Japanese Pottery: A Guide to Iga Ware

Iga ware

Iga ware is a style of pottery that developed around the cities of Iga and Nabari in Mie Prefecture. With reports of its existence stretching back over 1,300 years to the Nara Period, it has a long and fascinating history. Iga ware is known for its burnt exterior and stunning green “bidoro” glaze, which is caused by ash sticking to the pottery during a high-temperature firing. While this style of pottery originally served to make tea utensils, it grew to produce pots, rice bowls, teacups, and other everyday items used and loved by many. Iga ware has been designated a traditional Japanese craft by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

History of Iga Ware

Iga ware refers to the style of pottery that developed around the cities of Iga and Nabari in Mie Prefecture. Beginning as everyday farming utensils like pots and jars during the Nara Period (710 – 794 CE), it began to develop and expand alongside the popularity of the tea ceremony and “wabi-sabi” beauty in imperfections aesthetic during the Azuchi–Momoyama Period (1573 – 1603 CE).

In 1548, Tsutsui Sadatsugu, the lord of the Iga Domain, ordered for kilns to be built throughout his lands while instructing craftspeople to create tea ceremony utensils as they pleased. The potters used their hands to purposefully create irregular shapes while adding wave-like patterns with a spatula. These were then embellished through a high-temperature firing to create the bidoro glaze effect, creating the pinnacle wabi-sabi aesthetic and leading to adoration by tea ceremony practitioners.

Later, Todo Takatsugu, the second lord of the Tsu domain in Ise Province (modern-day Mie), invited potters from Kyoto to further develop the craft. Pottery produced during the reign of Tsutsui were called “Tsutsui Iga,” while those produced in Todo’s time became known as “Todo Iga.” Together, they made up the so-called “Koiga” (Old Iga) style of pottery. Around the same time, Iga ware tea utensils known as “Enshu Iga” created under the guidance of tea master Kobori Enshu also became exceedingly popular.

Source: BECOS

In 1669, the extraction of clay necessary for Iga ware was outlawed and the craft subsequently faded away. However, in 1770, the ninth lord of the Tsu Domain Todo Takasato began endorsing Iga pottery while inviting potters from Kyoto and Seto (modern-day Aichi Prefecture) to his lands to work. They brought with them extensive knowledge such as ceramic glazing, leading to mass scale production of Iga ware. From then on, the craft moved away from tea utensils to focus on everyday necessities like bowls and pots, eventually becoming the Iga ware we know today.

Characteristics of Iga Ware

Iga ware is characterized by its burnt appearance and bidoro glaze, which is achieved by firing the pieces at high temperatures while the wood ash stuck on them becomes a glass-like substance. Despite seeming random, these effects can only be created with extreme precision by talented and experienced craftspeople working tirelessly to bring their desired look to life.

As the clay around Iga is highly resistant to fire, it’s often used to make heat-resistant pots and tableware, which are always in demand.

Another characteristic of Iga ware are its irregular shapes and wave-like patterns created by hand or with a spatula. This imperfect, distorted look defines and differentiates Iga ware from other forms of Japanese pottery. Fans of the tea ceremony in particular adore this wabi-sabi aesthetic, which is no surprise considering its early connection to tea utensils.

During firing, the small pebbles inside the clay react with the wood ash to become transparent and bright green. This process is repeated numerous times at high temperatures, causing the ash to turn into a green, glassy glaze. All that, plus the burnt exterior look, gives each piece a ton of individual character and charm!

This process of deformation and color variation is known as “yohen” in Japanese. The final appearance of the ware depends entirely upon the individual kiln and skill of the potter.

Iga Ware Today

After Todo Takasato helped revive Iga pottery, it saw renewed popularity as everyday tableware. This deepened in WW2 when Japanese people had to forfeit their pots and other metal products for the war effort, replacing them with clay pots. The Nagatanien kiln (est. 1832), has been making Iga pottery for over 180 years now, bringing this profound tradition and exquisite art to the modern age while continuing to make new products based on contemporary needs. One beloved example is the Kamadosan rice cooking pot, which has precise temperature stability preventing it from boiling over.

Today, Iga ware has expanded from clay pots to include rice bowls, teacups, mugs, and other easy-to-use, everyday items. There are also plenty of specialized Iga ware cookbooks and guides, allowing one to enjoy this traditional art to the fullest.

Every September, the Iga Ware Festival* brings together potters from about 40 kilns to exhibit over 30,000 Iga ware pieces. Chatting and haggling directly with the artisans is encouraged, luring in over 20,000 pottery-lovers from across Japan seeking something special for their collection.

*The 2020 and 2021 festivals are cancelled due to COVID-19.

Featured Products

[RICE BOWL] HYDRANGEA GLAZE BOWL SMALL

Source: BECOS

While hard to tell from the picture alone, this small bowl exudes a faint blue color adding luster and making it the perfect example of Iga ware style. Serving best as an everyday rice bowl, its humble handmade design ensures no two are ever the same. Its dimensions are φ6.22″ x H3.34″ (φ15.8 cm x H8.5 cm).

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BAKING FLOWER POT 210

Source: BECOS

This unglazed mid-sized flowerpot plate has been fired in a wood kiln to yield a rustic yet sophisticated design. With its irregular shape adding character and warmth, each handmade piece is totally unique and filled with the artisan’s flair and creativity. The understated reddish-brown coloring accentuates the natural colors of vegetables, making it a great salad plate! This level of artistry is something machines could never replicate!

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[VASE] IGA HANAIRI

Source: BECOS

This dynamic vase will instantly excite any space with a touch of Japanese aesthetic. Made entirely from hand-dug Iga clay and featuring the typical Iga ware bidoro glaze, its burnt exterior and scarlet coloring culminate in a warm, earthy look that anyone can appreciate. For anyone wanting to make their own Japanese-style tea room, this piece would be the perfect addition!

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▶ Click here to browse more beautiful Iga Ware items!

Related articles:

▶ Traditional Japanese Crafts: The Complete Guide to Japanese Ceramics

▶ The Complete Guide to Traditional Japanese Crafts

▶ 5 Japanese Tea Sets You Can Use to Get the Quintessential Japanese Tea Experience

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*These products may not be able to be shipped to certain countries. Please see the retailer’s website for more information.

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

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