Shigaraki Pottery: The origins of today’s wood-fired pottery

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Shigaraki pottery generally refers to the wood-fired stoneware pottery made in the Shigaraki area around 45 kilometres south east of the city of Kyoto and is important for being one of the ‘Six Old Kilns’ of Japan. The town of Shigaraki was formed from eighteen independent communities along the Daido River in the valley at the most southern tip of Shiga prefecture and in 2004 it merged with five nearby towns to form the new city of Koka.

Anagama kiln - Shigaraki pottery.
Anagama kiln.

Sue pottery, a blue/grey high fired ware that originated in Korea during the 5th and 6th centuries, appears to have been made in the area from the 8th century but the earliest kilns that produced something similar to the pottery that we associated with the area today date back to 1278.

The local sandy clay from the bed of Lake Biwa has a warm orange colour, contains feldspar and makes very durable pottery, which characterises Shigaraki wares. The pots irregular shape probably originates in Sue ware and their decoration replies much of the firing process. The firing technique allows air admission into the kiln and this leads to iron oxides within the clay to form a significant part of the colouring process. This free movement of air results from the anagama (or cave) kilns that are used in Shigaraki today. They are typically constructed on the side of hills and their single chamber has a sloping tunnel shape. Using this type of kiln also achieves the mineral glaze surface so popular with Shigaraki wares. Wood must be constantly added to achieve the high temperature required and this also adds minerals that give the wares their typical richness of surface. These ancient style kilns had been used in Shigaraki up until the end of the 17th century but at that point they were replaced by cross draught multi-chambered kilns known as noborigama and it wasn’t until around 1965 that anagama style kilns began once again to be used in Shigaraki.

Eizan Okuda wood-fired Shigaraki pottery vase.
Eizan Okuda wood-fired Shigaraki vase.

My interest in Shigaraki pottery began by getting to know the pottery produced from the early 1990s onwards by British potters, Patrick Sargent and Nic Collins. I believe that they were responsible for introducing this style of wood-fired pottery to UK potters and collectors alike and led me to look at the work of other wood-firers in the UK and then to try and discover their roots in Japan. Some of this I will share with you here over the coming weeks.