“I wanted to transform the business, you know, turn it into more of a community-driven initiative that brings people from all corners of the world together. A place where people can learn from one another, inspire each other and help preserve the rich history and culture we have here in Arita. Most importantly though, I wanted to create a place that left people smiling, after all smiling is the key to happiness!” – Takanobu Tokunaga, Kouraku Kiln
Takanobu Tokunaga, the fifth-generation owner and CEO at Kouraku Kiln in Arita
Mr Tokunaga with one of his ceramic designs, available to see along with many other pieces inside the gallery at Kouraku Kiln
Takanobu Tokunaga took over the family business when his father retired in 2011. He is the fifth member of his family to step up and run the show at Kouraku Kiln, a successful ceramics and pottery kiln in the birthplace of ceramics in Japan, Arita in Saga Prefecture.
Upon taking over the business, that has been producing a range of select items by hand since 1865, Mr Tokunaga, who is a ceramics designer, decided to steer things in a slightly different direction. He wanted to implement a more international approach to the business in the hope that the company would not only benefit from diversify, but also inspire people from other parts of the world to learn about what’s been happening in Arita for almost 400 years, creating a wider network of likeminded artisans in the process.
His first step was to create an ‘Artist-in-residence’ program, inviting people to apply from around Japan and indeed all over the globe, to come and learn the basics of Arita pottery techniques at Kouraku Kiln. The program has been a success, with artists arriving from various places including various Japanese towns as well as Australia, South Africa, India and Spain to name just a few. Bridges have been built, connections made and a new international community created.
The Artist-in-Residence program has seen potters from around the world stay at Kouraku Kiln and learn about the legacy of ceramics in Arita
Not long after starting this program Mr Tokunaga was introduced to a Brazilian Potter living in China called Sebastiao Pimenta, now referred to by the locals rather affectionately as Pimenta-san. Mr Tokunaga invited Pimenta-san to Japan to see what was happening in Arita, and to introduce the work of Kouraku Kiln to him. Upon arrival in Arita, Pimenta-san was impressed by what he saw and touched by the compassion and dedication and of the local artists. He decided to relocate to Arita and soon teamed up with Kouraku Kiln, becoming their resident coordinator. With five languages under his belt and a growing interest in Japanese ceramics he was in the perfect position to help Mr Tokunaga realize and implement his dream of putting both Arita and Kouraku Kiln on the international stage.
Pimenta-san, resident coordinator at Kouraku Kiln
The town of Arita and the isolated mountainside village of Okawachiyama served as the two main sites of this new-found porcelain pottery production, while the town of Imari served as the port from where the products were shipped to locations across Japan, and even overseas as far away as Europe. Several large-scale kilns were constructed in and around Arita and Okawachiyama resulting in large scale production and prosperity for the area unlike anything they had ever experienced before.
Pimenta-san at work in his studio at Kouraku Kiln
Pimenta-san got to work straight away, promoting the efforts of Kouraku Kiln to a wider audience, while honing his skills in the studio. He transformed the way the business presented itself in the digital realm, engaging people through social media and garnering interest from overseas blogs and websites. He then came up with a genius idea that really took off and had people visiting from far and wide to see and experience themselves – the Kouraku Kiln Treasure Hunt!
When Pimenta-san realized there were warehouses out the back of Kouraku Kiln, that were literally stacked to the rafters with crates upon crates of unsold, unused ceramicware dating back decades, he suggested to Mr Tokunaga they set up a treasure hunting activity that allowed visitors to rummage (with care) through the deadstock, gathering pieces that took their fancy, to take home with them. Mr Tokunaga loved the idea, it was soon implemented and it became an instant success, leaving happy treasure hunters beaming ear to ear with smiling faces!
The entrance to the Treasure Hunting warehouses
Warehouses with stacks of unsold Arita ceramics, ripe for a good old treasure hunt!
The pieces inside range in size, style, design and functionality
There are two sections to the Treasure Hunt, one section will cost you 5000 yen to enter, anything and everything you can fit inside your basket from this section is yours to take home with no extra cost. The second section which has higher quality items costs 10,000 yen to enter, again whatever you put in your basket is yours to take home. There is no limit to how much you try and get in the basket!
Items that were produced for a range of uses are part of the Treasure Hunt
It’s not all lighthearted fun and games at Kouraku Kiln though, there’s also a team of very hardworking artists and craftspeople dedicated to meeting the high demand of Arita porcelain that comes from Kouraku Kiln. These guys spend hours each day carefully crafting a range of pieces that are shipped out to various companies including restaurants, hotel chains and resellers. Every part of the process is done by hand, even the mass-produced assignments, meaning every single item that is shipped is somewhat original and unique. Visitors to Kouraku Kiln can be guided through the studio where this work happens, allowing them to see the process up close and in detail.
One of the artists at Kouraku Kiln working in the main studio
Each piece is carefully crafted by hand on the assembly line
The focus and dedication of each staff member on their work is almost mesmerizing to watch
Attention to detail is applied to each and every piece that goes out through the door
Freshly made bowls lined up ready to be glazed
Another new direction Pimenta-san decided to take things in after arriving at Kouraku Kiln, was to set up a program that invited overseas artists to come and base themselves in Arita while they saw their own personal projects through. One such artist, who is currently based and working at Kouraku Kiln is Jérémie Paré Julien from Montreal in Canada, with her Mimizu Project – a project that breathes a new lease of life into stacks of decades old ceramic items that have slowly fallen into varying states of decay while being kept in storage.
Jérémie explaining her Mimizu project
The site from where Jérémie takes the ceramic pieces she is working on. This old wooden storehouse has slowly been falling to pieces after decades of rain and wind damage, the items kept inside have sadly also started to deteriorate. Jérémie is on a mission to bring them back to life through her new project
Jérémie in her studio space at Kouraku Kiln
Jérémie’s Mimizu project involves rescuing pieces of pottery that have sustained various degrees of damage through exposure to the elements over several decades. The water damage isn’t immediately obvious to the naked eye, it only becomes apparent once the pieces are re-fired in the kiln. Pieces that have substantial damage will reveal an interesting pattern of water-logged lines once they have been back in the kiln, this is what interests Jérémie. She is preserving these pieces, and also adding new elements of aesthetic design through painting on the re-fired surfaces.
Examples of ceramic ware that has been been through the re-firing process as part of Jérémie’s project. The top left piece sustained zero damage hence the pure white finish, the top right piece has quite substantial damage that can be seen through the beautiful pattern created. The bottom two pieces have been hand painted by Jérémie in and around the water-logged markings
The final part of the operation at Kouraku Kiln, which Mr Tokunaga oversees, is the Gallery and Showroom that allows visitors to see the wide range of ceramics created at Kouraku Kiln. Items from various designers and potters associated with the kiln are displayed and also available for sale over two rooms. The eclectic mix of design styles and techniques makes for an interesting display that combines traditional Arita ceramics and various modern approaches to the art.
One of the many pieces on display inside the Gallery
Lots of the pieces are inspired by traditional Japanese design and culture
The ceramics pieces created at Kouraku Kin span various styles and themes
A three-tier lunch box decorated with traditional style painting
A simple yet elegant plate design inside the Kouraku Kiln gallery
For those interested in learning more about or experiencing any of the activities mentioned above, you are urged to contact Kouraku Kiln direct using the contact feature on their homepage. Whether you’re interested in pottering around the Treasure Hunting warehouses, curious to see what’s on display in the gallery or would like to enquire about potentially joining one of the Artist-in-Residence programs, all queries can be explored further using the website below. One thing is almost certainly guaranteed, anyone who makes the effort to explore Kouraku Kiln on any level will leave with a broad smile plastered across their face! https://kouraku.jp.net