Shigaraki ware is mainly produced in Gifu Prefecture in central Japan, and is another craft designated as a traditional Japanese craft by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. It is a rather ancient craft, its origins dating back 1,200 years, and is another one of Japan’s most famous types of ceramics. It is said that its current style was established over 600 years ago during the Muromachi period, and it has been widely used since. A particularly famous example of Shigaraki ware are the “tanuki” (raccoon dog) figurines that can be seen in front of shops and restaurants. They are said to bring good luck.
The History of Shigaraki Ware
Shigaraki ware (Shigaraki-Yaki) is a type of pottery that originated from Shiragaki in the city of Koka in Shiga Prefecture. This prefecture is roughly in the middle of Osaka Prefecture, Aichi Prefecture, and Nagoya Prefecture, all three of which are in the Kinki region, slightly west of the center of the Japan mainland. Its roots extend as far back as the 8th century during the Tenpyo Era.
The Shigaraki ware we see today, however, is believed to have been created in the 13th century (Kamakura period) and firmly cemented in terms of craftsmanship and style by the 14th century (Muromachi period). This time also happens to be when the production of Shigaraki ware water jugs, pots, bowls, and other useful everyday tools started increasing.
In the 16th century (Azuchi-Momoyama Period), Shigaraki ware gained attention thanks to influential people such as Nobunaga Oda and Hideyoshi Toyotomi. These shogun were fans of the Japanese tea ceremony, and claimed that although Shigaraki ware made refined tools, they were also perfect for Japanese tea ceremonies as they carried a taste of the earth and had a rough texture, both characteristics lending themselves to “wabi-cha,” a style of Japanese tea ceremony that emphasized simplicity. These statements led to a striking improvement in the overall reputation of Shigaraki ware, with more and more Shigaraki ware tea ceremony tools being made.
In the 17th century (Edo Period), Shigaraki ware started to be mass produced thanks to the Noborigama kiln (pictured above to the left), a type of kiln wherein multiple kilns are built along a steep mountainside. At the same time, demand for colorful Shigaraki ware began to increase, so more of that type started to be produced. Shigaraki ware started to become something essential to the people’s everyday lives, appearing as sake bottles, earthenware pots, and other everyday items.
In 1868 (Meiji Period), railroads were created, and the pots used to pour tea for railcar guests were Shigaraki ware. Around the same time, tanuki statues—pictured above to the right; granting good luck and are still often seen at shop fronts today—were made. These statues were Shigaraki ware and symbolized how the pottery was spreading to the masses. In the 19th century, Shigaraki hibachi (charcoal braziers) were made. They were quick to heat up as well as cool down, which earned them such a reputation that they were the most produced product at the time.
After World War II, electric and gas heaters started to become commonplace, resulting in the eventual end of the production of Shigaraki ware hibachi in 1965. However, thanks to the continuous efforts of Shigaraki potters, Shigaraki ware eventually gained its current designation as a traditional Japanese craft by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry in 1975.
The Characteristics of Shigaraki Ware
The most unique characteristic of Shigaraki ware is how the coarse clay soil makes it take on a pink, red, or sometimes even a reddish-brown hue after being fired. This is a natural occurrence that happens due to the mineral content, such as iron, in the soil.
Apart from that, in general, Shigaraki ware is unique in how the firing process changes its appearance. For example, it can take on a glassy coating from the wood ashes of the fire that fall onto it, as well as turn a burnt brown when completely surrounded by firewood ashes.
The clay soil used for Shigaraki ware is not just tough but also flexible, making it easy to shape. For this reason, you can find Shigaraki ware in all sorts of shapes and sizes—another great characteristic that it possesses.
Shigaraki ware is artistic when it takes the form of tea ceremony tools, but it’s also more than that. It has an old-fashioned charm brought about by its appearance which has been created from a multitude of natural conditions that cannot be replicated by humans.
Shigaraki Ware Today
Although it has been difficult to train successors in the art of Shigaraki ware, potters all over Japan are making more of an effort to do so as they recognize its value as a part of Japanese culture.
For example, in recent years, thanks to increased attention from overseas on Japan’s traditional culture, Shigaraki ware potters have made the move to Munich, Germany, in order to show students how to make Shigaraki ware and how to perform a Japanese tea ceremony.
More and more young potters with a focus on sustainability have also been appearing recently. Instead of throwing away substandard works, they break them down and reuse the parts. For example, they’re used as the gravel in a Shigaraki ware goldfish bowl or as a part of underwater sculptures.
You can view the works of experienced and young potters in one large hall at the Shigaraki Ware Festival* held every October. 2020 will be the 67th time they’ll be holding the festival. At this popular festival, the works of many workshops and potters will be for sale, often at 20-50% off.
*It will be held from October 9 – 18 in 2020. However, it will not be held in one large hall like in the picture above, but rather in several participating stores.
Shigaraki Ware Festival Website: https://www.shigaraki-matsuri.com/ (Japanese Only)
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.