Japanese Pottery: A Guide to Otani Ware

Otani ware

Otani ware (Otani-Yaki) is a type of Japanese pottery that developed over 240 years ago in Oasa in the city of Naruto, Tokushima Prefecture (eastern Shikoku). It has a very simple and somewhat rough appearance, but the luster that these pieces produce when the light hits them just right has won the craft many fans. Otani ware are known for their large appearance and how they’re made using a “nerokuro” or “lying potter’s wheel.” However, Otani ware also includes smaller pieces like teacups, rice bowls, and many other items and ornaments. In 2003, it was designated as a traditional Japanese craft by the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry.

The History of Otani Ware

Otani ware is primarily produced in Oasa in the city of Naruto, Tokushima Prefecture (eastern Shikoku). Its history goes back about 240 years, and the style is now considered a symbol of Tokushima craftwork. Otani ware uses iron-rich clay and is characterized simultaneously by a simple, rough look and the gold-like luster it sometimes produces. Otani ware tends to be large and is known for being made using a nerokuro and being fired in a “noborigama” climbing kiln, said to be the largest type of kiln in all of Japan.

It’s said that the origin of Otani pottery goes back to 1780 in the late Edo Period when a craftsman from Bungo (modern-day Oita Prefecture) named “Fumiemon” visited the village of Otani (modern-day Oasa in Naruto) during his Shikoku Pilgrimage, which is a journey to 88 Buddhist temples associated with the monk Kukai, each one corresponding to one of the 88 sins of the flesh. During Fumiemon’s pilgrimage, he supposedly brought with him knowledge of the potter’s wheel to Shikoku.

The then lord of Awa Province in the Tokushima Domain (modern-day Tokushima City in Tokushima Prefecture), one Haruaki Hachisuka, became interested in this invention and invited many craftspeople from Kyushu to help him build Shikoku’s new pottery industry. The results were the first examples of blue and white pottery, made by decorating plain white clay with blue pigment, in Awa Province. However, at the time, all the raw materials were still being imported from Kyushu at great cost, which is why three years later the area stopped producing Otani wares.

Later, an indigo tradesman named Kaya Fumigoro met a craftsman specializing in Shigaraki wares (a style of pottery from Shiga Prefecture) and brought the man back with him to Shikoku, where he made him his apprentice and constructed a climbing kiln in Otani. And just like that, Otani pottery was being produced in Shikoku again, eventually becoming the basis of the style that we know today.

During the Meiji Period (1868 – 1912), Otani ware were primarily “aigame” jars for storing indigo dye. Then, during the Taisho Period (1912 – 1926), potters adapted to people’s changing lifestyles and produced plates, cups, and other types of tableware. In 2003, Otani wares were designated as a traditional Japanese craft by the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry.

Characteristics of Otani Ware

Otani ware is characterized by its rustic, rough, and simple design. It’s made with iron-rich clay which produces a subtle luster when the light hits it just right. When producing large Otani jars the size of an adult human, the potter’s assistant must lie down on their side and turn the potter’s wheel with their feet. That’s why this device, seen in the picture below, is called a “nerokuro” (lying potter’s wheel).

Otani ware is made with quality clay from which all impurities have been meticulously removed. This not only makes the wares durable but also easy to use. Broadly speaking, the process of making Otani ware can be divided into eight steps.

1) Mining and grinding: Clay is gathered, dried, and grinded into a fine powder.
2) Sifting: The clay powder is sifted to remove debris, grass, and other impurities from it.
3) Separating: Clay and water are mixed and passed through a sieve to produce pottery clay.
4) Kneading: The craftspeople use their legs to knead the clay into uniform hardness, after which they use their hands to remove air bubbles from it.
5) Shaping: A potter’s wheel to make smaller pieces, and a lying potter’s wheel for the larger pieces.
6) Drying: The shaped pottery is dried.
7) Glazing: Glass coating is applied to the shaped pottery.
8) Loading and firing: The pottery is placed in a kiln and fired.

Otani Pottery Today

Most people know Otani ware from the large jars and pots made using a lying potter’s wheel, but nowadays you can also get smaller pieces in the same style like teacups and rice bowls. Otani ware is traditionally dark brown or gray, but modern pieces come in a variety of colors and styles.

During the Otani Pottery Kiln Festival* held every November, many people visit to appreciate one of Japan’s traditional crafts. Those who cannot make it in person can buy authentic Otani wares online. Recently, Otani wares have been in the spotlight because of their collaboration with a popular Tokushima ramen restaurant chain. This signifies that the Otani style isn’t restricted strictly to the world of pottery and can act as a unifier between local businesses while spreading the word about the beauty of Tokushima.

*Due to the pandemic, in 2020, the festival was held at individual pottery studios. Currently, it’s uncertain whether it will be held in 2021.

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▶ 5 Japanese Plates That Would Brighten Up Any Dining Table

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

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