Traditional Japanese Crafts: A Guide to Sekishu-gawara Tiles

Sekishu-gawara

Sekishu-gawara are one of the top three most famous kinds of traditional Japanese roof tiles. They’re made in Iwami, a renowned tile-producing region within Shimane Prefecture in the Chugoku region, an area that’s home to prefectures like Hiroshima and Okayama. Sekishu-gawara tiles use a special kind of iron-rich clay and stone dust sourced from the Izumo region of Shimane, making the tiles extremely durable and highly resistant to rain, wind, cold, and salt damage.

The History of Sekishu-gawara Tiles

“Sekishu-gawara” refers to clay tiles made in the Iwami region of western Shimane Prefecture. This kind of traditional “kawara” tile has been used on the roofs of Japanese houses since ancient times. Sekishu-gawara are counted among Japan’s three greatest kinds of traditional roof tiles alongside the Sanshu-gawara tiles of Mikawa in Aichi Prefecture and the Awaji-gawara tiles of Awaji Island in Hyogo Prefecture. These three alone account for 85% of all domestic Japanese tiles.

Stretching back more than 400 years, the history of Sekishu-gawara tiles runs deep. During the early Edo period (1603 – 1868), the Iwami Province, which ruled western Shimane, used a new kind of tile for the tower of Hamada Castle. That, according to some, is the origin of Sekishu-gawara tiles. However, unlike the reddish-brown tiles that we see today, the ones used at the time are thought to have been gray-colored shingles known as “ibushi-gawara.”

Afterwards, during the late Edo period, the use of Kimachi glass glaze led to the creation of the reddish-brown tiles we know today. Kimachi glaze is made from Kimachi stone mined in the Izumo region of eastern Shimane, and is known for being extremely fire-resistant. The combination of high-quality Iwami clay and the Kimachi glaze yields a tile that, once fired at 1,200°C, becomes extraordinarily durable.

Thanks to the kitamaebune, Sekishu-gawara tiles were shipped from Osaka all the way to Hokkaido, helping popularize them across Japan. The “kitamaebune” was a northern shipping route that connected Osaka and Hokkaido through a series of cargo ships from the Edo period (1603 – 1868) until the Meiji era (1868 – 1912).

The Characteristics of Sekishu-gawara Tiles

Sekishu-gawara tiles are noted for their stunning reddish-brown color, which contrasts beautifully with the blue sky and ocean around Shimane, creating the prefecture’s mesmerizing cityscapes.

Due to the superb clay of Iwami and the glaze made from Kimachi stone, the tiles are able to withstand being fired at 1,200°C or more. Firing the tiles at these high temperatures increases their durability, making them highly resistant against rain, wind, earthquakes, fires, and more. As they can also withstand cold and salt damage, they are highly sought after by people living in Japan’s colder and seaside regions.

Since long ago, the basics of tile making have been said to be: “first is earth (clay), second is firing (kiln), third is making (craftsmanship).” From making the clay to crafting the shingles, each step is carefully and painstakingly completed to yield the best-quality tiles possible. The entire process can be roughly divided into seven steps:

  1. Digging Up Raw Soil
    High-quality soil is dug up from the Iwami region. After it has been collected, it is left to rest for a designated period of time to regulate its moisture content.
  2. Removing Impurities From the Soil
    By filtering the soil, impurities are removed from it, allowing for a neater surface.
  3. Molding
    This step involves removing air from the soil while making it into clay, which is then shaped into tiles with the use of a metal mold.
  4. Drying
    The molded tiles are dried for several days.
  5. Glazing
    The dried tiles are coated with glaze one by one and dried again.
  6. Firing
    Once the glaze has dried, the tiles are fired at high temperatures of 1,200°C or more.
  7. Sorting
    Each tile will be evaluated by a craftsperson to ensure they are free from scratches or cracks.

Sekishu-gawara Tiles Today

These days, Sekishu-gawara are the second most produced tile in Japan behind Sanshu-gawara of Mikawa (Aichi Prefecture), with Iwami leading the country as one of Japan’s most industrious tile-producing regions. In response to changes in housing preferences, Western-style Sekishu-gawara tiles have also been developed, while traditional tile-making techniques have been utilized in brand-new ways like making chopstick rests (pictured above), lamp shades, and more.

Times change and with them, so do Sekishu-gawara tiles. By providing roof tiles that best suit people’s needs, orders for Sekishu-gawara tiles are not just coming from Japan nowadays, but abroad as well! As they can be recycled, the tiles have also started to become popular as an environmentally-friendly roofing solution.

Featured Products

[Sekishu-gawara Tile] Maruso Lampshade A

This modern Sekishu-gawara lampshade is the work of Maruso (est. 1942). The natural warmth emanating from the purposely preserved rustic texture of the clay allows the shade to seamlessly integrate into any type of room.

Through refined craftsmanship, the light shining through this lampshade illuminates everything around it, from the walls to the ceiling. This exquisitely crafted piece is made by an “onishi,” an honorific name for those who create “onigawara” roof ornaments. The ogre/gargoyle-shaped onigawara are considered the pinnacle of Japanese tile-making, requiring an extensive amount of skill and often acting as household guardian deities.

*Discontinued product

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[Sekishu-gawara Tile] Maruso Chopstick Rest Set: Japanese Apricot (3 Pieces)

These are the Japanese plum/apricot flower versions of the Sekishu-gawara chopstick rests mentioned earlier in the article, featuring two adorable white Japanese plum flowers blooming against a brown background. Each chopstick rest is made with the same techniques as Sekishu-gawara roof tiles. The previously introduced chopstick rests were the “cherry blossom” version. Monochrome renditions in black, brown, and terracotta are also available. Click the link below for more details.

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▶ Check out more Maruso chopstick rests here

Related articles:

▶ Traditional Japanese Crafts: The Complete Guide to Japanese Ceramics

▶ The Complete Guide to Traditional Japanese Crafts

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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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