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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 These ceramics were originally made to be quite ostentatious but became simpler over time.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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