UTSUWA – Japanese Tableware

Crafted at sites scattered throughout the country, the pottery of Japan shows some of the most varied range of features and designs in the world.

Pottery has a long history in Japan with earthenware production stretching back as far as the ancient Jomon period (around 16000 years ago). With the introduction of ceramic production techniques from China and the Korean Peninsula, came a diverse range of wares crafted by such techniques. The discovery of porcelain stone in the Edo period (1603–1868) led to the production of porcelain, and since kilns tended to utilise the natural environment and available resources, wares that reflect its surroundings began to flourish. Exploring the many crafting locations all over Japan reveals a fascinating range of tools, clay and techniques used, even though similar types of everyday tableware are produced at the different kilns.

Since 2012, Found MUJI Aoyama has featured pottery from ten kilns in Japan. This time, we revisit four of the ten regions: Mashiko ware from Tochigi Prefecture, Banko ware from Mie Prefecture, Tobe ware from Ehime Prefecture and Hagi ware from Yamaguchi Prefecture.

Mashiko ware (Mashiko, Tochigi Prefecture)

In the northeastern part of the Kanto Plain lies the town of Mashiko. There are views of Mount Amamaki, Haga-Fuji and other mountains beyond the expanse of fields and rice paddies. Sue ware, a type of ancient earthenware, was made in Mashiko in the 7th century. However, production of pottery went obsolete for a time, and revived in the late Edo period in the same region. Mashiko clay is sandy and gritty with a low viscosity, and wares made from it tended to be fragile and have a weightiness. For this reason, the clay was mostly used for making everyday kitchen items such as earthenware jars, mortar bowls and teapots for the common people. Today, the clay used has been refined to suit tableware production. With the advent of the Japanese folk craft movement advocated by figures such as Soetsu Yanagi and Shoji Hamada who moved to the area in 1924, Mashiko ware came to be known widely as folk art pieces as well as wares for daily use.

Cooperatives in Mashiko extract local clay and blend this with clay that is well-suited for tableware. Here, over 5,000 pieces of pottery are produced monthly. Shaping is done using mechanical wheels, with all the stages leading up to glaze firing all done by hand.

Banko ware (Komono, Mie Prefecture)

An expanse of rice fields spreads out at the foot of the Suzuka Mountains in the town of Komono. This is one of the sites where Banko ware, produced primarily in northern Mie Prefecture, is crafted. Famous for its heat resistance, Banko tableware accounts for about 80% of the donabe earthenware pots produced in Japan. While Banko ware has been produced here for over 300 years, it did not initially have such properties. Research into forms of such clay was carried out as people’s ways of living changed. Between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s a form of feldspar called petalite came to be blended with the clay, perfecting the heat-resistant clay mix used today.

Pottery casted on a mechanical wheel is shaped individually by hand up to its final form. After the initial biscuit firing at 750–800°C, items are glaze fired at about 1250°C. The number of blocks placed at the opening of the kiln is adjusted to regulate the oxygen flow, according to the season and weather at the time of firing. With a sense for the work honed over many years, adjustments are made continuously during firing.

Tobe ware (Tobe, Ehime Prefecture)

Nestled in the mountains towards the interior of the Dogo Plain is the town of Tobe, about a 40-minute drive from the city of Matsuyama where Mount Shoji can be seen. Local pottery is decorated with gosu, a cobalt pigment, and characterised by its thickness and a weightiness. While the area originally produced earthenware, porcelain came to be crafted over 240 years ago, making use of scraps of the locally-extracted iyoto (whetstones). The tradition is being kept alive with around 100 kilns in operation today.

The arabesque designs of Tobe ware originate from the Japanese folk craft movement between the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s. The original Tobe ware had featured intricate decorations until the expansive single-stroke technique became popular and is now the symbolic design that is known today.

An item unique to Tobe ware is a type of bowl called tamabuchi-bachi. After the initial casting, the bowls are shaped to feature thick, rounded rim shapes. This makes the weighty tableware easy to hold, and prevents slipping.

Hagi ware (Hagi, Yamaguchi Prefecture)

Facing the Sea of Japan is the city of Hagi. The many flat outlying islands are a result of volcanic eruptions. Mishima-tsuchi, the clay indispensable to making Hagi ware, is extracted from one of the outlying Mishima Islands.

Hagi ware has a history dating back around 400 years, with kilns first built for the official use of the Mori clan, a samurai family. This type of pottery is popular and widely used in the form of tea bowls. Hagi ware often has a simple unadorned look so to bring out the character of the clays used, which are primarily the white, finely-textured daido-tsuchi and the red, iron-rich mishima-tsuchi. Another feature of Hagi ware is the “notched foot” design for their tea bowls. Various explanations have been given for this, from being an indication that it is approved for use by the common people, to simply being a figurative design. Though the truth is unclear, the notched foot remains a notable feature of Hagi ware.

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