Modern art is something to behold, but there’s also something to be said for traditional crafts. Traditional Japanese crafts can take on all kinds of shapes, with one of them being ceramics. A surprising amount have come out of Japan, most of them classified as “Imari ware” or “Bizen ware” when in truth, they’re just two styles within the even larger categories of “toki” (pottery) and “jiki” (porcelain), each with their own characteristics. Furthermore, different areas across Japan produce their own versions of ceramics, including Kutani ware, Satsuma ware, Hagi ware, Mino ware, Shigaraki ware, and Mashiko ware, all of them gaining popularity both within Japan and overseas. This article will introduce these ceramics, including their charms, history, and characteristics.
The History of Japanese Ceramics
It is said that the Japanese ceramics we recognize today came into existence around 1,300 years ago, seeing particular development in the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573-1603).
Though we use the phrase “Japanese ceramics,” in truth, this is a general term encompassing toki (pottery) and jiki (porcelain). Toki is made with clay, while jiki is made using crushed pottery stone.
Toki is said to have been created over 10,000 years ago, with Jomon pottery made from fired and hardened clay such as the picture above being a famous example.
Jiki, on the other hand, has a relatively short history that is said to have begun in the early 17th century with Imari-Arita wares from Saga Prefecture on the island of Kyushu.
The Difference Between Toki (Pottery) and Jiki (Porcelain)
Toki is made predominantly of clay and is fired at 700℃ – 1,300℃. After the final shape has been set, it may be painted with a glaze called “yuyaku,” which creates a glossy, multicolored finish on the surface of the clay. After firing, the glaze turns glass-like, and has waterproofing properties. There are also many toki pieces that are fired without the yuyaku glaze being applied.
Toki that have been fired after being glazed with yuyaku include Kasama ware (Kasama-Yaki) and Hagi ware (Hagi-Yaki), and toki that have been fired without yuyaku include Bizen ware (Bizen-Yaki) and Echizen ware (Echizen-Yaki).
It is important to remember that not just any clay can be used. For example, Kasama ware uses clay taken from the area spanning Mt. Tsukuba to the Kasama region (Ibaraki Prefecture), as its plasticity is perfect for molding. Similarly, Bizen ware uses clay that has been mined near the Katakami area of Bizen City in Okayama Prefecture. This iron-rich clay becomes a reddish-brown color when fired, and the texture and appearance can vary greatly depending on the properties and composition.
Unlike toki, jiki is made up of crushed pottery stone such as that pictured above (picture: Izumiyama Quarry, the site of a mine where pottery stone used for Imari-Arita-Yaki was excavated). It is fired at an extremely high temperature of 1,250℃ – 1,300℃. Compared to toki, jiki is rather light and hard, and is often painted with vibrant patterns atop a white base, as seen on Imari-Arita ware (Imari-Arita-Yaki) and Kutani ware (Kutani-Yaki). However, similar to toki, the area of origin and properties of the pottery stones used changes based on the product being made.
Both toki and jiki use clay that is full of minerals such as feldspar and silica, but the clay for jiki has a higher percentage of these minerals. Because of this, firing at high temperatures allows it to crystallize and harden.
There are many famous types of jiki, including Imari-Arita ware (the first jiki in Japan), Kutani ware, Mino ware (Mino-Yaki), and Satsuma ware (Satsuma-Yaki).
This article distinguishes toki and jiki based on the materials used to make them, but in reality, there are several more factors that separate them, such as the temperatures they’re fired at. Also, there are several cases where clay is incorporated when making jiki and vice versa, so it isn’t as clear-cut as we make it out to be. We made this clear distinction to prevent any confusion.
Types of Toki (Pottery)
A traditional Japanese craft that is said to have been created in Mashiko, a town in Tochigi Prefecture, in 1853 (the late Edo Period). Tochigi is in the northern part of the Kanto region, which is also home to Japan’s capital, Tokyo. Since it’s made with coarse clay, it has a rather rough texture and gives off a certain warmth.
These wares are made mainly in Echizen, Fukui Prefecture, in central Japan by the Sea of Japan, and are another craft that has been nationally designated as a traditional Japanese craft*. It has a long history, having been created since before the Kamakura period (1185 – 1333). The base is made with red clay infused with a large amount of iron, and by not using any yuyaku glaze, the natural beauty of the red clay shines through.
*To be more precise, it is further classified as “sekki” (stoneware).
These wares are made mainly around the Shigaraki area of Koga, Gifu Prefecture in central Japan, and are another craft that has been nationally designated as a traditional Japanese craft. It is believed that its origins date back to the 8th century, but the Shigaraki ware that continues to this day was created during the Kamakura period during the 13th century, and the style was established during the Muromachi period in the 14th century. Coarse grains of iron are mixed into the clay to make these wares, resulting in them taking on several different appearances throughout the production process, from the initial red color to the black color created from the ash of burnt kindling during firing.
A nationally-designated traditional Japanese craft mainly produced in Yamaguchi, Japan’s westernmost prefecture, Hagi pottery has been used to make tea sets for a long time now. It‘s most known for its tiny “kannyu” cracks, the result of the difference in the rate of shrinkage between the “yuyaku” glass coating and coarse clay after baking. The longer you use these wares, the more liquid seeps into these cracks and changes each piece’s appearance over time. This quality has won this craft many fans throughout Japan.
A nationally-designated traditional Japanese craft, Sanshu Onigawara are made in Nagoya through a process of smoking without any prior yuyaku glaze being applied to the pieces, which coats them in carbon, resulting in a deep coloring and high durability. Sanshu Onigawara roof tiles were once used to ward off evil but nowadays they are far less common, and the craft has instead been more popular as interior decorations.
[Gargoyle (Gargoyle Statue)] Onigawara To Decorate The Room: Shinsuke Kamiya
Now you can decorate your home with an Onigawara roof tile, once used to protect Japanese homes against evil. This piece has a brilliant luster that you will only see in Sanshu Onigawara tiles thanks to their sophisticated and gorgeous “ibushi-gin” coloring. The expression of the “oni” (demon) is quite something, and it is sure to make a great talisman as well as part of your interior decoration. You can have it stand on its own or hang it on the wall.
Size: 5.51″ x 7.87″ x 1.02″ (14.0 cm x 20.0 cm x 2.6 cm)
Weight: 1.76 lbs (800 g)
Material: Roof tile, walnut
Brand: Onigawara Iemori
A nationally-designated traditional Japanese craft, Kasama is a type of pottery mainly produced in Ibaraki, a prefecture in the northeastern part of Kanto. It’s a relatively new pottery style, having been created roughly 220 years ago. Fine, high-quality clay is used to make it so it’s easy to shape, allowing artisans to get really creative with it. As a result, its most unique characteristic has become the fact that it doesn’t really have any unique characteristics.
A nationally-designated traditional Japanese craft, Tokoname wares are produced in Aichi Prefecture, home to Nagoya, a large Japanese city located in the central part of the Japanese mainland, between Tokyo and Osaka. Boasting a history over 900 years old, Tokoname pottery is unglazed and uncoated, and known for its durability due to the high iron content in the clay it’s made out of. For this reason, it’s often used to make bigger pieces like large pots and jars. In recent years, glazed Tokoname wares have also emerged and proven to be quite popular.
[Mug (Cup)] Large Mug And Saucer
There is a technique used to bring out a more vermilion color in Tokoname wares. It’s called “hiiro-yaki” and it consists of laying dried seaweed on white clay and then firing the final product. This singular mug by the young artist Mariko Suzuki is a combination of that method and her own research into glistening glazing techniques. The result is a new kind of modern, beautiful tableware that retains the classic durability of Tokoname.
Size: φ14.1 x H3.54″ (Φ14.1 cm x H9.0 cm)
Brand: Mariko Suzuki
[Large Plate (Platter)] Plate Size
Like the product before, this is another piece by Mariko Suzuki. Recognized as Tokoname pottery by the vermilion coloring brought on by the high iron content in the clay, the red of the plate stands in daring contrast to the glaze, creating a beautiful gradation effect. Please note, however, that since every plate is fired individually, no two are identical, but that just makes each one all the more beautiful.
Size: φ23.54″ x H0.98″ (Φ29.0 cm x H2.5 cm)
Brand: Mariko Suzuki
A nationally-designated traditional Japanese craft with a 400-year-long history, Karatsu pottery is produced in Saga Prefecture, which lies in northern Kyushu. One of the most popular wares for use in Japanese tea ceremony, Karatsu pieces are beloved for their simplicity and earthy texture. However, the style is well known for its many decorations and yuyaku (glazing) techniques, and the brilliantly colorful “akae” and “uwae” Karatsu pieces are also popular.
[Japanese Tea Cup] Akamaki Pot
This pot has been fired at the Kouun Kiln, which produces some of the more colorful Karatsu wares out there. It features wire netting on the inside, which can be removed. Even then, the presence of small holes on the inside of the piece makes it possible to use the teapot for both black tea and Japanese green tea. Not only is this teapot very versatile, but the clear border between its red and indigo coloring is quite beautiful. Kouun Kiln teapots are very popular and many of them sell out quickly, so make sure to get yours while you can.
Size: W6.69″ x H4.13″ (Maximum width: 17.0 cm X H10.5 cm)
Weight: 0.88 lbs (400 g)
Capacity: 8.45 oz (250 ml)
Brand: KOUUN KILN
A nationally-designated traditional Japanese craft. A pottery style that was created over 300 years ago in Fukuoka Prefecture in northern Kyushu. It is known for its geometric pattern and rustic, earthy texture. Even today, soil from the mountains of the Koishiwara region is used to make Koishiwara wares.
Yokkaichi Banko Ware
Beginning as a humble set of tea utensils, Yokkaichi Banko ware was originally fashioned by a craftsman in central Japan’s Mie Prefecture over 300 years ago. The ceramics’ heat-resistant properties allow direct use on flame, a much sought-after feature which has earned them a whopping 80% market share. Yokkaichi Banko ware also enjoys popularity as traditional Japanese “kyusu” teapots thanks to its iron-rich clay, which yields a mild flavor from the tea. Despite the lack of ceramic glaze, paintings, or other decorations, each piece will slowly gain a unique natural luster the more it is used. The extensive range of tableware and household items made in this style can be incorporated into almost all facets of life, adding a dash of beauty and craftsmanship to everyday routines. Yokkaichi Banko is registered as a traditional Japanese craft by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
Types of Jiki (Porcelain)
A nationally-designated traditional Japanese craft. Kutani ware is over 350 years old and is made in Ishikawa Prefecture in the Hokuriku region, which is in the northern part of central Honshu (main island of Japan). This craft is known for its colorful design that can take on many forms, such as “mori,” where thick layers of paint are added on to give three-dimensionality to the item. Today, new styles of Kutani wares are being made using long-established, traditional crafting techniques.
Free Cup Christmas Rose
A glass that you can use for all kinds of occasions. The vivid and detailed Christmas rose design is lovely and shows off a depth that can only be achieved with Kutani ware.
Size: φ3.26″ x H4.48″ (Φ8.3 cm x H11.4 cm)
Brand: Minoru Kawada (Kutani Ware)
Cup & Saucer Strawberry
A cup and saucer set with tiny red strawberries and white strawberry flowers painted on it. It has a “gosai” design with reds, yellows, greens, purples, and blues used to paint it in an artistic, lovely way.
Size: Cup: φ3.42″ x H2.75″ x W4.44″, Plate: φ5.90″ x H0.94″ (Cup: Φ8.7 cm x H7 cm x W11.3 cm, Plate: Φ15 cm x H2.4 cm)
Brand: Minoru Kawada (Kutani Ware)
A nationally-designated traditional Japanese craft and one of the country’s most popular crafts. A 1,300-year-old craft that’s mainly produced in Gifu Prefecture, which lies in central Honshu. It takes on all kinds of shapes and sizes, with new, innovative designs being made even today.
[Glass] Shun Japan Four Seasons Magic 4 Pieces
Recently, this series of MARUMO TAKAGI Reikan (cold) glasses that can change color depending on the temperature of the liquid poured in them have been gaining lots of attention. The designs for this set of glasses showcase the seasons of Japan, with sakura for spring, fireworks for summer, foliage for autumn, and snowflakes for winter. When you pour cold water into them, they’ll slowly start to take on a bright, vivid color.
Size: W2.44″ x D2.44″ x H4.06″ (W6.2 cm x D6.2 cm x H10.3 cm)
Weight: 0.99 lbs (450 g)
Capacity: 10.99 oz (325 ml)
Brand: MARUMO TAKAGI (Mino ware)
[Tea Cup ] Shun Japan SAKURA Magic Yunomi
These cups belong to the Onkan (warm) series of MARUMO TAKAGI. Pour a hot drink into them and the black on the white cup will slowly turn into sakura in bloom. There are other designs available, so please have a look!
Size: W2.76″ x D2.76″ x H3.54″ (Φ7.0 cm x H9.0 cm)
Weight: 0.49 lbs (220 g)
Brand: MARUMO TAKAGI (Mino ware)
The first ever porcelain to be crafted in Japan comes from Saga Prefecture in northern Kyushu. Boasting a 400-year history, the intricate patterns and vibrant colors of this registered traditional Japanese craft continues to wow people to this very day. Despite being made in the Arita region, it became known as “Imari ware” due to being shipped out from Imari Port. The lavishly-designed large plates and pots became particularly popular in Europe during the late 17th century, where they were showcased under the name “IMARI.” Even today, they can be found exhibited in museums or lining the halls of castles.
Running Water Cherry Plate 150
This stunning plate features an indigo blue painting on a piece of white Imari-Arita porcelain. The highly-detailed artwork depicts a gentle swirl of floating cherry blossom petals being pulled into a whirlpool of water. The faint gradation of the indigo blue forms a striking backdrop, highlighting the food it serves. Its handy size is suited towards use as an individual serving plate.
Size: φ6.29″ x H0.98″ (Φ16.0 cm x H2.5 cm)
Brand: Soujiro Kiln (Imari-Arita ware)
2016/ Kirstie van Noort Deep Plate 220 (Spray Color)
This versatile deep plate is the work of Dutch designer Kirstie van Noort. The thin, carefully crafted texture yields a light, sophisticated touch. The simple design pairs well with most foods, adding a whisper of warmth and elegance to the dinner table. Dishwasher and microwave safe.
Size: φ8.66″ x H1.38″ (φ22.0 cm x H3.5 cm)
Weight: 0.9 lbs (410g)
Brand: 2016/ Kirstie van Noort (Imari-Arita ware)
Satsuma porcelain received worldwide acclaim in 1867 under the name “SATSUMA” during the 2nd International Exposition in Paris. Boasting a 400-year-old history, it is crafted in mainland Japan’s most southern prefecture of Kagoshima. It can be broadly split between the styles of White Satsuma and Black Satsuma, with the former featuring extravagant designs and prices intended for the upper classes, while the latter was lovingly used by ordinary citizens. It is a traditional Japanese craft registered by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
Kyo Ware/Kiyomizu Ware
The History of Kyo Ware/Kiyomizu Ware
The current form of Kyo ware/Kiyomizu ware (“Kyo-yaki/Kiyomizu-yaki”) emerged between the Momoyama Period (16-17th centuries) to the beginning of the Edo Period (1603-1868). A merchant in Kyoto invited artisans from all over the country to create tea ceremony utensils and tea cups. These items eventually became gifts for nobles and feudal lords.
Around 1635, kilns were constructed in various parts of Kyoto to produce Kyo ware, Awataguchi ware (Awataguchi-yaki), Yasaka ware (Yasaka-yaki), and Mizoro ware (Mizoro-yaki). It was around this time when the art of Kyo ware/Kiyomizu ware became established. Ninsei Nonomura and Kenzan Ogata are two individuals who enhanced the artistic qualities of Kyo ware/Kiyomizu ware.
Ninsei, known as one of the best Kyo ware potters, had an excellent technique for drawing patterns on vessels. A lot of the Kyo ware vessels that are currently designated as national treasures or important cultural properties have been made using techniques created by Ninsei. These wares were gifted to the Tokugawa shogunate during the Edo Period, and continue to be highly regarded today.
Alongside Ninsei was Kenzan Ogata (1663-1743), a skillful Kyo ware artisan. He gained popularity for his innovative technique of adding bold drawings and characters, which was unprecedented in Kyo ware.
Following Ninsei and Kenzan, other master artisans of Kyo ware/Kiyomizu ware emerged, including Rokubei Kiyomizu I (1738-1799), who established a kiln in Gojozaka, Kyoto in 1771; Dohachi Takahashi I; and Ensei Okuda (1753-1812).
Located before the gates of Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Gojozaka in Kyoto—where a kiln was established by Rokubei Kiyomizu I—became a thriving area. Pottery produced in this area soon became souvenirs for worshipers and gained popularity among the public.
When the Meiji Era began in 1868 and the capital moved from Kyoto to Tokyo, Kyo ware/Kiyomizu ware kilns closed one after another. However, Kyo ware artisans sought to survive by exporting porcelain that had gorgeous golden drawings to Europe and the United States, where Japonisme (the influence of Japanese art, culture, and aesthetics in the West) was gaining popularity.
While mass production by machines began across the country after the 20th century, distinguished artisans moved to Kyoto, where they continued to produce tea utensils and other items that required a high degree of skill.
After the Pacific War, Kyo ware/Kiyomizu ware underwent further developments by Rokubei Kiyomizu VI and Yaichi Kusube. Many potters trained under these two masters, and they provided the foundation for the Kyo ware/Kiyomizu ware that we see today.
The Characteristics of Kyo Ware/Kiyomizu Ware
Kyo ware/Kiyomizu ware are works of art that illustrate the scenery of the four seasons in Kyoto or feature drawings that bring good luck.
A lot of the vessels are made by using the technique wherein the clay is baked once before being painted. They are known for beautifully showcasing the individuality of each artist. On the other hand, there are artisans who specialize in copying the designs of master creators from the Edo Period, such as Kenzan and Ninsei.
As Kyoto was the capital of Japan for a long time, many Kyo wares/Kiyomizu wares were presented to tea masters, military leaders’ families, imperial families, and samurai families. Therefore, it can be said that Kyo ware/Kiyomizu ware hold a sense of luxury and are highly decorative, which are two characteristics that cannot be seen in other ceramics.
In addition, as skillful artisans from all over the country gathered in Kyoto, the characteristics of various ceramics are mixed together in Kyo ware/Kiyomizu ware. That said, one unique characteristic is that most of the production process is done by hand, and that none of the works are mass produced.
Therefore, each product is very unique and rare. Oftentimes, if you miss an opportunity, you will never be able to find the same product again. This is another reason why Kyo ware/Kiyomizu ware is so popular.
Kyo Ware/Kiyomizu Ware Today
Today, Kyo ware/Kiyomizu ware is in danger of disappearing as the number of artisans and kilns are declining due to plummeting sales. To combat this, Kyo ware/Kiyomizu ware artisans, chambers of commerce, and designers have been seriously exploring future possibilities to keep the craft going.
These efforts have led to Kyo ware/Kiyomizu ware being actively employed at hotels and other facilities that are being built rapidly in response to the increasing number of foreign tourists.
When attempting to expand overseas, Kyo ware/Kiyomizu ware was highly praised for not being mass-produced. To develop this characteristic further, and by collaborating with architectural designers, recently, new products such as Kyo ware/Kiyomizu ware lighting equipment and wash basins have been produced.
The History of Hasami Ware
Hasami ware (known in Japan as Hasami-Yaki) is pottery that developed in northwestern Kyushu around the town of Hasami in Higashisonogi, Nagasaki Prefecture.
Its history goes back more than 400 years to the Imjin War (the Japanese invasion of Korea) which lasted from 1592 to 1598. The feudal lord of Hasami Village (the present-day town of Hasami), Yoshiaki Omura, participated in that war and upon his return, brought a Korean potter with him back to Japan. This potter then taught the locals the art of Korean pottery, and Omura constructed multi-chamber climbing kilns (where a series of connected kiln chambers are built on a slope, one on top of the other) in Hatanohara, Furusaraya, and Yamanita, marking the beginning of Hasami ware.
At first, they produced glazed earthenware made from clay, but later turned to porcelain after porcelain stone deposits were discovered in Hasami. In 1630, all of the local production switched completely from earthenware to porcelain, which came in two varieties: “sometsuke,” a white porcelain base painted with patterns which are then covered with transparent glaze and fired, and “aoji” (celadon porcelain), porcelain coated with a green-colored glaze.
In the mid-17th century, a civil war stopped China from exporting their porcelain abroad. That’s when the world turned their attention to Japan, and Hasami ware exports began to climb. Soon, the porcelain became famous around the world. However, 1690 marked the end of China’s civil war and a return to pottery exports, which caused a dip in the sale of Hasami products, prompting makers to again turn their attention to the domestic market. In 1655, Omura’s domain set up the Sarayama public office to manage the production of Hasami porcelain and help make it the region’s specialty product. As a result, in the late Edo Period (1781 – 1867), the domain became the biggest producer of sometsuke porcelain in all of Japan.
With the development of railway lines in the Meiji Period (1868 – 1912), it became commonplace to transport products via trains. Hasami took advantage of that, using the Arita shipping station to deliver their products to every corner of the country. Soon, people started referring to porcelain from the Hasami and Arita regions (another famous porcelain-producing region) collectively as “Arita ware” (“Arita-Yaki” in Japanese). However, around the year 2000, Japan struggled with an influx of counterfeit goods, necessitating stricter authentication measures regarding a product’s place of production. Since then, all pottery from Hasami has been required to be identified as “Hasami ware.”
Some of the most famous examples of historical Hasami ware include the kurawanka bowl and the konpura bottle (pictured above). The origin of the name “kurawanka” goes back to the Edo Period, when merchants in boats would approach ships on the Yodo River and try to sell them food and alcohol by asking “Mochi kurawanka? Sake kurawanka?” meaning “Won’t you buy some mochi (rice cake)? Won’t you buy some sake?” in the local dialect. At the time, porcelain was considered a luxury product, but the kurawanka bowls were mass produced, so they were quite affordable and thus beloved by commoners.
Konpura bottles are Hasami ceramics produced from around the end of the Edo Period. They were mainly used to preserve alcohol and soy sauce meant for exports. Initially, those products were transported in wooden casks, but due to spending a long time at sea, the cask-stored soy sauce started to lose its taste, so Hasami craftsmen created a special bottle that would help keep it fresh.
The Characteristics of Hasami Ware
Most types of pottery tend to have specific characteristics depending on where they are produced, but not Hasami ware. It’s even said that the characteristic of Hasami ware is that it has no specific characteristics. Indeed, the ceramics produced in Hasami have never been held back by tradition or production method and instead have continued to change and update through the years. This has made it a favorite of the common folk for over 400 years. From old-timey patterns and simple designs to wares featuring more American or northern European motifs, there is a Hasami dish out there for anyone.
By employing a system of specialization, where each craftsman handles just one part of the production process, high-quality Hasami ware is able to be produced at a large scale. The whole process is broken into four stages: the “kataya” handles the production of plaster molds, the “kijiya” creates the porcelain clay, the “kamamoto” fires the porcelain, and the “uwaeya” creates and applies designs to the fired pieces. It was this division of labor, with a specialist handling each individual step in the process, that enabled Hasami ware to be produced in high quantities while guaranteeing an equally high quality. Even today, these wares are very popular in Japan, making up 16% of all domestic tableware dishes.
In 1978, Hasami ware was designated as a Traditional Japanese Craft by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
Hasami Ware Today
In 2010, Maruhiro, a Hasami ware assembling wholesaler, announced a new brand called “HASAMI” and instantly helped bring the porcelain back into the spotlight. Their mugs with never-before-seen modern pop designs became a hit all over Japan, being sold everywhere from general to apparel stores and attracting plenty of young buyers. This led to an increase in sales of Hasami ware and a revitalization of the areas that produce them. As a result, the annual Hasami Pottery Festival* attracted around 300,000 people, and that number has been growing every year since then.
People used to think of Hasami wares as luxury items but now they’ve become known as sturdy, everyday dishes sold at affordable prices. It’s why so many people love them. Because it isn’t limited to any one design or production method, Hasami ware can change with the times and fit the lifestyles of people in any time period. Currently it has become quite popular among young people and women.
* The 2020 festival was canceled. The 2021 festival is planned for late April (unconfirmed as of yet).
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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.