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A Trip to Japan: Four Mingei Kilns

If you’ve visited Tortoise General Store recently, you may have noticed the arrival of new pottery - full of bright colors, distinctive patterns, and a warm, handmade quality.

Variety of pottery from the Onda kiln

We’ve acquired a selection of ceramic-ware from four distinct regions of Japan, celebrating mingei (folk craft) and traditional ceramic practices that have been around for centuries. International travel can still be challenging these days - join us for a virtual trip around Japan by reading about these four kilns. 

Onda

Our first stop is nestled into a narrow green gorge among the hills of eastern Kyushu, the third largest of Japan's five islands.

 Since the beginning of recorded history, Onda has been a pottery village. Of the 300 residents, nearly every single person is involved in pottery production - harvesting clay, tempering the soil with wooden mills, working on the wheel, etc. There are only three last names in the entire village, and these families have been set with the task of guarding traditional Onda technique.

Because of the highly localized nature of Onda pottery, this kiln is very closely associated with the mingei movement, founded by Sōetsu Yanagi. Yanagi, father of one of our favorite industrial designers Sori Yanagi, defined mingei as objects that are:

  • Produced by hand
  • Inexpensive
  • Made by anonymous craftsmen
  • Functional within daily life
  • Used by the masses
  • Representative of the region where it was produced

At the beginning of the 20th century, Sōetsu Yanagi wrote about the Onda kiln. 

“We want to learn what fosters beauty … if we cannot grasp this important fact, we cannot be proud of our new culture. Just as we cannot indulge ourselves in the past. Onda is the direct opposite of today. But that is why there are so many things we can learn from it. Because it has abundant aspects that we lack. It has the strength that is not subject to the aspect of time.”

Travelers who have passed through Onda village always have a story to tell about the sound of the 300 year old wood mills that are a crucial part of Onda's ceramic process. 

In 1996, the Japanese Ministry of the Environment decided to designate the 100 Soundscapes of Japan as part of an effort to combat noise pollution and inspire environmental protection. 738 submissions were received from all over the country, and the top 100 were chosen to function as symbols for local people to promote the discovery of the sounds of everyday life. The sound of the mills in Onda was chosen as one of those precious 100. It remains a national treasure to this day. 

Seto

The next stop on our journey is located 20 kilometers east of Nagoya, in the Aichi prefecture.

Seto is located both geographically and symbolically in the center of Japan. "Setomoto," a Japanese word that directly translates to "seto things," is a synonym for glazed ceramics in general - a linguistic clue into the influence Seto kiln has had on Japanese ceramic tradition. 

Seto kiln has access to two high quality clays - kibushi and gairome. This clay has almost no iron content and is known for excellent elasticity and refractoriness. The clay has a luminous white quality - the perfect backdrop for bright colors and complex glazing patterns. 

The vibrancy of Seto's glaze patterns are instantly recognizable. One of the most famous (pictured below) is called "uma-no-me," directly translating to "horse's eye." This design is considered a symbol of prosperity, and has been used by hundreds of potters since its original production at Seto kiln. Many of these plates live in museum exhibits - even contemporary productions are considered highly collectible. 

Fumoto

And now back to the island of Kyushu - this time right outside of Kumamoto prefecture. Fumoto kiln carries on the 400 year legacy of Shodai ceramics, under the watchful eye of ceramic master Inouse Taishu. 

Unlike the clay surrounding Seto kiln, Shodai ceramics makes use of clay with a high iron content. This results in dark, reddish brown coloring that is less conducive to delicate glaze work. Instead, Shodai ceramics features ash from straw, wood, and rice - dramatically ladled on to create striking, bold, uncontrolled patterns. 

This technique was developed in the middle of the Edo period (18th century) and nearly became extinct around the second world war. Porcelain flooded the market and was perceived as more "sophisticated" while Shodai ware was dismissed as "primitive." Post-war, a handful of potters worked together to rekindle this tradition, including Inouse Taishu. 

Inouse Taishu established the Fumoto kiln in 1965, and it is still in production. This kiln celebrates the tradition of Shodai pottery. Fumoto kiln received the Minister for Foreign Affairs’ Award at the Japan Ceramic Art Exhibition, and the Grand Prize at the Japan Folk Crafts Museum, among other awards. 

Shodai ceramics are often referred to as gotoku-yaki, directly translating to "five virtues." The five virtues of Shodai ceramics are:

  1. Does not corrode
  2. Does not transmit odor
  3. Protected from moisture
  4. Antibacterial effects
  5. A long life span

Okinawa

Our last stop is the southernmost island of Japan, in a prefecture that was a semi-independent kingdom under both Japanese and Chinese rule until the Meiji Period (1868 - 1912). Okinawa is lush and tropical, home to many distinct dialects and cultural customs that survived despite an assimilation campaign from the Japanese government. With a unique language, diet, and ceramic tradition, many Okinawans still see their identity as separate from mainland Japan. 

Okinawan pottery dates back to the 14th century. Since it has been relatively isolated from the rest of Japan, Okinawan glazes and shapes are highly regional. Their glaze patterns represent lush local plant life, and a playful, undefined energy. 

Okinawans refer to their pottery as "Yachimun" in their own dialect, literally translating to "baked object."

Just like Shodai pottery, Okinawan pottery suffered from the influx of porcelain production. We are thankful for the work of Soetsu Yanagi and Shoji Hamada for recognizing the value of this craft through the Mingei Movement. We recommend a stop to the Tsuboya Pottery District in Okinawa to experience the full preservation of this beautiful craft. 

 


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