Six Ancient Kilns of Japan: More than 1000 years of history



Japan, one of the largest island country in the world are a jewel box of ceramic productions. The natural environment of mountainous land made it easier to gather woods from the forest to burn ceramics in the kiln, the river and the ocean helped transport goods in and out of the cities and countries, and the soils were rich and best suitable for making ceramics, especially in the major ceramics production areas known as the Six Ancient Kilns of Japan (Rokkoyo in Japanese). These natural factors in those areas helped preserve the thousand year craft skills inheriting the original production method which still exists today. This article will take you back in history and some facts about these ancient kilns in Japan.

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    What are the Six Ancient Kilns of Japan?

    Shigaraki (信楽)、Bizen(備前), Tanba(丹波), Echizen(越前), Seto(瀬戸) and Tokoname(常滑) are referred to as the Six Ancient Kilns of Japan.
    These kilns have produced ceramics/pottery since medieval times, roughly between Heian to Azuchi Momoyama Period, to the present day with more than 1000 years of history with its production still ongoing in those areas.
    The Six Ancient Kilns of Japan are clearly distinguished as pure Japan-made, from the modern kilns at Hagi, Karatsu,Saga, Arita, Takatori, Satsuma, etc which were influenced from China and Korea.
    The term was coined by a historic ceramics scholar, Fujio Koyama, in 1948, and the Six Ancient Kilns were designated as Japan Heritage sites in 2017.

    Pictures shown are for illustration purposes only. Actual product may vary

    Pictures shown are for illustration purposes only. Actual product may vary

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    Shigaraki is located on the southern part of Lake Biwa, the largest lake in Japan both in size and in volume of water, in Shiga prefecture. Surrounded by beautiful natures, with rich in raw materials, the natural soil compositions and chemical reactions makes a very durable pottery with a blaze color and rustic texture. Clays gathered from the place which was once the bottom of Lake Biwa are perfect for pottery, making it one of the reasons why Shigaraki became famous for its pottery and stonewares.
    It is said that pottery in this area have begun when tiles were made for Shigaraki-no-Miya Palace by the order of Emperor Shomu in 742. Between 1300’s to 1500’s, the humble appearance (wabi sabi, concept of appreciating the simple, yet impermanent states of life) attracted attention of tea masters like Sen No Rikyu, and thus the tea ceramics production were boosted in this area.
    By 1900’s , Hibachi brazier were made and in more recent years, the racoon figurine which became the iconic character of Shigaraki ware were in production. These racoon or in Japanese, “tanuki” figurine are placed at the entrance of Japanese homes, shops and restaurants. They are called “Shigaraki-no-tanuki-no-hassouengi” literally translated into English as Shigaraki ware raccoons 8 good luck things.

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    The name Bizen came from the village of Imbe, Bizen in Okayama prefecture and its pottery evolved from Sueki pottery which was made in the golden age of art in Japan, the Heian period (794-1185).
    Sue ware/pottery had a dark blue gray or charcoal white color from deoxidizing the stoneware with a flame above 1000°C. And the term “Sue” was derived from what pottery was called during Heian period. As time passed and its pottery evolved into Bizen ware where using only wood from Japanese red pines in a kiln with a flame over 1300℃, the final product brings out a natural colors and tones of the clay without applying any glazes or chemical fuels. Each pieces of art are said to display a “balance of natural beauty, originality and harmony” and no two pieces are ever the same as its unique patterns and color schemes depends on how the ash from the kiln’s wood melts on the surface of each work. The feudal lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-98) was also a fan of Bizen as he was so impressed with the skill and variety of wares being made upon his visit to the area. He even declared the area no-war-zone. The production flourished during latter Middle Ages and was in its heyday during Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573-1603) when during the tea ceremony, tea masters favored to use more Zen-quiet utensils rather than imported Chinese wares. Interesting fact here, it is scientifically proved that Bizen pottery blocks 90 % of far infrared rays which can keep nearby natural materials fresh meaning if you put the food on, it can preserve their taste. For example, if you put beer into Bizen cup, the bubbles are said to last longer. That is why many high end restaurants favor Bizen ware tablewares.

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    Nearer to Kyoto but also within proximity to Osaka, in Hyogo Prefecture, in the mountainous area, Tamba (Tamba Tachikui) ware began its production in the late Heian period using the same kiln and pottery making processes as Tokoname and Echizen ware. Tamba ware has a unique ash covered color from firing 60 hours in a climbing kiln in the flame around 1300℃ causing chemical reaction from the ash of pine firewood melting together with enamel and iron contained in the clay. The pottery wheel used for this ware rotate in a counterclockwise direction unlike that of the many pottery wheel spinning in clockwise.
    Up until the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1568-1600), Tamba ware was known as Onohara ware producing large pots, jugs, mortars and keading bowls by piling up string-shaped clay without using a lathe and glaze in ascending kilns. By the early Edo period, craftsmen began to use pottery wheel along with climbing kiln and glazes made out of ash and iron to produce the pottery. In the latter half of the Edo period, “Shiro(white) Tamba”, a signature vessel was created using white soil.
    Potters from Tamaba were flexible and innovative in such a way that they produced wares that is rooted in the lives of that certain ages.
    Few hundred years later in Meiji period (1868-1912), the center of Tamba was relocated to the nearby Tachikui region, and expanded its market as far as Kyushu and Tohoku region under the name, Tachikui ware. In 1978, pottery from this area was designated as Japan Traditional Crafts under the name “Tamba Tachikui ware”.
    Anyone interested in trying out Tamba Tachikui pottery and learn about its history should visit here

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    Echizen ware takes on a genuine, modest and profound texture with ash glaze leaving a rustic impression. It is located in the northern area of the western region of Fukui Prefecture which developed into the largest ceramic industrial area in Hokuriku region. From its geographical location facing the Sea of Japan, pottery produced in and around this area were transported by Kitamae ships (collective term for merchant ships) all around Japan.
    From Heian to Muromachi period (794-1573), Echizen ware was called "Kumagaya-yaki" and from Edo to the first half of Showa period (1603-1955), it was called "Ota-yaki" depending on which village/town the pottery was made from. However, in 1947, because both villages were within Echizen town in Fukui prefecture, ceramic scholar, Fujio Koyama, collectively renamed the pottery made from this area to Echizen ware. Hence, the name Echizen ware got fixed to describe the pottery from Echizen and became known more nationwide. In 1986, pottery from this area was designated as Japan Traditional Crafts.
    Echizen ware is fired between 1200℃ to 1300℃, and the iron in the soil can withstand such high temperatures as it has a high melting point. After being fired, these soils allows for a delicate molding with high density, fine grains and strong tenacity. Such high content of glass components in soil particles like quartz get solidified when fired, which fills any gaps. As a result, the finished final product is hard and dense. During Kamakura period (1185-1333), the traditional coiling technique where clay is rolled into long, thin, cord like pieces and then curled on top of itself to form a basic shape, which is called “nejitate” in Japanese, was developed to create large vases as the characteristics of the soil from Echizen were a good match for making such large potteries. This technique is still practiced today.

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    Throughout Japan’s long history of pottery making, Seto City located in Aichi prefecture has been at its forefront. Because the pottery created at Seto became closely tied to the lives of people, Seto ware became synonymous with the word for Japanese pottery, “setomono”. Over time, “Setomono” came to describe not necessarily works made in Seto, but Japanese ceramics in general.
    In its history, Seto ware is usually attributed to Kato Shirozaemon since after studying ceramics in Southern China, he returned to Seto district and build a kiln in the area in 1242 to produce pottery of his own.
    However, its origins go way back to 5th century beginning with the Sanage kilns producing sue ware in the area now known as Higashiyama Hills of Nagoya, blessed with soil and an environment optimal for pottery-making. Then during Kamakura(1185-1333) and Muromachi (1336-1573) period, Seto was a pioneer in producing glazed ceramics in Japan. From then, Seto has constantly been leading other pottery production throughout Japan. Especially, in particular, the development of Seto-sometsuke style porcelain, a blue-and-white ware featuring elegant brushstrokes that of Japanese-style paintings, was truly epoch-making.
    Similar to the Chinese celadon and white porcelain, Seto ware has a beautiful white unglazed surface. These whiteness is made from using kibushi (dark colored plastic kaolin clay stained by organic substances) and gairome clay (Japanese representative of high plastic clay with rich plasticity and high refractoriness). Both clays are from local clay mining sites. Rich in plasticity and strong fire resistance with almost no iron in the clay makes the final product to look white. The white with blue painting ceramics are now an iconic to Seto ware.

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    In an around the city of Tokoname in Aichi prefecture, Tokoname ware has a history going all the way back to the latter Heian period (794-1185) and also most widespread out of the Six Ancient Kilns of Japan. It also influenced the style of other production areas such as Tamba and Shigaraki. However, Tokoname ware kilns, which themselves had also been influenced by the Sanage kilns too.
    Seto and Tokoname both originated from Sanage kilns but, unlike Seto, Tokoname produced large pots and jugs by using the most basic means to produce ceramics called "yakishime" in Japanese, which is to fire unglazed wares at high temperatures.
    Having on the stratum deposited in Tokai Lake that once existed more than 4 million years ago, the soil from once upon a lake were rich with high consistency of iron that was perfect for the production of “shudei” pottery, especially the teapots.
    Using those soils the final product comes in a unique but attractive brownish red color that is caused by the iron which turns the clay red during the firing process. The outcome is called “shudei朱泥” (unglazed reddish brown pottery) and the most famous is its Tokoname shudei teapot which is said to smoothen the bitterness and astringency of tea making it taste really good. Thank god to the high demands from the common people at that time, these teapots and other daily needs were no longer produced only for the religious rituals and for nobilities and temples, but to everyone.

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