History of Ceramics and Essential Insights into Renowned Artists [A Must-Know for Every Itamae]


I don’t understand much about utensils…


When I was young, I didn’t know either, but studying it turned out to be surprisingly interesting!

Japanese tableware, with its many varieties, has evolved through a long history, crafted by numerous artisans. The relationship between cuisine and utensils is inseparable, making it a familiar tool for chefs.

This article is about “Paprika.”
・22 years of experience as a chef, holding a license for preparing blowfish (fugu).
・Worked in various establishments such as traditional Japanese inns, high-end restaurants, and private clubs.
・Holds the position of head chef with previous experience.
[For a detailed profile, click here]

Especially, ceramics are sometimes called “yakimono” because they involve baking clay in high-temperature kilns. Originating from China and influencing Western ceramics through exports, it played a crucial role in shaping both Japanese and Western pottery.

Take a break from direct cooking and delve into the study of utensils for a change of pace.


History of Japanese Ceramics and the Six Ancient Kilns

We use utensils in our daily lives, and their history is worth a brief reflection.

  • Jomon Period: The oldest pottery, dating back 16,000 years, was discovered in Aomori Prefecture.
  • Kofun Period (5th century onwards): New ceramic techniques from China and the Korean Peninsula led to the production of cups, bowls, sake cups, and jars through high-temperature firing.
  • Heian Period (late 8th century onwards): The use of glaze spread, and distinctive pottery was produced across Japan.
  • Kamakura-Muromachi Periods (12th century onwards): Influenced by “chanoyu” (tea ceremony), tea ceramics like Oribe were born, marking the golden age of ceramics.
  • Edo Period (early 17th century onwards): Arita ware emerged, and under Sakaida Kakiemon, colored enamel techniques were perfected, leading to exports to Europe. Japanese porcelain’s technological advancements also influenced European ceramics like Meissen, Royal Copenhagen, and Wedgwood.

《MEMO: What is glaze?》
It’s a substance applied to the raw material before firing. After firing, it turns glassy, giving a glossy finish and preventing water penetration.

【Six Ancient Kilns】Japan’s Kilns Continuing for 1000 Years

【Source】Traveling, Millennium, Six Ancient Kilns

The Six Ancient Kilns (“Rokkoyou”) refer to a collective term for six representative pottery production sites in Japan that have continued for approximately 1000 years, from the medieval period to the present.

The history of Japan’s representative ceramics has been condensed, and distinctive pottery has developed in each production area.

【Echizen Ware】(Echizen) Echizen Town, Fukui Prefecture

  • The largest Sueki kiln in the Hokuriku region during the Heian period.
  • Characterized by clay and ash glaze.
  • The red clay, the raw material, contains a high iron content, resulting in good firing density.
  • With a simple and warm appearance, it features ash glaze and firing with variations such as oil droplets, indigo dyeing, and black Oribe, depending on the glaze application and firing color.

* Sueki: Pottery fired in a tunnel-shaped kiln

【Seto Ware】(Seto) Seto City, Aichi Prefecture

  • The Sarutobi kiln, existing since the Kofun period, is the origin.
  • An earthenware pottery that incorporated ceramic techniques during the Edo period.
  • Characterized by vibrant Seto blue and Seto black.
  • One of Japan’s leading kiln locations, hence the term “Seto-mono” for ceramics.

【Tokoname Ware】(Tokoname) Tokoname City, Aichi Prefecture

  • Produces many large products, achieving low-cost mass production.
  • Simple and rustic with diverse natural glazes, featuring techniques like ash glaze and red drawing.

【Shigaraki Ware】(Shigaraki) Koga City, Shiga Prefecture

  • Originating from the late Heian period to the early Kamakura period.
  • Various decorative techniques developed, including techniques like Shigaraki Shichihenge.
  • Characterized by unique black and gray glazes. It has Japan’s oldest kiln site, with a history of approximately 1300 years.

【Bizen Ware】(Bizen) Bizen City, Okayama Prefecture

  • Flourished as the production site for Sueki, giving rise to Bizen Ware in the Okayama region.
  • Characterized by a strong red tone in the firing and the beauty of kiln changes through firing.
  • Renowned for creating masterpieces of tea pottery, often left unglazed.

【Tamba Ware】(Tamba) Sasayama City, Hyogo Prefecture

  • Originating from the late Heian period to the early Kamakura period.
  • Decorative techniques diversified, leading to methods like Tamba Shichibake.

Production process of ceramics and porcelain – until the vessels are made

Next, let’s review the general production process.
Ceramics sold at a low price are, of course, machine-made mass-produced items. On the other hand, ceramics crafted by artisans take a long time to become satisfactory pieces.

Preparing the Clay (Several days to around 3 years)

Remove impurities, sometimes let the clay rest, add water, and knead. Allowing it to rest enhances its “stickiness” and makes it easier to mold, as bacteria in the clay break down and increase its viscosity.

Shaping (Several hours to several days)

Shape using a potter’s wheel, hand molding, coiling, or molds.

Drying (About 2 weeks)

Air-dry to provide breathability and flexibility. Handles, comb marks, and decorative elements like grooves are done before complete drying.

Firing (Bisque) (Several hours to (cooling down) about 3 days)

Bake at around 800°C for a few hours to remove moisture and increase strength.

Underglaze (Several days)

In vessels like sometsuke and iron paintings, apply pigments or other materials to the surface. Some vessels skip this step.

Applying Glaze (Several days)

Liquid mixture of minerals (such as silica) and fluxes (lead, ash, soda, tin) to enhance strength. Glaze not only adds strength but also improves usability by eliminating water absorption, in addition to effects like coloring and decoration.

Firing (Final) (Half a day to (cooling down) about 3 days)

1100~1400°C / Glassify the components of the body. Glaze also glassifies, adding gloss and shine. The final firing process, including flame intensity, time, and atmosphere, influences the outcome of the clay and glaze.

Overglaze Decoration (Several hours)

Ornate decoration using enamel pigments, etc. Examples: aka-e (red painting), kinstuki (gold accent), gosai (five colors), etc.

Overglaze Firing (Half a day to (cooling down) about 3 days)

At around 800°C / Color development of overglaze.

Unloading from the Kiln

Slowly cool down to completion.

Depending on the type of vessel, some steps may be omitted, but even the shortest process takes several weeks. The process of letting the raw clay rest, in particular, can feel like an eternity. Authentic pottery holds value, and you can appreciate that each piece is truly unique.

Characteristics and Differences Between Porcelain and Pottery

Referred to as “earthware” and “stoneware,” the difference lies in the raw materials. Most of the everyday vessels we use for meals are porcelain, which is easier to imagine. If you think about the tea bowls or plates sold at a 100-yen shop, those are often mechanically mass-produced porcelain.

Here’s a table summarizing the characteristics of porcelain and pottery for better understanding:

Raw MaterialPorcelain Stone
(finely crushed white hard stone)
Pottery Clay
(brownish clay)
Porcelain is easy to handle and constitutes over 90% of circulating tableware.
Firing Temperature1300–1400°C1100–1200°CThe higher the temperature, the denser and stronger the body becomes.
TextureSmooth, thin, and hard impressionRough, thick, and soft impression
Water AbsorptionAlmost noneSlightly highHigher water absorption means liquid, oil stains, and odors transfer more easily to the vessel.
Sound when TappedClear, high-pitched soundDull, low-pitched sound
Transparency to LightAllows light to pass throughDoes not allow light to pass through
GlazeYesYesFiring turns it into a glassy substance, adding gloss and preventing water penetration.
Thermal ConductivityHighLowPorcelain heats up and cools down easily; pottery heats up slowly and retains heat.
Representative ExamplesImari Ware
Kutani Ware
Tobe Ware
Shigaraki Ware
Iga Ware
Bizen Ware

Notable Ceramic Artists to Remember

【Kitaoji Rosanjin】1883–1959
Japanese versatile artist – calligrapher, painter, ceramicist, calligrapher, lacquerware artist, culinary expert. Despite facing adversity in his childhood, he held a passion for beauty, blossoming his talents in painting and calligraphy. He established a position in the Japanese painting world and continued creative activities until his later years.

【Furuta Oribe】1544–1615
Warrior, tea master of the Azuchi-Momoyama period and early Edo period. Innovator of Oribe ware, who commissioned potters to create. Served Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu, contributing to the popularization of the tea ceremony. Known for distorted teacups and distinctive tea rooms, he committed seppuku during the Osaka Summer Campaign but passed down the formalities of the tea ceremony to future generations.

【Sakaida Kakiemon】1596–1666
Edo-period ceramicist, with descendants inheriting the name. The first to establish the style of Kakiemon ware, characterized by red overglaze on a milky-white base. The first through the fourth Kakiemons established the style of milky-white background with red overglaze, and their works were exported to Europe. From the fifth to the seventh generations, they produced underglaze-painted porcelain, discontinuing muddy glaze works. Kakiemon style features brightly colored depictions of flowers and birds in a warm color scheme with asymmetrical milky-white margins.

【Kawai Kanjiro】1890–1966
Japanese potter, also known for sculpture, design, calligraphy, poetry, and essays. Influenced by the Mingei movement, he engaged in practical pottery production. His works are characterized by simple and free-form, and his home and workshop are now the Kawai Kanjiro Memorial Museum. He declined cultural awards and the title of Living National Treasure, continuing creative activities until his later years.

【Hamada Shoji】1894–1978
Japanese potter, known as the founder of Mashiko ware. His works feature simple forms and bold glaze patterns. Holder of Important Intangible Cultural Property (Living National Treasure), he contributed to the Mingei movement.

【Nonomura Ninsei】Year of birth and death unknown (17th century)
Edo-period potter who completed Kyo-yaki color-painted pottery. He marked his works with the seal “Ninsei” and excelled in the pottery wheel. Representative works include color-painted kiln incense burners and color-painted w isteria flower teapots, which are known as National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties.

Summary of the History of Ceramics

The history of ceramics spans thousands of years from ancient times to the present day, evolving with various civilizations and technological advancements. Ceramics, cherished for their beauty and practicality, have been loved by many people.

In Japan, it particularly flourished alongside cultural practices like the tea ceremony. In Europe, there were technological innovations in ceramic manufacturing, achieving a balance between industrialization and artistic expression. The achievements and artistic styles of the master craftsmen who created ceramics are also fascinating.

Especially, Kitaoji Rosanjin, renowned not only as a ceramicist but also as a culinary expert, is likely well-known even among chefs. Taking action, such as buying a favorite teacup or bowl, can open doors to unexplored interests. By taking such steps, something within you might undoubtedly change.

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