Tokoname ware is one of the oldest pottery in Japan


Tokoname ware with red cray color

The hallmark of Tokoname ware lies in its usage of iron-rich clay sourced from the Chita Peninsula, which grants it its characteristic red hue known as “Shudo”. While Tokoname ware is applied in various products such as tea bowls and flowerpots, the kyusu (teapot) is recognized as its most representative item. The iron content in the clay is reputed to soften the bitterness and astringency of tea, and hence it has been designated as one of Japan’s vital intangible cultural assets.

Furthermore, the sediment in Lake Tokai (Aichi Prefecture) is laden with iron, thereby making it perfect for crafting large pottery that hardens easily even at lower temperatures. The jar-making technique was conceived at the end of the Heian period, and it involves carrying a 7 to 10 cm-thick clay cord on one’s shoulder and stacking the clay as the potter himself rotates the cord similar to a potter’s wheel. This method has been handed down from generation to generation.

Tokoname pottery is considered one of the oldest pottery styles in Japan, and despite being recognized as one of the six oldest kilns in Japan, it has the longest history among Tokoname, Shigaraki, Bizen, Tanba, Echizen, and Seto, which sets it apart. Due to the smooth and delicate nature of its pottery, it has gained popularity worldwide, and it is not uncommon to witness tourists purchasing it during their visits to Japan.

tokoname ware
Source: JTOPIA


History of Tokoname ware

What is Tokoname, the oldest of the sixoldest kilns?

Tokoname ware is known to have the oldest history among the six oldest kilns, and it is said to have spread to the Chita Peninsula during the late Heian period (around 1100), following the trend of ash-glazed ceramics from the Sanage kiln. Tokoname ware produced during the Heian and Kamakura periods is referred to as “Ko-Tokoname,” and was used by aristocrats and warriors for creating everyday pots, Buddhist water jars, and sutra jars (kyozukatsubo, a vessel used to store sutras). These vessels were an integral part of aristocrats’ and warriors’ daily lives, and were utilized to store sutras.

The most well-known among them is the sankinko jar, which has a three-striped pattern on the body. During this period, the molding was done by “string making” (the technique used for large jars and pots is called “yoriko-zukuri”), in which clay is rolled into a string shape, and the pots are fired unglazed. Additionally, small jars, which Sen no Rikyu called “bokkemono,” were fired.

The development of Takoname

From the Muromachi period (1333-1573) to the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573-1600), kogame (small jar) in the shape of an arithmetic slab was fired and later used as a water pitcher for wabicha (tea ceremony). In the Muromachi period (1333-1573), Mizuno Kemmu, lord of Tokoname Castle, presented a small jar in the shape of an arithmetic slab to Sen no Rikyu, who called it “Bakemono” because it resembled a daruma doll. The word “bokkemon” means “illiterate” in Zen, and the jars shaped like daruma were also called “fushiki jar” (meaning “illiterate jar”).

During the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1568-1600), other kilns were actively producing tea utensils, but no tea ceramics were produced in Tokoname. There was a period when Tokoname kilns were temporarily banned due to the fact that Mizuno no longer supported Oda Nobunaga.

tokoname ware
Source: Travel jp

Master craftsmen appeared one after another

A multitude of skilled artisans emerged during the Edo period (1603-1867), leading to significant advancements in Tokoname ware. Numerous novel techniques and kilns came into being, some of which were appointed official kilns of the domain. Several master potters, including Ina Choza, Kamimura Hakuko, Matsushita Sanko, and Akai Tozen, achieved great feats. In particular, Ina Choza invented the “mo-gake technique” and “scarlet ware,” while Kamimura Hakuko made pottery by hand without utilizing a potter’s wheel. Akai Tozen, one of the Owari clan’s most accomplished craftsmen, also made noteworthy contributions.

The birth of the “Fatty red clay kyusu

The end of the Edo period marked the appearance of Tokoname ware’s masterpieces. During the Bunkyu period (1861-1869), Jumon Sugie, Tokoname’s first-generation potter known for his Shudo ware, produced the Shudo kyusu, which served as the basis for the contemporary kyusu form. Koie Fangju, also known as the “founder of Tokoname pottery,” created a mold for earthenware pipes between 1872 and 1873, taking the first step toward mass-producing earthenware pipes. The standardization of earthenware pipes facilitated the growth of a new production field in the area and laid the groundwork for Tokoname ware’s modernization. As a result, earthenware pipes and tiles have been extensively produced in Tokoname since the Meiji period (1868-1912).

Recognized as a Living National Treasurefor the production of “kyusu (teapot)

In 1962, the Tokoname Ceramic Research Institute was established to study Tokoname ware, which boasts a 900-year history. Visitors can learn about the history of Tokoname ware and its works from the Heian to Edo periods. In 1998, Yamada Tsuneyama III, who had become a master of Tokoname ware with his signature red clay teapot, was named Aichi Prefecture’s first Living National Treasure for his “teapot.”

Tokoname Pottery – Production Process

1. Kneading the clay

This section details the production process of a kyusu made of red clay, as Tokoname Pottery offers a wide range of products. The initial step involves extracting the finer clay from the collected clay. The selected clay is then thoroughly kneaded to form a sludgy liquid.

2. Drawing on a potter’s wheel

The kyusu is formed in sections, including the body, lid, handle, and spout. The body is placed face down on the potter’s wheel and rotated. Gradually, the distorted shape is smoothed out using a spatula. Once the body is complete, the other parts are crafted in the same manner. The body is then dried, but careful attention must be paid to ensure that the drying time for each component is consistent.

3. Finishing each part

Once the body has dried and solidified, excess material is shaved off, and the body is cleaned. The body and lid are slightly adjusted to fit perfectly together. The degree of precision and finesse during this stage, before the product is fully dried, is crucial to producing a high-quality item.

4. Assembly

This stage involves attaching the spout and handle to the body. Round holes are drilled in the body using a special tool to join it to the other parts. The craftsman’s expertise is put to the test since the finished product will be impacted if the components are not meticulously blended. The state of dryness and hardness during the assembly process is also closely examined.

5. Drying

If not handled with care, the drying stage can lead to cracks and deformations. This is a crucial step before moving on to the final process. We take our time in drying the components. The drying conditions vary depending on subtle temperature and humidity changes, so the drying process is adjusted to ensure uniform drying.

japanese pottery
Source: LUPICICA Tea Magazine

6. Polishing the surface

Polishing refers to the process of rubbing the surface with a cloth until it attains a lustrous finish. The polishing procedure is reiterated until the desired brilliance is attained.

7. Carving

Carving denotes the process of engraving a design before the potter’s wheel is placed in the kiln. This is the phase where the craftsman’s expertise shines, and various engravings are made using a seal knife.

8. Firing

Following the drying and carving phases, the teapots are stacked in the kiln. Once stacked, they are covered with lids and fired at a temperature of approximately 1,100 degrees Celsius for 12 to 18 hours. In the past, the kiln temperature had to be manually adjusted to maintain a consistent temperature, but today, computer control enables temperature adjustment. This temperature modification significantly alters the hue of the baked pieces. After being fired for about a day, the teapots are removed from the kiln, shrinking to 80% of their original size.

9. Sumi-filling and rinsing

The kyusu is given one final polish. Next, to emphasize the outline of the carved pattern on the teapot, sumi ink is applied to the engraved area. After rinsing off the sumi ink, the pattern emerges exquisitely.

10. Finishing

The last step entails rubbing the pieces together. Tokoname ware is well-known for its airtightness, so the lid and body are fitted together with great care. Since the work is performed one by one, the lid and body are paired perfectly, and when they are matched, you can see that the different lids are slightly misaligned. This concludes the production of Shudo kyusu.

Tokoname pottery
Source: Hilton Hotel & Resort

You can walk around the tradition

In Tokoname, there exists a “pottery promenade” where visitors may enjoy a leisurely stroll amidst a path adorned with beckoning felines and earthen pipes, and a vista of brick chimneys. The journey commences from the Tokoname Pottery Museum, where Tokoname ware is exhibited and traded, and continues on a concise route which may be accomplished within an hour. There is also an option for a more extensive tour that offers access to tourist attractions such as the INAX Live Museum and the historical insights of Tokoname, thus providing a hands-on opportunity for visitors to experience the manufacturing prowess of Tokoname while traversing the route.


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