Karatsu ware with unique decorating patterns and colors

karatsu ware
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Karatsu ware is characterized by the color of the clay and unique patterns

Karatsu ware, a type of pottery that originated in Karatsu City in Saga Prefecture and northern Nagasaki Prefecture, has a rich history spanning over four centuries and has been designated as a national traditional craft. Today, Karatsu ware is widely used for daily dishware, cups, tea bowls, and teacups. Its distinctive features are its sturdy, earthy, and rough designs, typical of ceramics, and the utilization of traditional techniques such as “keirokuro” and “tappi-zukuri.” The techniques of “kick-rokuro” and “tataki-zukuri” are said to have been introduced by potters from the Joseon Dynasty after the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592, and even today, more than 400 years after the end of the Japanese occupation, these techniques are still utilized in the production of Karatsu ware.
Karatsu ware is reputed to be a type of pottery that reaches its full potential with repeated use, as the clay color progressively transforms. Notably, certain types of Karatsu ware are intentionally left unglazed, a style known as “tsuchimise,” which highlights the inherent properties of the clay material, such as its color and texture, without the interference of glaze. Similar to other ceramics, such as Mino ware, Otani ware, or Hagi pottery, Karatsu ware is appreciated for its unique expression of the natural material.

Types of Karatsu ware

Karatsuyaki is distinguished by a diverse array of pottery types, contingent on variations in clay, glaze, and technique. The primary categories of Karatsuyaki are as follows:
  • Egaratsu: Decorated with an iron solution known as “Oni-ita” (meaning devil’s plate), followed by a coating of transparent glaze and firing process.
  • Muji-karatsu: Plain pottery pieces that employ a single glaze and are not adorned with any painting.
  • Madara-karatsu: Milky-white ceramics with blue or black spots scattered across the surface.
  • Kuro-garatsu: A high-iron-content glaze that produces varying shades ranging from jet black to candy red, depending on the quantity of iron and other factors.
  • Chosen-garatsu: A type that involves two types of glaze, namely iron glaze and ash glaze, and is characterized by a gradation of two colors, black and white.
  • Mishima: Semi-dry raw pottery with a pattern painted on it before being fired.
  • Kohiki: Pottery made from brown clay, fired with a semi-dry base and coated with a white overglaze.

History of Karatsu ware

The production of pottery started before others

Various theories have been proposed regarding the genesis of Karatsuyaki, yet it is commonly believed to have emerged around 1580 during the Muromachi period. Subsequently, when the Japanese warlord, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, invaded Korea, potters who accompanied him introduced innovative techniques like the “climbing kiln,” “kick kiln,” and “glazing” to Japan. These novel methods greatly influenced the development and growth of Karatsuyaki, ultimately leading to its significant expansion in production.

The prosperity of karatsu ware

After the Bunroku Keicho War, the Terasawa clan succeeded the Hata clan, which had been devastated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and erected kilns in the Karatsu domain to safeguard and promote the pottery industry. Original and newly arrived potters alike began producing high-end and everyday items, including tea utensils and other luxury goods for the feudal domain. Karatsu ware, shipped from Karatsu Port, disseminated to western Japan, encompassing Kyoto and Osaka, and was designated “karatsu-mono” in the west, analogous to pottery being known as “setomono” in the east. Additionally, Karatsuyaki found its way into Japan’s tea culture, as the pottery was used in tea ceremonies by Sen no Rikyu and held in high esteem by tea masters such as Furuta Oribe.

Decline from the early Edo period. And Revival

During the early Edo period, Karatsu’s pottery industry saw a migration of potters to Arita-yaki, and with the emergence of porcelain production in Arita in 1616, the pottery industry in Hizen, around Saga Prefecture, transitioned from ceramics to porcelain. This shift was detrimental to the prosperity of Karatsu pottery, as it was heavily influenced by the flourishing of Arita porcelain. However, under the domain’s policy at that time, the pottery industry was divided into two separate kilns: one for producing pottery for the Imperial Court and the other for producing everyday items for common people. This ensured the continuation of pottery production, with Karatsuyaki surviving as daily necessities for the common people. Following the abolition of feudal domains after the Meiji Restoration, Karatsu ware lost its official kiln status and continued to decline. However, research into old kilns and the reproduction of techniques in the early Showa period led to a revival of the industry. As a result, Karatsu-yaki is now produced at more than 70 kilns, where new works are being created while preserving the techniques of their predecessors. For nearly 40 years, the Karatsu Pottery Cooperative Association has held the Traditional Craft Karatsu Pottery Exhibition as a platform to showcase such craftsmanship.

Manufacturing Method and Process

1. Mining Pottery Clay

The allure of Karatsu-yaki lies in the inherent qualities of the clay used, which can manifest in the final product. Thus, the initial and crucial step is to select an appropriate clay type that complements the desired style of the piece. The clay is then gathered into a heap, from which any irregularities are methodically removed using a specialized mallet known as a doji. By meticulously carrying out this procedure, the pottery is imbued with a refined finish.

2. Step on the clay

Once the scraped clay is mixed with water, it is stepped on. When the clay becomes a disk, cut the clay and step on it again. The sense of the hardness of the clay cannot be acquired overnight, so stepping on the clay is a process that requires the sense and experience of the craftsman. After repeatedly stepping on the clay, it is divided into balls and formed into shape.

3. Kneading

Kneading is the process of removing air from the soil by kneading it well. By kneading well, the particles are made uniform. The kneaded clay is then formed into a shell shape.

4. Molding

There are various molding methods, but the most common is rokuro molding. Rokuro molding is also called “mizu-giri,” or “water grinding.” By dipping the hand in water, it is possible to apply the hand smoothly to the spinning wheel. Electric rokuro is also used, but in the old days, traditional techniques such as “kick rokuro” were also used. Another technique used is “tapping,” in which clay is made into a tall cylindrical shape, the inside of which is placed against the wood, and then tapped from the outside. Other techniques include “itaokoshi,” or “koto-zukuri,” and the appropriate molding technique is used depending on the type of pottery. After the molding process is completed, the base is shaved and the pottery is left to dry naturally.

5. Decorating Process

Decorations are applied using traditional techniques such as carving, “kushime” and “hakeme. Before painting, the pots are sometimes unglazed at low temperatures.

6. Painting Process

The main tools used for painting are brushes, but some craftsmen paint with their fingers or bamboo. Painting directly on a non-flat surface is a process that cannot be redone and is difficult to achieve the desired effect, so long practice is required. After the painting is done, the pot is glazed and allowed to dry.

7. Main firing process

In the final firing process, the pieces are packed into the kiln. Once fired, the piece is fired at a high temperature of 1,250 to 1,300°C. The texture of the piece varies greatly depending on the firing temperature. Concentrated techniques are required because the texture of the work changes greatly depending on the firing process.

KEY POINT

Karatsu ware is renowned for its versatility as an everyday-use household item. It is characterized by a rustic clay texture and a soft, warm shape that imbues each piece with a unique charm. The dishware’s elegance is further accentuated by the simple beauty of the plate on which it is served. When encountering Karatsu ware, one is filled with anticipation about what kind of meal it will hold and how it will be presented. This pottery is also credited with being the first in Japan to feature brushwork decoration, making it an innovative and visually captivating art form that can be appreciated not only for its practical use but also for its aesthetic qualities.
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