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Step into the World of Japanese Ceramics

Japanese ceramic pieces are molded with stories. There are many pottery towns in the country, each with their own distinct aesthetic, technique, and history. Pay a visit to find the perfect ceramic treasure to add to your dinner table.

BY Sameeha Anwar

Japanese cuisine is meant to be enjoyed with the five senses. It’s not just about flavor— presentation also plays an important role. Fine dining establishments and ryokan inns often carefully select ceramic vessels that complement the ingredients or pay tribute to the seasons. In this way, tableware tells a story and plays an essential role in the Japanese dining experience.

carefully-selected-plate-for-grilled-fish

The history of ceramics goes back a long way in Japan. They were crafted as early as the Jomon Period (10,500 BC to 300 BC). Later, tea ceremony, as well as Chinese and Korean aesthetics played important roles in shaping Japanese pottery as it is today. You will find two distinct styles—simple, rough, and imperfect earthenware or stoneware that reflect the philosophy of wabi-sabi and fine porcelain crafted with elaborate designs and vibrant hues.

Japanese-ceramics

tea-bowl-and-Japanese-sweets

Types of ceramics

The traditional Japanese table is made up of a variety of elements—ceramic plates and bowls of various sizes, soy sauce dishes, teacups, chopsticks, and chopstick rests. They come in a plethora of designs and make great, functional souvenirs to take home.

Japanese ceramics are categorized into four rough categories. Doki refers to unglazed earthenware while sekki is unglazed stoneware made with iron-rich clay and fired at high temperatures over a long period of time. Toki is glazed soft-paste porcelain and jiki is thin, hard-paste porcelain that takes on a smooth texture and cool hue.

There are many towns in Japan specializing in ceramics. Each region has a distinct style that arises from differences such as the type of clay, coloring, and firing method. The ceramics usually take on the name of their place of origin. Each piece is handcrafted and one-of-a-kind, so it is worth paying a visit to a pottery town to acquire one that will last a lifetime.

Arita ware, Saga

Artia-chawan-bowl

Artia chawan bowl

Arita is located in the Western Saga Prefecture. The area’s relationship with ceramics goes back 400 years when kaolin—the material for porcelain—was discovered near the local mountains. The durable, thin Arita porcelain pieces are usually painted with elaborate Chinese and Korean-inspired designs in vibrant colors like red, gold, yellow, and blue. The area also hosts Japan’s largest ceramics event, The Arita Ceramic Fair, usually held every year from late April to Early May. Expect to find about 500 vendors selling beautifully-crafted pieces at bargain prices.

Mashiko ware,Tochigi

Mashiko-plate

Mashiko plate

Home to about 250 kilns, Mashiko Town in Tochigi Prefecture is one of Japan’s largest pottery-producing areas. The local clay is packed with iron and silicate, so no additional ingredients need to be added when making pottery. Traditional Mashiko ware tends to have simple, rustic designs—they are usually on the heavy side and with subdued glazes like ivory and matte black. The biannual Mashiko Ceramics Market offers a great opportunity to pick up a few timeless pieces and interact with the local artisans. To learn more about Mashiko pottery, you can choose to pay a visit to the Mashiko Museum of Ceramic Art.

Shigaraki ware, Shiga

Shigaraki-bowl

Shigaraki bowl

Koka in Shiga Prefecture is located near the beautiful Lake Biwa and is one the oldest pottery towns in Japan. It produces Shigaraki ware—stoneware known for simple, unglazed designs. The pieces are made with warm, reddish clay combined with rough stones. Shigaraki tea bowls were among the first types to be used for tea ceremony because of their coarse, imperfect shapes that embody the wabi-sabi aesthetic. The area is also famous for lucky ceramic statues of tanuki, racoon dogs from Japanese folklore. If you are visiting Japan in October, make your way to the Shigaraki Ceramics Festival to shop for pottery and sample local delicacies.

Kutani ware, Ishikawa

Kutani-plate

Kutani plate

Ishikawa Prefecture has a long tradition of artisanal techniques—it’s the birthplace of crafts such as Kaga Yuzen silk dyeing and Yamanaka Urushi lacquerware. Kutani ware is made with finely-crushed stone and comes from a tiny mountainous village in Ishikawa. The fine porcelain pieces are painted with elaborate natural landscapes and motifs in rich, vivid hues. The five main colors used are red, yellow, green, purple, and dark blue.

Seto ware, Aichi

Sturdy and glossy Seto ware, produced in the city of Seto in Aichi Prefecture, have a millennium-old history. The region is recognized as one of Japan’s six ancient kilns and was one of the first to incorporate glazing into its pottery-making techniques. The clay used for Seto is rich in kaolin and porcelain stone, so it turns into a whitish shade when fired. Seto pottery-makers in the late 19th century were influenced by the Arita style of blue and white, and many Seto pieces continue to embrace that aesthetic.

Shopping for ceramics in Tokyo

Various-Japanese-ceramics

Other notable ceramic towns include Bizen in Okayama Prefecture, Mino in Gifu, and Yachimun in Okinawa. If you are looking for ceramics during your visit and are short on time, there are plenty of places in Tokyo that sell pieces from all over Japan. Drop by Kappabashi Street, Tokyo’s prime kitchenware district, where you’ll find everything from food-themed magnets to top-notch knives and handcrafted ceramic pieces. The Oedo Antique Market, usually held on the first and third Sunday of each month in Yurakucho’s Tokyo International Forum, is a must-visit for anyone looking for unique pieces to take home. You will find vintage ceramics as well as an array of interesting antiques.

Workshops: Pottery classes and kintsugi

pottery-classes

Channel your inner potter and join a hands-on pottery workshop. Many studios in and outside Tokyo offer classes in English, providing the perfect opportunity to take your interest in ceramics to the next level (and a memento to take home!). At the Uzumako Ceramic Art School in Minato, Tokyo, you can get behind the wheel and make a bowl, cup, or plate. You can also choose from several glaze hues and have it delivered to you after it’s fired and glazed. Note that it will take three to four weeks to have the finished piece delivered.

tea-bowl-repaired-with-kintsugi

Tea bowl repaired with kintsugi

One interesting way to experience pottery and the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi is through kintsugi, literally “golden repair.” It’s the traditional art of mending broken pottery using lacquer mixed with gold. Kintsugi reflects the Japanese concepts of wasting nothing and embracing imperfection. Try it for yourself at a workshop in Kuge Crafts, Koenji. You can bring in your own broken pottery or try mending one provided by the studio. Note that you will need to make a reservation in advance.

Sameeha Anwar
6 years living in Japan

I’m a freelance translator and writer working in the film and broadcasting industry. I enjoy good books and alpine treks.

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