Tokoname Ware Guide: Japanese Ceramics (Pottery)

Tokoname Ware

Tokoname pottery is a traditional Japanese craft designated so by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. It’s produced in Aichi Prefecture, which lies in the center of the main island of Japan, and is home to the city of Nagoya. Going back more than 900 years, Tokoname wares are made with clay containing a lot of iron, which helps keep them durable even in lower temperatures. For this reason, a lot of Tokoname pottery consists of bigger pieces like large pots and jars. Tokoname wares are unglazed and, due to their high iron content, have a reddish-brown coloring. However, modern Tokoname does also come in a glazed variety and different, new styles, which definitely add to its popularity.

The History of Tokoname Ware

Tokoname ware (Tokoname-Yaki) is pottery that originates in the Chita Peninsula in Aichi, a prefecture in mainland Japan. The area has produced rice bowls, plates, bowls, flowerpots, jars, and earthenware pots since the Heian Period (794 – 1192).

As Tokoname ware is quite durable, there has been a high demand for practical items such as jars and pots, and there are even records of pots used for sake-brewing during the Kamakura Period (1185 – 1333), as well as for storing oil and indigo dye that would be shipped by boat across the country.

In the 15th century, during the Muromachi Period (1336 – 1573), kilns began concentrating around the Tokoname area in the Chita Peninsula. The Tokoname ware in circulation at the time was a cloudy color, which came naturally from the ash produced from burning grass and branches with leaves, and was actually quite unusual for Tokoname ware.

During the Edo Period’s Tempo Era in the 19th century, a type of staircase-shaped kiln was brought over to Japan from the Korean Peninsula, which meant that large quantities of ceramics could be fired at once. This was around the time when “kyusu” (teapots where tea leaves are brewed in hot water) became known as the most famous pieces of Tokoname ware. 

During that time, drinking “sencha” (tea brewed by steaming tea leaves in hot water) became more widespread. Eventually, local potter Inaba Shozaemon began creating kyusu in Tokoname. This was also when Hiiro ware (Hiiro-Yaki, pottery created by laying dried seaweed atop white clay and then firing) and “shudei-kyusu” (unglazed reddish-brown teapots, pictured above) were perfected.

In 1868, at the beginning of the Meiji Period (1868 – 1912), demand for exporting Tokoname ware increased, and it was even used for earthen pipes for sewage systems. The outer walls of the Imperial Hotel Tokyo, designed by the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright and completed in 1923, are also made with Tokoname ware tiles.

The Tokoname Ceramic Research Institute was established in 1961, and it aimed to restore old Tokoname ware and train artisans in the craft. Thanks to these efforts, twenty Tokoname ware ceramic artisans won the Honorable Grand Prix award at the 3rd Biennale Internationale de Céramique d’Art in France in 1972.

This was a catalyst for the beginning of new types of Tokoname ware that fused tradition and modernity. Increasingly, artisans began creating objets d’art, a practice that continues to flourish to this day.

The Characteristics of Tokoname Ware

Tokoname ware is a type of pottery that does not use glaze, and it is fired without having color applied first. The clay is rich with iron and can become sturdy even when fired at a low temperature.

Kyusu teapots make use of these iron-rich properties, making them one of the most representative types of Tokoname ware. Although there are many Tokoname ware products such as earthenware and flower pots, the demand for kyusu is quite high, as the iron in the clay mellows out the bitterness and astringency of the tea leaves. Kyusu are still beloved pieces in many households today.

Additionally, as Tokoname ware can take solid shape even when fired at a low temperature, it was often used for large containers, such as those used to hold sake and indigo dye. 

Even the technique used to make the shapes is rather peculiar, as craftsmen shape the pottery while twisting the clay by hand. “Yoriko-zukuri” is a technique for making large pieces that has been passed down from the end of the Heian Period (794 – 1185), where artisans create 10 cm thick clay rods that they place on their shoulder, and layer them as they spin around. This technique is still used today. There are other techniques used when making Tokoname ware, including “oshigata-seikei,” often used for bonsai pots in which the craftsmen press on the clay until they get the desired shape, and “rokuro-seikei,” which is made upon an electric potter’s wheel.

Tokoname Ware Today

As less-expensive, mass-produced products dominate store shelves, production levels of Tokoname ware are falling. Artisans nowadays only produce about one-third of the amount that was produced at the peak. However, there has recently been a Tokoname ware boom in China due to the development of fresh, new pieces that fuse tradition with practicalness. The Japanese kyusu, with a different handle placement than the Chinese kyusu, has also been popular up until now due to its novelty.

Kyusu come in various forms and shapes, including ones with cute designs and in pastel colors, as well as others that work with all types of tea. There are also many other pieces being produced that can be used in our daily lives, including pots and beer cups with marbled or dotted patterns. These have been catching the eyes of younger generations in Japan!

▶ Click here to browse more beautiful Tokoname Ware items!

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

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