A stoneware kiln located on the west side of the Nara basin, dating back to the Edo period

The History of Akahada Ware
The Akahada motogama kilns are located in Akahada-cho in the city of Nara, at the base of the mountains on the western side of the Nara basin. Standing at the rear face of Mt. Akahada (also known as Mt. Gojō), the Great Buddha Hall of Tōdaiji is visible in the far distance, while the temple of Yakushiji can be seen in the foreground. Many legends exist about the beginnings of Akahada ware; what is certain is that it had strong connections to Kyoto ware (Kyō-yaki) by at least the end of the Edo period (1615–1868). At that time, three kiln complexes had been established in this area under the patronage of the Yamato Kōriyama domain, which governed this region. Only one kiln complex survived the Meiji period: the oldest of the three, called the “central kilns” (motogama). Today, these are known as the Mt. Akahada kilns (in Japanese, Akahada yama motogama).
A 1933 drawing kept at the kilns shows the entire workshop, including the large-scale climbing kiln and shop.
Clay and Glazes of the Mt. Akahada Kilns
Clay for the Mt. Akahada kilns is taken from the rear of the mountain and other surrounding areas, then is processed and used to make ceramics. Since ancient times this region has been a prime site for unearthing high-quality clay. Excavation surveys conducted nearby have revealed Kofun period (circa 3rd–7th century) kilns which were used to produce haniwa (earthenware tomb sculptures).
Although some natural materials, such as feldspar, are difficult to find locally and are outsourced from other regions, all the basic materials such as clay and ash are processed at the workshop.
Kilns that utilize locally-sourced materials have become increasingly rare, which makes the role of this kiln all the more valuable in passing on traditional production methods.
Mt. Akahada Kilns as a Heritage Site
There are three climbing kilns (noborigama) left at Mt. Akahada Motogama: the large kiln, made at the end of the Edo period; the medium kiln, constructed during the late 1940’s to early 1950’s; and the small kiln, made during the late 1960’s to early 1970’s. There is no other place in Japan where three climbing kilns are found together in this way. Following the proliferation of electric and gas kilns beginning in the 1970’s, the number of climbing kilns in Japan has drastically declined. The kilns that remain at Mt. Akahada remain an invaluable part of Japan’s cultural heritage.
The large climbing kiln, which measures 17.5 meters in length and 5.4 meters in width, has eight chambers and a 2-meter high ceiling. The ways in which the bricks are laid and in which sections of the wall have melted indicate that it has been repaired several times.
The former workshop is now used as a retail shop. Because the second floor was built as a storage area, the first floor is supported by many wooden posts. At first glance this building appears to be Japanese in its architectural style, but it was actually built between the Meiji and Taishō periods, when Western style architecture proliferated.
The second floor ceiling has truss structure, an architectural feature introduced to Japan in the modern era. Along with the large climbing kiln, this building has been designated as a Registered Cultural Heritage of Japan.
An old hand-turned wheel was converted into the table now used in the shop. Having fulfilled its original purpose, it now carries on the traditions of Akahada ware in a new form.
While primarily used to make tea ceramics and dishes for kaiseki meals, the kilns here are also used to make large-scale pieces. One of the charms of Akahada ware is that it is blends both contemporary and traditional features.
Okuda Mokuhaku (1800–1871), known as the reviver of the Akahada ware tradition, was active at this kiln from the late Edo through the early Meiji periods, in the mid to late 19th century. The site still houses a variety of tools left from the end of the Edo period, including the ceramic molds that Okuda created. The designs found in these molds are still used in Akahada ceramics today.
Akahada ware includes both new ceramic forms developed to suit modern aesthetic preferences as well as pieces made in the tradition of Edo period ceramics.
Efforts to Bring to Life the Climbing Kiln Tradition
Since the large-scale climbing kiln has been used in almost 40 years, it has become damaged over time. In order to revive this kiln as a local historical resource for future generations, work began on August 30, 2015, to dismantle and repair the first three chambers of the kiln. While the kiln was dismantled, in September 2015, the site also went archaeological excavation in order to assess historical changes to the kiln over time. This process revealed that the kiln has been repaired several times in its history.
Although the climbing kiln has not been used since 1975, preparations began in 2016 to revive the tradition and light the fires of the kiln once again. The reassembling and excavation surveys of the kiln will help to pass on to future generations knowledge about the kiln as well as the techniques that were used to build and repair it. If the kiln were left in its unrepaired state, the specific techniques needed to maintain it would rapidly become obsolete. This is a problem faced not only with the Mt. Akahada kilns, but by kilns in many regions of Japan. The challenge taken on by the Akahada yama motogama is one of bringing cultural heritage to life.
Mt. Akahada Kiln (Akahada yama motogama)
By: Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University in collaboration with Kyoto Women's University
Credits: Story

Information provided by: Mt. Akahada Motogama, Nara

Text: Masaaki Kidachi, Professor, Ritsumeikan University

Photo by: Kuwajima Kaoru, Masaaki Kidachi

Exhibition created by: Kyoto Women's University Lifestyle Design Laboratory
Taoka Yuri & Sakashita Riho

English translation by Hillary Pedersen
Edited by Melissa M. Rinne, Kyoto National Museum

Directed by Maezaki Shinya, Kyoto Women's University

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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