Tokoname is counted among the Six Ancient Kilns of Japan, where the production of pottery has continued from the middle ages down to the present day. The production of Tokoname ware is centered in Tokoname, a city located on the Chita Peninsula in Aichi Prefecture. There, pottery is made from clay transported from the mountains of Nagano and Gifu Prefectures on the Kiso River system that flows over the Nobi Plain. The anagama (cave) kilns that have been constructed throughout the Chita Peninsula date back to the Heian period around 1,000 years ago and have been used to produce teaware, plates, and jars. While many of Japan’s Six Ancient Kilns are located in basins or mountainous areas, Tokoname has flourished as a rare production site adjacent to the sea. In the later middle ages, production of larger items such as pots and jars flourished in particular due to the ease with which sea traders based on the Chita Peninsula could transport these products over water to the rest of the country. In turn, the area was able to incorporate the varied cultures and trends of trading partners and produce wares that met their needs, such as by launching production of clay pipes and tea vessels starting in the Edo period. One such product was small teapots, which were put into mass production as the consumption of green tea grew popular among cultured individuals in the late Edo period. Hoju Koie is said to have been the central figure in the production of Tokoname ware teapots as the Meiji period began. He invited Jin Shiheng, an expert in Yixing pottery, to come from China and give instruction on Yixing techniques to Tokoname potters such as Jumon Sugie, the first of his line. This was a major development in the production of Tokoname ware teapots.
Toshifumi Watanabe, a descendant of Jumon Sugie and one of a successor generation of potters carrying on the tradition of the area, says that a defining characteristic of Tokoname ware is the clay used to make it.
“The reddish clay from which Tokoname ware teapots are mainly produced contains a large amount of iron oxide and hardens well even when fired at low temperatures. This extremely fine clay can be formed with thin walls, resulting in a teapot that is lightweight even when filled with water.”
Tokoname ware teapots are designed with a variety of details, such as a texture that invites touch and lightness that facilitates continued use, which take into account the behavior and mentality of the user. The technique for sculpting the finished product, whose quality is self-evident in the close fit of the lid, the drip-preventing shape of the spout, and the comfort of the handle, has been handed down and refined continuously since the beginning. Mr. Watanabe maintains a constant pursuit of quality in articles for daily use by crafting tea vessels that give off a sense of dignity with spiral patterns, are varied in their thickness from top to bottom, and are lighter than they appear.
“It’s a combination of body, lid, handle, spout, and strainer. I think the fun of making a teapot, compared to other pottery, lies in the things one can only express in a three-dimensional object. Producing a perfect balance among the various parts to create a beautiful and easy-to-use teapot is an important element.”
Hiroshi Koie, who has pursued a distinctive style over many years while crafting everything from large objects to teapots, says that the overall balance is the most important part of teapot production.
“The handle should be separated from the spout by 87 or 88 degrees. You know you have a well-balanced teapot when you can stand it up with the handle down and it stays upright. A teapot like that feels the lightest in the hand.”
The reddish clay used in Tokoname ware has a delicate surface, shrinking by around 25% when fired. Before the clay can be shaped, it must be thoroughly prepared on the wheel by a process called “coning up and down,” especially when creating large items. When crafting teapots, says Mr. Koie, because the joints are prone to damage, “handling the reddish clay requires skill.”
Mr. Koie has been fascinated by the reddish clay since the start of his career in pottery, and he has experimented with techniques for producing changes in the clay’s coloration using variations in the firing method of oxidation-reduction. He has worked especially hard in recent years on the unique technique of dawn coloration. He carefully sprays the clay with a glaze made using a unique kind of feldspar. Variations in the thickness of this glaze produce a gradient on the finished piece that ranges in color from white to a soft, purplish shade of pink like the color of a crested ibis’ wings. The black color that is the base color of the piece is produced by oxidizing the reddish clay.
“Tokoname has produced a variety of goods through the centuries. Traditionally, we use a technique of oxidizing the surface of tiles and pantiles to blacken them. I have applied this technique to my own pieces, including teapots and flower vases. However, the reddish clay alone will not produce the deep shade of black, jet black, that is needed to make the dawn coloration stand out. It doesn’t show the color very well. That’s why I use my own blend of clay, a reddish clay to which I’ve added the natural pigment red iron oxide.”
When making a large piece such as a vase out of reddish clay, the shrinkage of the clay when fired is even greater. Mr. Koie seeks to explore the potential of the reddish clay by continuing to attempt new techniques using this challenging material.
“Carrying on this tradition is essential. But it’s also vital to create pieces that function in the present day. I want to create things that are unique to this era.”
Seiji Ito, who has been making ceramics for fifty years and teapots for twenty five, has always sought to produce pieces that are both original and contemporary. Typically, when he works at the wheel, he creates the body and lid of a teapot separately. He has, however, created a technique in which he creates a round pot and cuts it apart to produce lid and body together. He has also conceived of a technique in which he turns a piece, including its lid, upside-down on the wheel. The technique produces a remarkably flattened form.
One of Mr. Ito’s masterpieces is an extremely flat teapot. Flat teapots have existed in Tokoname before. But many of them have small strainers with just two or three holes attached to the narrow walls of the body of the pot, which easily become clogged with tea leaves. Mr. Ito was excited at how delicious tea could be when made using this type of teapot, and he kept thinking about how to improve the teapot for ease of use. One day, he was inspired by something he saw in a dream.
“I stumbled upon my current technique of joining a thin strainer to the sides and bottom of a broad, round body. At the time, however, it was extremely difficult to join the thin strainer to the walls. Many of the teapots developed flaws during firing, such as cracks or a fusing together of the strainer holes.”
At first, only one in ten of the pieces taken from the kiln were usable. More than ten years later, Mr. Ito reflects wryly, “they’re a troublesome product; you never know what you’ll get out of a firing.”
Mr. Ito makes a habit of using the tea vessels he creates to ensure that they live up to the ideal of usability that he has conceived of for them and to take notes for future improvements. His interest has intensified, and he has begun creating pairings with tea in earnest.
“I think the best teapot is one that makes delicious tea. The reddish clay used in Tokoname ware, when fired, becomes a stoneware whose characteristics are midway between earthenware and porcelain. It retains some capacity to absorb water, which means that when it’s used to brew tea, it moderates the bitterness and produces a deliciously mild flavor.”
Modern potters carry on the traditions of their forebears while continuing to polish their skills and wisdom. This combination of tradition and progress produces vessels that may be used to brew tea that astonishes the drinker with its flavor, a flavor that comes only from the genuine article.
The production of pottery has deep roots in the area surrounding Tokoname, which is located on the central west coast of the Chita Peninsula. In addition to teaware, the region has a history of producing clay pipes, bottles for shochu liquor, building materials (tiles and pantiles), and sanitary vessels. Taking advantage of the area’s location near the sea, Tokoname ware features decorative elements such as mokake, in which seaweed is used in the glaze to produce a pattern. Tokoname is also the leading producer in Japan of beckoning cat figurines, which are said to bring good fortune. The city’s Pottery Footpath, which has been used as a set for films and animated series, is dotted with giant beckoning cats, making it a landscape worthy of a locus of pottery production.
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