 cm)
Brand: Haru Kiln
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.