In Japan, crafts such as ceramics, lacquerware, textiles, wood and bamboo products, and metalwork are produced in many different locations across the country, and each region has its own unique style of craftsmanship. For example, within Japanese ceramics, Karatsu ware from Kyushu and Ohori-soma ware from the northeastern Tohoku region differ greatly in terms of their materials and color expression. Similarly, different lacquerwares rooted in Ishikawa Prefecture have their own unique charms, as those from Wajima are known for the finishes of their lacquer, while those from Yamanaka use a specialized woodturning technique. Knowing the unique character of each production area enables us to enjoy each piece from a different angle. As more and more people, even from overseas, are becoming interested in Japan’s craft production regions, this series of columns will focus on one of Japan’s craft production regions at a time, introducing the history and cultural background of each.
The origin of Japanese ceramics: six ancient kilns
In this column, we would like to introduce the “Rokkoyo” – literally, “six ancient kilns” – which together can be said to be the origin of Japanese ceramics. “Rokkoyo” is the name given by ceramics scholar Fujio Koyama to a region of Japan long known for its ceramics and porcelain production. It refers to the six production regions of Seto, Tokoname, Echizen, Shigaraki, Bizen, and Tanba, and was recognized as a Japanese Heritage Site in 2017. These production regions have been centers of traditional ceramics since the 12th and 13th centuries. Koyama named the “Rokkoyo” after the places that can be considered the origin of ceramic production regions, where production has continued to the present day among the many kilns that existed during the medieval period. The Rokkoyo grew by producing pots, jars, and bowls, the “three sacred treasures” of their time, but each kiln has its own unique charm and has long passed down the art of making specific items, such as glazed ceramics in Seto, teapots in Tokoname, and tokkuri Japanese sake bottles in Bizen.
Regions blessed in their soil
One thing that all of the Rokkoyo have in common is that they are blessed with rich soil. Each of the six kilns is blessed with good quality but unique local soils, which have been the foundation for its ceramic production. Bizen ware is made mainly from hiyose, the soil found at the bottom of rice paddies, which was highly praised by the renowned artist Rosanjin Kitaoji. Tokoname ware is now most often associated with reddish-brown shudei clay. Even though it is relatively recent in Tokoname’s history, this shudei clay was made by improving the soil from Tokoname, and continues to benefit from the land.
In terms of technique, the so-called “yakishime” technique of firing without glaze is used in many of the Rokkoyo. This technique allows the user to enjoy the different expressions of the clay the result from changes in the kiln, known as “yohen,” and is now gaining popularity overseas as well, as each unique expression evokes the beauty of nature. Although each of the Rokkoyo has its own unique character, they all share a common flavor as ancient production centers, and learning about their history will help you better appreciate the land they grew out of.