Bizen Pottery: One of Japan’s Ancient Kilns

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Bizen is one of Japan’s six ancient kilns, where pottery has been produced for over 1000 years. The area in and around Bizen City where the pottery is made is situated in the Imbe area of Okayama Prefecture.

Koichiro Isezaki (b. 1974) Black Bizen vase.
Koichiro Isezaki (b. 1974) Black Bizen vase.
Descendents of the two original potting families, Kimura and Kaneshige, still work in the area today, although the work has changed over the years. This pottery, along with many of Japan’s most important pottery styles matured during the Momoyama Period (1568 – 1715) when the artistic direction was given by powerful warlords and Zen monks, who were connected with the “Way of Tea” i.e. the Tea Ceremony. However, these tea wares lost their popularity over the years and by the early part of the 20th century very few Bizen potteries remained and the ware they produced was generally of poor quality.

In the early part of the Showa Period (1926 – 1989) there was a revival of Momoyama aesthetics throughout Japan and in Bizen it was Kaneshige Toyo (1896 – 1967), who lead the way. Before this time he had been an expert in the production of ornamental figures that the area had become synonymous with but abandoned this to rediscover and reintroduce the fine tea wares that his ancestors had produced. Kaneshige was made an “Important Intangible Cultural Property”, more commonly known as Living National Treasure in 1956 for these pioneering efforts. These resulted in a large increase in the number of potteries in the area, producing a variety of individual wares that like Bizen ware throughout history is unglazed.

The high quality Bizen clay used for the process is generally fired for many days in wood-fired kilns and it is an understanding of the firing process and how different parts of the kiln react that is of paramount importance.

Fumio Kawabata (b. 1948) Chawan with hidasuki decoration.
Fumio Kawabata (b. 1948) Chawan with hidasuki decoration.

In the Harlequin Gallery exhibition that begins on Friday 27th July there will be a number of pieces of contemporary Bizen pottery included, with some of these illustrating this article. The current Living National Treasure is Jun Isezaki and the “Black Bizen” vase at the top of the page is made by his eldest son and rising star of contemporary Bizen potter, Koichiro Isezaki. The effect shown on this vase is achieved by using a dark iron slip that combines with natural ash “sesame goma” from the wood-firing process used for much of pottery from this region. Koichiro had studied with his father but travelled to New York state to continue his apprenticeship with the American potter, Jeff Sharpiro, to learn more than the traditional firing techniques of the area, which I believe this vase exemplifies. Another young potter associated with Jun Isezaki is Kazuya Ishida, who has been involved with the Oxford Anagama Project here in the UK and who was the subject of a solo exhibition that I held back in January 2016. Kaz was an apprentice with Isezaki from 2007 to 2010 and the vase here that was made and fired in Bizen owes more to traditional methods of the region when compared to much of his work.

Kazuya Ishida Bizen fired vase with botamochi decoration.
Kazuya Ishida (b. 1986) Bizen fired vase with botamochi decoration.

The two examples of chawan (teabowls) shown both exhibit the reddish linear effects produced by placing rice straw around the bowls when packing the kiln that is synonymous with Bizen pottery. The open or summer chawan was made by Shin Buyo, who is a native of the area. He studied under Rakuzan Fujiwara and established his own kiln back in 1968. The hand-built chawan on the other hand was made by Fumio Kawabata, who was born in Yokohama City, several hundreds of miles to the west and studied graphic design before being captivated by the natural landscapes present in Bizen ware and moved to the area to study the process in 1974. He became an assistant to Riuemon Kaneshige and by 1986 was considered a master potter in his own right. In 1989 he was given top prize at the Tanabe Museum Cha no Yu Zokei Ten (Sculptural Forms in Tea exhibition) and once again received the award in 1994, as well as receiving prizes at the National Ceramics Biennale.

From a personal point of view, the quiet landscape of Bizen wares was quite difficult to appreciated when I first can across the pottery but over the years I have become fascinated by it. In fact it has become my favourite of all the fine pottery styles that emanate from Japan.

Shin Buyo (b.1936) Open chawan.
Shin Buyo (b.1936) Open chawan.

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