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The Ancient Art of Pottery

Pottery is an integral feature in the history of any society, being employed for practical use for generations. It is widely accepted that the birth of traditional Japanese ceramics as it is viewed today occurred in the later part of the Jomon period (10,000 BCE – 300 CE). Starting with simple earthenware, pottery-making in Japan has developed over time to become a precise and skilled art form greatly admired by many worldwide.

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History of Pottery in Japan

The first types of earthenware were coil-made and portrayed rope-like patterns. To achieve this effect, clay was coiled into ropes and then fired in open flames. These ceramics were originally made to be quite ostentatious but became simpler over time. By the Kofun period (250-538 CE), roof-tunnel kilns, anagama, were situated on hillsides across Japan. Due to their increasing popularity in Japan, these kilns were used to make the renowned sue pottery which was manufactured in the 5th century. Despite the introduction of the potter’s wheel during the Kofun period from Korea, Japan continued to primarily use hand-crafting methods as they were considered to create a more humble and personal effect. With clay being produced on a higher scale in the Kofun era, from around 300-710 CE ceramics were mainly used for funerary ware, but by the Nara (710-94) and Heian (794-1185) periods pottery had become refined and was used as tableware and for Buddhist purposes.

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Types of Pottery and Production

There are several different schools of pottery. The school that a potter follows generally depends on what region they come from and what clay they use. There are six predominant traditional schools, collectively known as rokkouyu, which are inspired by six ancient kilns that date back to the 12th century. More kiln sites have now been discovered, but the first six are still the most highly respected and accepted. The revered six are Shigaraki, Echizen, Bizen, Tokoname, Tamba and Seto, with Seto being the only school to use Chinese pottery glazing techniques. The Chinese ceramic design was, and still is, very popular in Japan with plenty of pottery continuously being imported from China, Korea and Vietnam.


Pottery is made using a range of clays (varying regionally and to personal preference), a pottery wheel (if desired), a pallet, kiln, glaze and oxide. If a pottery wheel is not used, the clay is simply kneaded and then polished before being baked, sketched, glazed and baked again, the final piece would then be painted. Raku-firing is a technique that is used after hand-moulding the clay instead of using a wheel and is a traditional technique that is commonly used in Kyoto. During Raku, the clay is fired at a lower temperature than in other techniques. Various combinations of combustibles can be used in this technique to alter the appearance of the glaze and create unique, one of a kind pieces.

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Kiyomizuyaki and Wabi-sabi

Kiyomizuyaki refers to all pottery made in Kyoto, but originally referred only to pottery made near to the Kiyomizu-dera temple. There are two ways to make these ceramics; either by hand or with a pottery wheel. Pottery makers in Kyoto tend to use both methods depending on the product they want to make and what is currently in popular demand. Since there is not much clay to be found in Kyoto itself any more, the clay used in Kyoto tends to come from Shigaraki in the Shiga prefecture, a nearby town. Traditionally, Kyoto potters used Raku-firing to make the more simplistic ceramics that were favoured for use in the tea ceremony, which is still a huge part of the culture in this city. In fact, Sen no Rikyu, the ‘father of the modern tea ceremony’, created a style of rural designs in pottery to suit the tea ceremony. Hand making ceramics is also revered for its better fit with the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi (aesthetics) where imperfections are desired as they are seen to be beautiful. In pottery, wabi-sabi can include leaving finger marks after having kneaded the clay into shape, or inconsistent shades or drips of colour. These ‘imperfections’ also make a product unique and personal, and are highly sought after traits of ceramics and pottery in Japan.

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Pottery at Atelier Japan

Building on this tradition of unique pottery in Kyoto, our makers Rokubeygama and Ogawa Yozan provide beautiful collections of ceramic designs that are showcased on Atelier Japan. Ranging from matcha bowls to incense burners, all of these creations are unique and skilfully crafted to the highly esteemed aesthetic of Kyoto, making them the perfect addition to any home.

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Jewellery and Japan

Jewellery as a concept in Japan traditionally differed greatly from Western perspectives. Originally, the term ‘jewellery’ was associated with practical objects, like swords or combs, to describe the intricate designs and decoration on these items. Since then, the Japanese tradition of using these embellishments on everyday items has transitioned to use on jewellery as we know it today.

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The Traditional Use of Jewellery

Damascening is a traditional form of Japanese art that first began by being used on sword-hilts. Sword decoration was known as souken kanagu and, interestingly, was one of the first forms of jewellery in Japan. The designs chosen for the sword hilts and other items often reflected nature and other quintessentially Japanese designs such as Sakura, pagodas and mountains. Popular materials used in each design were agate, coral and ivory, particularly for items like combs. Another type of ‘jewellery’ traditionally used in Japan was Inro, small handcrafted boxes or cases worn by men to carry their personal belongings, much like the modern day wallet. Ojimi was a carved bead that was used to keep the boxes closed. In terms of jewellery resembling anything close to what we consider it to be today, Magatama is the earliest recorded object that can be called ‘jewellery’. This was a comma-shaped figure made from jade originally and later glass. Magatama were worn on a chain or thread as a necklace by men from about 1,000 BCE through to the 6th century CE. Whilst jewellery as decoration similar to Western standards became popular amongst geisha and courtesans in the Edo period (1603-1868), it wasn’t until after 1868 that it became fashionable amongst all classes of women, following Western influence.

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When asked to explain what Japanese jewellery looks like, what might come to mind other than pearls which are now associated with this country, is the traditional Kanzashi hairpin. This ornament was first worn some time in the Jomon era (c.10,000BCE-300CE) as a way for women to keep their hair neat. During this time, a thin stick or rod was thought to possess powers of warding off evil spirits, and so these hairpins were considered important for protection. This symbolism also suggests that Kanzashi were initially worn as good luck charms rather than ornaments, fitting in with the concept of Japanese jewellery traditionally needing to have use. By the Edo period (1603-1868), these hairpins became very fashionable and popular amongst ladies. Common types of these hair pieces include the Tsumami Kanzashi, which is made of silk and combines different colours. Another popular variety is the Hana Kanzashi; these are predominantly made in Kyoto as they are used by maiko (trainee geisha) and are designed with a different theme for every month.

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Japanese Shakudo

Shakudo refers to a low gold content alloy that is used in jewellery and ornaments and was originally employed to embellish katana fittings. This included the tsuba (guard at the end of the grip) and Shakudo was used as the base for inlays and accompanying patinas. After the samurai era, this effect was expanded into a layering process that made a mixed metal laminate (mokume-gare). Currently, the art of Shakuda can incorporate any damascened ornament or piece of jewellery. Today’s designs often use gold and copper to achieve the trademark blue or purplish hue associated with this effect.

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Jewellery After Westernisation of Japan

After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan undertook major global exploration, opening up to the rest of the world for the first time. In this period, Western influence also swept through Japan, changing many things including fashion. Jewellery common in Western cultures such as necklaces, rings and bracelets started to infiltrate the accessory market in Japan. The techniques traditionally used for the embellishments on practical items were modified for these new kinds of jewellery that were now becoming popular amongst Japanese women. It would also soon come about that Kokichi Mikimoto would create the cultured pearl and establish a monopoly on the pearl market after he saw how popular Western-style jewellery was. In terms of nation-wide mass production, the button was an item that became popular to embellish with original Japanese techniques. The modification of buttons in this way emerged with the introduction of the Western-style military uniform after 1868, where buttons were being used on a large scale for the first time. The original Japanese spins on these Western products were highly popular in the West, sparking huge trade deals between Japan and the rest of the world. Popular items for Japanese embellishment included watch chains and clock cases.

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Jewellery on Atelier Japan

Atelier Japan showcases many different kinds of stunning jewellery that draw on the old tradition of Japanese culture and embrace the new. Every piece has been carefully and skilfully crafted by our makers, Zinlay, Kazariya-Ryo and Karafuru.

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The Poetic Seasons of Japan

Unlike Britain, where the different months seem to blend into each other, Japan is well-known for its distinctive and breathtaking seasons. Japan has contrasting climates due to the length of the island. From the snowy north to the tropical south, the atmospheres are all very different. Japanese poets have tried to capture the essence of these seasons, particularly in the traditional form of the haiku.

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Winter (Fuyu)

Winter in Japan is a breathtaking sight to behold. In Hokkaido, the most northern part, there are heavy snowfalls and this region becomes a winter wonderland. Hokkaido is popular for skiers and snowboarders, but also has incredible views and vibrant culture with natural hot springs and ice sculptures. The Sapporo Yuki Matsuri (Sapporo snow festival) is held in the city of Sapporo every year and showcases wonderful creations made from ice and snow, creating a real winter wonderland. Venturing more into the countryside, there are six national parks in Hokkaido to explore and unique indigenous wildlife. The Macaque monkeys are one of the famous animals of this region, although not exclusive to Hokkaido.

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Macaques love soaking in hot springs, sometimes while visitors are in them!
Throughout the whole of Japan in this season the air is crisp and the sky is ice-blue; a truly stunning sight. Mount Fuji is considered most beautiful against this backdrop in winter, especially when viewed from one of the surrounding national parks. The winter season embodies the aesthetic the Japanese strive for and has inspired many pieces of art and literary representations. Matsuo Basho is considered to be one of, if not the, greatest haiku poets.
One example of his winter-inspired poetry (in one translation of the Japanese) is entitled ‘Winter Garden’:
Winter garden,
The moon thinned to a thread,
Insects singing.

Spring (Haru)
We have already talked about the significance of Sakura in a previous blog, and while this blossom is highly representative of the season, there are other aspects that mark Japan’s spring as unique. During this period there is an abundance of other unique and beautiful flowers, such as tulips and Azaleas, and May is characterised by its wonderful wisteria and wildflowers. Mountainous regions are particularly popular in spring; the landscape is pristine and picturesque, and it is a stunning sight to see the rivers and streams carrying away the last snows of winter and ushering in the lush greenery of spring. There are many festivals celebrating the birth of spring and end of winter, including the Kamakura and Takayama festivals. If you are lucky enough to have a garden in Japan (this is not usual in the cities due to lack of space), spring is the best time to decorate and embellish it. Keeping the gardens neat and to the standard of wabi-sabi (Japanese aesthetics) is important in Japanese culture.

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Summer (Natsu)

Spanning from June to mid-September, summer in Japan is hot and humid, but filled with some of the most exciting festivals of the Japanese calendar. The Obon festival, occurring in mid-August, is a Buddhist celebration that honours spirits and ancestors. Japanese summer is also host to an amazing display of fireworks on different occasions. The Hanabi Taikai is an annual fireworks show held in Tokyo on the Sumida river and is incredibly popular. In true Japanese fashion, these displays are perfectly choreographed and incredible to behold, with the production of these events being meticulously planned. In between festivals, many in Japan will make a trip to the cooler areas in the mountainous regions. Hokkaido is particularly lovely in summer as it is not as humid as the rest of Japan and has many natural wonders and breathtaking landscapes to take in. These respites in the hot summer season have inspired much art and poetry. One example of a haiku describing summer is by Yosa Buson (1716-1784) which goes as follows in one English translation:

The afternoon shower.

Catch the grass or leaf,

The village sparrow.

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Autumn (Aki)

Rivalling spring in colours and beauty, Autumn in Japan is also a popular season. The vibrant reds and oranges of the leaves and deep blue skies make for a beautiful scene. The red leaves, koyo, are synonymous with the season and can be used to metaphorically describe the small hands of a child, or the colour of someone’s face when they feel embarrassed. The temperature is also more pleasant during autumn, as there is less of the humidity present than in the summer but it is still relatively warm until November. However, the beginning of Autumn does often bring in typhoons. These hurricane-like storms can cause destruction and chaos, but when the storms have cleared, the sky is perfectly set out to see the stars and the moon. September is popular for traditional moon-viewing, tsukimi. This tradition rivals that of hanami (spring flower viewing), also originating from the Heian era.

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Seasonal Designs on Atelier Japan

With seasonal depictions having a special importance within Japanese art forms, Atelier Japan features many different designs specific to Japan’s distinctive seasons. Our makers have their own individual takes on these themes, including the Henko Autumn ornament, created by Ogawa Yozan.

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Festivals in Kyoto

There are three main festivals that stand out in Kyoto’s calendar, all of which are highly anticipated. However, this vibrant and bustling city is host to many celebrations, all significant in their own way. Though most are holidays celebrated by the whole of Japan, there are special ways that Kyoto makes these events their own.

New Year’s in Kyoto
New Year is a hugely significant holiday in Japan, and has as much anticipation and build-up as Christmas in Western cultures. Only around 1% of Japan’s population are Christian, so Christmas is not a major holiday in traditional Japanese culture and is mainly celebrated commercially. New Year’s, however, is considered the major event of the year’s calendar, with celebratory feasting and gatherings of friends and family taking place. After the traditional meal on New Year’s Eve, many people in Kyoto will go to their local temple to pray for the New Year and act out the ceremonial bell ringing (joya-no-kane). It is traditional for the bell to eventually be rung 108 times because this number symbolises the sins of the flesh. From New Year’s Eve until the third of January at the latest, the people of Kyoto will visit their nearest shrine and pray for good fortune of the coming year. This ceremony is called Hatsumode, and this is the first shrine visit of the year, making it very important.

Ebisu is one of the Shichifukujin, the seven lucky gods, and is in fact the only member who is purely Japanese in origin, with the others taking their roots from Chinese or Hindu influence. In Kyoto between January 8th and 10th, the residents of Kyoto visit the Ebisu-jinja shrine. The evenings are generally considered to be the opportune time to make this visit as that is when it is most lively. As Ebisu-san is the god of prosperity, it is customary to put some money in the donation box before praying to him. After ringing the gong and saying a prayer, the devotee then goes around to the right side of the main hall and knocks on the board found there and repeats their prayers. This is because Ebisu is famously hard of hearing, as he is an old god, so this is to make sure that he is awake to listen to you.
Celebrations of the Geisha

As discussed in some of our other blogs, Geisha are an essential part of Kyoto’s cultural history and set this city apart from others in Japan. From mid-March to mid-May, there are several important occasions for the Geisha of Kyoto. The Kitano Odori is the dance that is performed between March 25th and 31st and involves each of Kyoto’s five Geisha districts. This is followed by the Kyo Odori dance, famously performed by the Miyagawa-cho Geisha district, and the main dance of April which celebrates the Sakura season, the Miyako Odori. These April dances are beautifully complemented by the illuminated temple gardens, specially decorated for this time of year.
The Matsuri Festivals

The Aoi Matsuri, Gion Matsuri and Jidai Matsuri festivals are the three main festivals of Kyoto. The word Matsuri literally translates to ‘traditional festival’ in Japanese, after all, it is widely known that Japan is a country that takes their traditional history and culture very seriously. The Aoi Matsuri, also referred to as the Kamo festival, comes about on May 15th annually and derives its name from the hollyhock leaves used for decoration throughout this festival. These leaves were initially used because they were believed to ward against natural disasters, which were most likely common during the rule of Emperor Kinmei (539-571 CE), during whose reign the festival is thought to originate. It wasn’t until the 9th century that the Aoi Matsuri was established as an annual imperial holiday by Emperor Kanmu of the Heian period, to protect the capital. Still today, hundreds of participants dress up in the traditional clothing of this era and parade from the Kyoto Imperial Palace to the Kamo Shrines, Shimogamo and Kamigamo.


The Gion Matsuri takes place in July, with parades on the 17th and 24th of the month. Originating as part of a ritual of purification to appease the gods of fire, earthquakes and floods, the Gion district of Kyoto is where this festival takes its name from. Although this festival dates back to the 6th century, by the Kamakura period (1185-1333), it became a way for craft merchants to showcase their creations and good fortune. The highlight of Gion Matsuri is the Yoiyama parade and its floats, known as Yamaboko. These floats are beautifully decorated with tapestries and lanterns and carry around traditionally trained musicians and artists.
The Jidai Matsuri occurs on October 22nd and involves a portable shrine, a Mikoshi, and about two thousand participants dressed up in different costumes of Kyoto’s traditional history, including that of samurai. The Mikoshi is carried from the Kyoto Imperial Palace early in the morning accompanied by a military band in costume. Ending at the Heian Shrine, this festival portrays the rich and fascinating traditional history of Kyoto.

Tradition on Atelier Japan
All of the products featured on Atelier Japan draw on and are inspired by the distinguished traditional culture of Japan. Festivals and national holidays are just one part of this rich history, and our makers, Komaruya, have crafted an array of flawless festival fans such as the Aoi Festival Fan to purchase at Atelier Japan and bring this culture into your own home.

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The Allure of the Pearl

As the first precious stone to be worn by mankind, the pearl has an ancient and fascinating history. There is so much allure surrounding the pearl; this precious gem has notoriety in interactions between Kings and Queens, for example from Albert to Victoria as a gift for their third Wedding anniversary, and within art such as Vermeer’s ‘Girl with the Pearl Earring’, arguably one of the most famous paintings in the world.

World History of the Pearl

Acting as the most treasured gem in Western society until the nineteenth century when diamonds were introduced, pearls have significance in almost every society and culture. Pearls were originally used for medicinal purposes and in religious ornaments, and were seen to represent purity, chastity and feminine attributes. The first mention of the pearl in ancient historical evidence is in a Hindu legend about Krishna which dates back five thousand years, as well as in a three-thousand-year-old Chinese legend about a king’s daughter. At an old palace of a Persian king at Susa (in Western Iran), a pearl necklace was found which is believed to be from about 305 BCE. Pearls have also been found at other archaeological sites over the years, some even older than this.

Symbolism of the Pearl

Due to the colour and texture of pearls, many ancient societies associated them with the moon, particularly in Vedic and Japanese lore. In Chinese legend, black pearls symbolise wisdom and were thought to have been created inside the head of a dragon. Similarly to the Japanese myth that pearls came from the tears of mythical creatures, one Ancient Greek myth suggested that pearls were the solidified tears of the goddess of love, Aphrodite, and were symbols of love, devotion and marriage. By Roman times, the pearl was incredibly valuable and became a public show of wealth, superiority and even virtue. In fact, the pearl was so priceless there is a famous anecdote about Cleopatra crushing one of her large and priceless pearl earrings and putting it in white-wine vinegar which she then drank to prove to her lover Mark Antony that she could throw the most expensive dinner party in history. You may also have heard of the famously bonkers Roman Emperor Caligula, who tried to make his horse, Incitatus, a Roman consul and in legend gave this same horse a pearl necklace.

The Pearl in Japanese Mythology

In ancient society in Japan, it was generally believed that tears from creatures like mermaids or angels formed pearls, which gave them a magical and mysterious association. Within the Shinto religion, pearls have a special place, here the pearl is seen to encompass positive and spiritual qualities. The pearl was classed as a precious gem, tama, which comes from mi-tama, meaning soul or spirit. This classification highlights the significance of the pearl in ancient and current Japanese religious culture. Kitsune, (a fox), in English refers to fox spirits in the context of Japanese mythology. In some legends these foxes had magical pearls or gems in their possession which were very valuable to the fox and humans. 
There was also an idea of the pearl symbolically representing life, which caused women to wear them to promote fertility and pearls were sometimes put in the mouth of the dead to protect the body from decay. The pearl has also been associated with Japanese gods of luck, among other representations. Within Japanese mythology, tide jewels, which can refer to pearls, were magical gems that were used to control the waves by the sea god. During the time of Empress Jingu, legends emerged around Japan conquering Korea with tide jewels. These gems also have relation to Japanese sea dragons, or the eight dragon kings, one of which is said to have been the dragon king of sea. One legend proclaims that the sea god stole a pearl and a female pearl diver lost her life getting it back for her husband.

Pearl Production

Before the twentieth century and in some instances afterwards, pearls were found and collected through diving, which was dangerous and difficult. Interestingly, pearl divers were predominantly female in Japan, in contrast with the rest of the world where this was generally a male activity. Natural pearls come about when a parasite or other alien substance gets into a mollusc and sticks itself between the shell and the mantel. Natural pearls can also originate from oysters that produce natural saltwater pearls. These pearls, or at least perfectly round ones, are few and far between. Cultured pearls are when someone purposefully places a shell, called a nucleus, into a pearl oyster and then harvests it after a long period of time; usually between six months to three years. White Akoya pearls, black, gold and white pearls from the South Sea (mostly Tahiti, Australia and Indonesia) and Chinese freshwater pearls are the three main types of pearls.

Japan’s Monopoly on the Pearl

Japan is home to the creator of the cultured pearl business, Kokichi Mikimoto (1858-1954), who effectively built an empire on the phenomenon of cultured pearls, despite coming from a relatively poor background. Although Mikimoto eventually amassed a huge fortune from this business, creating the now well-known luxury pearl company Mikimoto, his new way of collecting pearls was initially frowned upon and discredited. Many in the pearl-selling industry proclaimed that cultured pearls were not real pearls, and inferior to those found from diving. However, since Mikimoto priced his pearls initially much lower than others, cultured pearls soon swept the globe as the new sensation. Scientists quickly disproved the theories that these pearls were of a lower quality, as the process of the pearl’s creation is the same, just man-initiated. Despite his success, Mikimoto had a controversial reputation, famously setting fire to a large amount of ‘inferior pearls’ and greeting the Emperor and Empress of Japan with greetings below their status.

Pearls and Atelier Japan

Japan is still leading the way in the cultured pearl market worldwide, and retains a reputation for high value and luxury pearls whether cultured or freshwater. Atelier Japan features a stunning selection of pearl earrings, necklaces and other pearl items. These products are all carefully crafted with great attention to detail by our wonderful makers, Karafuru, an example being the Phases of the Moon necklace.

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Incense Burning and Japanese Religion

The burning of incense came into Japan in the sixth century from China through Buddhism. Used for spiritual and ceremonial purposes, incense is still used in Japanese Buddhist temples today. Japan has two main religions; Buddhism and Shinto, with many people following both. Incense has different uses amongst Japanese culture, mostly spiritual but also practical.

History of Incense

Incense has been around for centuries, believed to have been used by Egyptian Pharaohs and the Babylonians in prayer and when conferring with oracles. There is also biblical reference to incense being used, suggesting Egypt as the place of origin. It is used for religious purposes in Christianity today. Japan adopted incense into their culture through Chinese Buddhist influence, as previously mentioned. The first uses for incense were for purification of the air and in meditation. In the fourteenth century, Samurai warriors would use incense to give their helmets and armour a fragrance and were the principal people, apart from Buddhist priests, to use incense at this time. By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, use of incense gained popularity with the middle and upper classes, and eventually developed into an object used in many households.

Koh-Do Ceremony

Koh-Do or kodo, deriving from the Japanese koh, meaning incense, is a ceremony that can be found in historical evidence as far back as the Muromachi period (1336-1573). Kodo is often referred to as the ‘art of incense’ and is all about appreciation, a quintessential Japanese trait. So what does this ceremony involve for a participant? In description, it sounds game-like, as those involved smell scents of different wood chips with distinct fragrances and memorise the smell to later identify them. However, the art appreciation and spirituality in kodo is taken very seriously. There are ten different virtues of, including to purify the mind and body, create peace, and remove uncleanliness.

Religion in Japan

Although burning incense has its associations with Buddhism, and is not an integral part of Shinto religion, the belief that incense purifies the body and its surroundings is widely held by many, if not all, in Japan. Shinto is the traditional religion of Japan, with the worshipping of many gods, whereas Buddhism is more about spirituality and state of mind. A big difference between the two becomes apparent when entering a shrine or temple. At a temple there is an incense burner but at a shrine there is a purification fountain. Here, the visitor to the shrine washes their hands using a ladle and then rinses their mouth, spitting the water out near the fountain once done. A common mistake often made by foreigners is to drink the water, which is not advisable! It is customary when entering a temple to blow the incense smoke onto an ailing part of your body, if you have any, as incense smoke is perceived to have healing properties. When entering the offering hall, it is traditional to throw a coin in the collection box, then bow twice deeply, clap your hands twice, bow again and then pray. The clapping is to signal to the god that you are there so they will listen to your prayer.

What is Incense Made From?

There are many ingredients that make up Japanese incense, which can change depending on which part of the world you purchase it from. The shape of the incense is formed using tabu tree bark, which can be found in China. In order to preserve the fragrance of the incense, Benzoin can be used, which is a resin made from the Styracaceae tree found in areas such as Thailand or Indonesia. Sandalwood has been used in Japanese incense for centuries and originates in countries such as India, Indonesia and Australia, and helps give it its sweet fragrance. Nard, an aromatic root, and Cassia are also popular ingredients, coming from places like Vietnam or Sri Lanka. If you’ve ever been to Japan, you may also have noticed that there are an abundance of insects like mosquitoes, Camphol can be used in incense to repel these pests with its antiseptic qualities.

Types of Incense

Incense can come in three kinds; as sticks, cones or coils. Incense sticks are long, thin and burn easily; these are probably the ones you have seen before if you’ve ever visited any sort of Buddhist shine or festival and are best used with incense holders so that the ash can be caught when it falls down. Incense cones exhibit a more intense fragrance that is better suited to large spaces and burns much faster than the sticks. The coils are specifically designed to burn for a very long time, this incense can even burn for as long as two hours. The characteristics of this incense mean that an area will receive a steady and constant fragrance over a long period of time.

Atelier Japan’s Take on the Tradition

Atelier Japan features incense products spanning from incense stands and burners to containers, all impeccably crafted by our makers with unique and individual designs to encompass this rich tradition.

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Sake: the Traditional Japanese Alcohol

Commonly interpreted as a rice-wine, although made through a brewing process more similar to that of beer, sake (pronounced sa-ke) is a traditional Japanese alcohol that is popular not only amongst Japanese people but has now become a sought-after drink worldwide. There are many different types of sake, as well as plenty of ways of drinking it.

Types of Sake

Although sake is the widely known term for this drink outside of Japan, this actually refers to all alcoholic beverages in Japanese. Nihonshu is the more specific name for the rice-based alcohol, but for this article, we’ll use the colloquialism sake. It is generally accepted that there are six different types of sake in substance. Junmai, literally meaning pure rice, is a sake that has no additions, consisting of water, koji mould, yeast and rice polished to 70%. These ingredients are the general base for the other five types of sake with some variation of rice polishing and/or an addition of distilled alcohol; Honjozo, with distilled alcohol and rice polished to 70%; Junmai Ginjo with rice polished to 60%; Ginjo, with distilled alcohol and rice polished to 60%; Junmai Daiginjo, with rice polished to 50%; Daiginjo, with distilled alcohol and rice polished to 50%. Additionally, these types of sake can also be made in different ways. An example of this is the cloudy sake generally known as Nigori which is produced when the brewer leaves in some of the rice polishings. There are also many variations of sake specifically for celebrations or seasonal purposes.

Sake and Socialising

Sake can be served on many different occasions and at varied venues. Drinking in Japan is essentially a social ritual, often post work or with new business partners as a way of cementing friendships. Sake is also very common at more formal engagements or meals and the more important the event, the greater the quality of sake. An evening usually starts with a nama beeru (draft beer), followed by a clinking of the glasses and saying kanpai before moving onto individual alcohol ha (faction) preference. When drinking sake, it is customary to pour for others, usually your superior, you wouldn’t pour for yourself unless alone. There are also many specific linguistic phrases that refer to the social stages of drinking, such as kyo wa enryo shimasu (I will be abstaining today).
Due to how refined sake can be, it is common to have sake tastings. These tastings are for generally appreciating the specific aromas and fragrances of each sake in company, just like the equivalents of whiskey or wine tasting in Western countries.

History of Sake

Although sake can be traced back in China to 4,000 BCE, it was first produced on a large scale in Japan. Sake was first introduced to Japan in around 300 BCE after the start of rice cultivation. Initially for personal usage by individual communities or families, sake rice soon grew into an agricultural product on a large scale. When production boomed, the largest area was around Nada, close to modern Kobe, and was mostly only for noble families. The Shinto religion had great use for sake, employing it for purification of temples, as offerings to the Gods and in wedding ceremonies as part of a process called san san kudo. Sake was often a staple drink served by geisha in tea houses, poured after the tea and in a delicate and refined way to match the essence of the drink. Sake gained popularity over time and production continued to rise, with cloudy sake being the only version until the seventeenth century. Industrial advancements brought sake onto the market as a much more accessible beverage, making the drink available to the poor too.

How to Drink Sake

Sake can be served hot or chilled, often varying either seasonally or by the particular type, although high-quality sake should not be heated as it can cause loss of flavour and spoil the subtlety of the taste. It is best to store your sake in a cool, dry place and it should not be left long after opening. It is often served from a tokkuru (a porcelain flask) into a traditional sake cup, (sakazuki or choko), or a wine glass if the sake is chilled. Saucer-like cups can also be used for sake in special occasions or rituals.
Again, depending on the variation and strength, you can either sip your sake over time or drink it quickly, though sake is quite potent so you might want to be careful here! With so many different flavours of sake, you might like to choose what food, if any at all, you want to accompany it based on which flavours and ingredients complement each other.

Sake’s Significance on Atelier

On Atelier Japan, we have an exquisite selection of finely crafted traditional sake cups and servers, each with unique and beautiful designs and masterfully crafted by our makers, Kazariya-Ryo and Rokubeygama respectively.

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Sakura: Japan’s Gorgeous Cherry-Blossom

Sakura season, usually arriving in March or April across Japan’s different regions, is probably the most beautiful time of year to visit Japan and is certainly the most popular amongst tourists. With the cherry-pink colour perfectly offsetting the clear pastel-blue Japanese skies, Sakura (cherry-blossom) trees are a stunning sight to behold. Sakura viewing parties are a staple event held at this time of year and represent the aesthetic Japan is known to strive for. Sakura iconically characterises spring in Japan, and is even used as an ice cream flavour or sprinkled on lattes; it is true to say that a pink obsession takes over the country in this period, and not just in Japan. Big global names in sales have also picked up on the craze, with Starbucks releasing a Sakura frappuccino last spring.

Hanami: The Ancient Tradition of Flower Viewing

Hanami is the name given to the ongoing and ancient tradition of flower viewing, with the term deriving from the Japanese word for flower, hana.
Originally, this ceremony centred on plum blossoms but by the Heian era (794 – 1185) it transitioned to exclusively focus on Sakura. This blossom only blooms for a very short time (usually a week) betweenMarch and May, most commonly in very early April in Kyoto, and is seen to metaphorically represent the fleeting nature of life. Historically, the period in which the cherry-blossom bloomed was indicative of divining that year’s harvest and signalled the commencing of the rice-planting season. When the Sakura trees come to fruition and the blossoms start to fall, swirling around in the wind, this is seen as the ultimate time to host viewing parties as this sight is considered particularly beautiful to behold. Sakura blossoms and their movement are widely seen to incorporate the Japanese ideology of wabi-sabi (the aesthetic of imperfection and transience).

Sakura and Ancient Kyoto

Japan has the longest lasting monarchy of any nation and has a fascinating history. The ancient and imperial eras in Japan are shrouded in mystery and allure and are highly interesting, particularly to foreigners, as this history is so unique anddistinctive. From the ancient myths and stories of samurai and the beautiful art depicting the seemingly transient lives of ancient imperial courts, it is clear to see why many have an interest in studying ancient Japan and why it still holds a special place in contemporary Japanese society.

Hanami was an essential part of court life, with Emperor Saga of the Heian period holding parties with feasting and sake consumption beneath the flowering blossoms in the Imperial Court in Kyoto. Kyoto was in fact originally the imperial capital of Japan for more than one thousand years, before this moved to Edo (now Tokyo) in the nineteenth century. From these gatherings, a great deal of poetry was written praising the cherry-blossom, again often metaphorically, linking Sakura to the blooming of life. Although starting as exclusive to the Imperial Court and other elite, hanami was soon adopted by samurai society and the common people by the Edo period (1603-1868).
Sakura and Modern Kyoto

Kyoto is still the most popular place to host hanami. Every year during Sakura season, the ancient city is flooded with tourists hoping to get the best view of the famed phenomenon, and experience the rich culture Kyoto has to offer. It is a time of great celebration with lively parties and entertainment including dancing specific to hanami, such as Miyako Odori (literally translating to ‘capital city dances’ but most commonly known in English as cherry blossom dancing). At these gatherings, there is no shortage of food and drink; sake is particularly popular and is often be consumed warm, and the parks are flooded with people having picnics, enjoying the season with friends. Geisha wear traditional kimono with Sakura design and dance the Miyako Odori to celebrate the season.

Sakura in Design at Atelier Japan

Holding a special association with Japan, Sakura as a depiction is perhaps the most popular and aesthetically pleasing design used in art and other mediums, and is highly admired worldwide. Drawn or painted with great skill, Sakura is a beautiful picture to have in your home. At Atelier Japan, many of our ornaments and pottery are exquisitely designed with unique and stunningly beautiful illustrations of Sakura, such as our Shinheiji vase showing a kimono clad woman under a Sakura tree.

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Japanese Tea Ceremony

Tea is an integral part of Japanese society, thus making the tea ceremony so important. Served in a gesture of hospitality to guests and friends, the art of pouring and making tea is highly appreciated in Japanese culture. There are many different varieties, most notable of which are matcha, genmaicha, hojicha and general Japanese green tea, all available from Atelier Japan.  There are different kinds of tea ceremony that vary in length and importance. As Japan is a very honorific society, the tea ceremony is carried out delicately and with particular care to detail, as well as in a hierarchical system that is common of all interactions in Japan.

History of the Tea Ceremony

As is the same for many other countries around the globe, tea was first introduced to Japan by China around the eighth century and was originally consumed for medicinal reasons by the higher classes and priests. However, by the Muromachi Period (1333-1573), tea was popularly used by all people, and soon tea parties came into fashion as a way for richer members of society to show their knowledge of the drink and to present their beautifully crafted and designed bowls. Tea parties then transitioned into a spiritual and refined forum. Widely accepted to be the father of the modern tea ceremony, Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591) is the inspiration for the three main schools of tea ceremony in Japan today, making the process simple and rural. Suransenke is the generic name for these schools, which are Urasenke, the largest school, Omotesenke, the second biggest, and Mushakojisenke. This might be the smallest of the schools, but it is run by actual descendants of Sen no Rikyu himself.

The Procedure

A full formal tea ceremony is a rarer occurrence in modern day Japan, but they do still take place. These ceremonies start with a kaiseki meal, followed by a bowl of thick tea and finish with thin tea. In general, tea ceremonies are much shorter and often just consist of the thin green tea. If you ever visit a temple in Japan, you may experience one of these casual ceremonies, where people are allowed to come and go as they please in an open setting.
In terms of how the ceremony is carried out in movement, the different schools of tea have different procedures. However, what is universally accepted is how one attending these ceremonies should act. If you are a foreigner or tourist, you will not be expected to know every detail or act perfectly, but there are some simple rules that you can follow which will convey respect and understanding to your host. This will also probably cause pleasant surprise that you have taken the time to learn about their culture. Although there often is no strict dress code for guests, it is expected that one should dress modestly and simply, with no jewellery that could damage the equipment and no strong perfume that will overpower the fragrances of the tea and incense.

How it is Laid Out

A traditional tea ceremony venue will be surrounded by a simple yet stunningly presented garden, with stones of varying sizes leading up to the entrance where guests will then wash their hands in a stone basin next to a stone lantern before entering the tatami room where the ceremony will take place. Humility and honour are crucial concepts in Japan, and the entrance to the tatami room will sometimes be low so that the guest has to stoop to enter, showing these two traits. When inside the room, you will notice an alcove, tokonoma, where a scroll or seasonal flowers will be placed, creating an aesthetic for the room. After bowing, the head guest will then proceed to sit nearest to the alcove, with the other guests following to take their places behind them respectively. Once in position, you would bow and carefully take in the meticulously chosen decorations.

Preparation of Tea

The traditional equipment for making the tea consists of a chasen (bamboo whisk), natsume (tea container), chashaku (bamboo scoop for the tea), a sweets container for wagashi (sweets) and a kettle and brazier. There is a precise placement for all of the equipment which has been specifically chosen for each ceremony, this will all be prepared in front of you by the host (teishu, meaning house master), who in proper ceremonies would wear a traditional kimono (called hohmongi).

How to Enjoy

Upon sitting down, you will be given a wagashi (sweet) which should be eaten before drinking the tea to balance out the slightly bitter taste of the green tea. You should then pick up the tea bowl with your right hand, place it on your left palm and then turn it 90 degrees clockwise with your right hand, take three sips and place it back on the tatami mat in front of you. Then, bow and show gratitude. Near to the end of the tea ceremony, you will be given time to look at and admire the tea bowl so carefully chosen by the host and, when you are finished, you should turn the bowl so that it faces the host. These details are very precise, so don’t worry if you don’t remember them all; as long as you act in a polite and respectful manner, your host will be pleased and happy that as a visitor to Japan you have taken time to learn anything at all.

Exquisite Traditional Tea on Atelier Japan

Atelier Japan features stunning authentic teas to purchase, as well as beautifully hand-crafted matcha bowls, made by the ancient firing technique of Raku. Each collection is entirely unique and created from the unceasing hard work of our makers, Marukyu Koyamaen and Rokubeygama. To learn more about how to make the perfect matcha tea, view our latest video guide on the Atelier Japan Facebook page.

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The Art of the Fan

The Japanese folding fan, sensu or ougi, in true Japanese fashion, has become a symbol of beauty and respect. It is believed to have been invented between the sixth and ninth centuries in Japan, inspired by those used in China, and was originally operated as one would expect; to cool the holder of the fan down.
The folding fan first appeared as a court fan, Akomeogi, deriving its name from Akome, a court-woman’s dress, and after first only being used by the emperor and empress, was the staple accompaniment of any noblewoman. Made with thin strips of Japanese cypress, hinoki, tied together with thread, how many strips of wood a fan had was directly correlated to the status of the holder. In modern times, fans are used as a token of friendship and goodwill and do not relate to social status, having become an art form in and of itself to be admired and often used as decoration in a house to create positive energy. Non-foldable fans, uchiwa, were mainly used in war, however they were then made of metal and were used by army generals to give signals during battle. Today, these fans are often given by stores for free as adverts in festivals or used in these festivals as decoration and to cool oneself down, as well as ornaments in homes.

Symbolism of the Fan

There are many different symbolisms that fans can have. The folding fan is sometimes interpreted to represent a flower blooming as it unfolds and spreads out, and therefore represents prosperity. If a fan is patterned, it will most likely have an odd number of pictures, as in Japanese culture odd numbers are lucky. As well as this, the colours used in fans have particular meanings; gold is meant to bring wealth, while white and red are considered to be lucky colours. Specific flowers and animals can represent long life, and fans are often given as gifts at birthdays and other events to wish this goodwill upon the receiving party. A couple of examples of specific meanings of pictures are two birds to symbolise a couple, and sakura (cherry blossom) which represents the love of parents as well as wealth and good fortune.

Geisha and the Fan

Kyoto is perhaps most prominently known for its thriving culture, past and present, of Geisha, the highly-skilled traditional entertainers whose use of the fan in their captivating dancing has delighted audiences for centuries. Geisha use fans as a way of expressing themselves and they are often critical elements in their dances. The first Geishas appeared in the eighteenth century as dancers and shamisen (a three-stringed Japanese guitar) players, and although modern Geisha are very different from their previous counterparts, much of the rituals and tradition still remain, despite playing a smaller part in Japanese society than before. There is still much mystery surrounding the culture of Geisha; young trainees, usually aged 14 or 15, must train and work for five years before reaching the status of maiko, then train for more years before becoming a geiko, a full Geisha. Geisha live in an all-female house called an okiya, run by the okasan, which literally translates to mother but here means proprietress of the house. Each geisha must be proficient in certain skills; playing the shamisen, dancing, hospitality and other talents. More so in previous years, the fan was used to cover a geisha’s face in an act of purposeful shyness, while using the eyes emotively to portray a sense of mystery and enticement. Fans could be held in many ways to show different feelings.

Fans in Dancing

In ritual dances, the folding fan plays a large part in movement and expression and is opened and folded in choreographed timings. At an engagement involving Geisha, you would probably see Nihon buyo (Japanese dance), a centuries-old art form exclusively meant for performances on stage, taking its origins from Kabuki and Noh, which are traditional forms of Japanese theatre. Since Japanese fans have ornate and beautifully detailed designs, the fan dances were choreographed so that those watching would be drawn to this design. The earliest recorded fan dance performances come from the era of the reign of Emperor Jimmu. The fan was not necessarily easy to dance with, but with the colours often picked to compliment the those of the dancers’ kimono, as well as the hair accessories and bold makeup, they became an essential prop to create a stunning and memorable performance. In previous years, the dances incorporated slow but deliberate action, using the fan to emphasise movement and suggestion, but in modern times, fan dances are often choreographed to recorded music, since western culture has influenced Japan over recent years.

Exploring the Art of the Fan on Atelier Japan

Our fans have been beautifully crafted in traditional style by Komaruya, a centuries-old and well-respected company whose great attention to detail and quality in each fan marks them apart from other fan-makers in Kyoto. Made from traditional materials of bamboo and fine paper, they are the perfect ornament for your home or as a special gift.