Mashiko ware is an official traditional Japanese craft as designated by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. It has over 150 years of history and is still produced today in Mashiko Town, Tochigi Prefecture, which is in the northern part of the Kanto region (also home to the capital city of Tokyo). Mashiko Town is actually one of Japan’s largest ceramics-producing regions, being home to around 250 kilns. To make Mashiko ware, several layers of glaze are used, allowing the wares to take on a plethora of designs and patterns – a characteristic that adds to the pottery’s charm.
The History of Mashiko Ware
The story of Mashiko ware (“Mashiko-yaki”) begins in 1853, towards the end of the Edo Period. The location is the town of Mashiko in Tochigi Prefecture in the northern Kanto region. Keisaburo Otsuka, a potter from the neighboring Kasama domain (Hitachi Province, which is now modern-day Ibaraki Prefecture), moved to Mashiko and found clay of exceptional quality. He established a kiln there to turn this clay into ceramics, marking the beginning of the Mashiko ware tradition.
Soon enough, he invited other potters over from Kasama, and with the aid of the local domain, they produced large volumes of daily necessities such as water jugs, vases, plates, and bowls, and exported them to Edo (now Tokyo).
As Japan transitioned from the Edo Period to the Meiji Period, Mashiko ware became so mass-produced that the quality began to deteriorate. In response, local manufacturers founded the Mashiko Ware Guild in 1903, as well as the Mashiko Ceramics Training Center, with the aim of training a new generation of skilled artisans who could recover the Mashiko brand’s reputation.
As metallic and glass kitchen items became increasingly common, Mashiko ware fell in popularity. However, the Great Kanto Earthquake turned the tides; the 1923 catastrophe flattened large numbers of homes in Tokyo, and as the city began rebuilding, there was enormous demand for kitchenware, including Mashiko ware pieces. It got to the point where craftspeople had difficulty catching up to all of the orders.
Another milestone in Mashiko ware’s history was the Mingei (or “Folk Crafts”) Movement, which was started in 1926 by philosopher Muneyoshi Yanagi and potter Shoji Hamada. Hamada, who resided in Mashiko and produced pottery, sought beauty in the everyday items he made, and his pieces became highly regarded as works of art. Hamada’s philosophy influenced the next generation of potters and contributed to the development of Mashiko ware.
The Tochigi Prefecture Ceramic Earthenware Association was established in 1951. Additionally, during Japan’s miraculous postwar economic growth, workers from throughout the country moved to cities, inspiring a mass wave of nostalgia for the countryside and traditional crafts. As a result, folk crafts like pottery exploded in popularity between the late 1950s and 1970s.
Mashiko ware was officially designated as a Traditional Japanese Craft in 1979, and today there are some 250 pottery studios specializing in the craft in Japan.
The Characteristics of Mashiko Ware
When describing Mashiko ware, the first thing to note is the feel of the clay. Because of its many sand particles, it is coarse, rough, and not very sticky. This means that the material is easy to mold and quite resistant to fire.
The coarse texture of Mashiko clay is less suited to making thin, fine items, so Mashiko ware tends to be quite thick. This helps items fit easily in the hand and gives it a certain warmth, contributing to its appeal.
Mashiko ware also tends to use plenty of glaze. Glazes with natural tones are common, such as persimmon glaze, black glaze, straw ash, tree ash, or a rice-husk-white glaze made from rice husk ash. This gives the products a warm and refreshing quality without being too heavy. Other glazes like amber and celadon (jade green) have a fresher air to them.
Products tend to consist of simple decorations made by simple, accessible tools. The shape is made with potter’s wheels, wooden molds, or simply by molding by hand. Decorative textures are added with brush tips or combs, and planers can be used to etch on some further textures.
However, although the techniques may be simple, the multiple generations of Mashiko artisans have brought forth a wide variety of products. Some, like Hamada, made their works with the explicit aim of carrying on a folk art tradition, while others’ creations were far more free-form. You could say that the sheer breadth of possibility is a distinguishing feature of Mashiko ware.
Mashiko Ware Today
Those who wish to get to know the artisans of Mashiko ware should visit the Mashiko Ceramics Market*, an enormous event that is held every spring and every winter, which when combined bring about 600,000 visitors each year. This is an excellent chance to see recent Mashiko ware items from young, up-and-coming artisans.
Over 500 Mashiko ware retailers and artisan tents are lined up throughout the town, and there you can find a wide variety of products, from daily household items to works of art, on sale at significant discounts.
Recent consumers tend to look for tableware that can fit into a simple and natural-looking decor. Mashiko ware, due to its gentle and natural hues, also provides a perfect visual complement to various cuisines.
*The Mashiko Autumn Ceramics Market—planned for October 31 through November 4, 2020—has been canceled due to the coronavirus.
Mashiko Ceramics Market Official Website: http://www.town.mashiko.tochigi.jp/page/page000110.html (Japanese only)
There are also long-established manufacturers trying out new things. For example, there’s an “ekiben” lunch box called “Toge no Kamameshi” that’s famous for its exquisite container, which is sourced from the long-established Mashiko ware maker Tsunamoto, established in 1864. While Tsunamoto is Mashiko’s largest pottery producer, they have been adjusting with the times and are placing greater emphasis on earthenware pots for individual use.
There is also the Wakasama Pottery Studio, which has gained popularity through its series of “shabby turquoise” items, with “shabby” here referring to its rustic look. Plates and bowls with this rough turquoise look are a perfect match for international cuisines! The studio offers Mashiko ware with a wide variety of designs, from polka dot motifs to items with a Northern European flair, which are microwaveable and dishwasher-safe as well. Their design and functionality makes clear that these items are designed with today’s sensibilities in mind, and they can easily find a role in modern life.
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.