Shigaraki Ware

Ceramics with two faces: industrial and artistic

By Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

By: Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University in collaboration with Kyoto Women's University

Jar with higaki pattern, Shigaraki ware (室町時代(15世紀))Original Source: The Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park

The beginnings of Shigaraki ware

The town of Shigaraki, located today in the city of Koka, in southern Shiga prefecture, is one of several representative Japanese ceramic-producing areas. Shigaraki's ceramic traditions are thought to date back to the later half of the 13th century (late Kamakura period). An important reason that Shigaraki became such a prominent area for Japanese ceramics is its supply of suitable good clay. Clay from decomposed granite is easy to mold, produces a rough texture, and, when the impurities are removed, can become a smooth, milky white clay.

Firing in anagama, Shigaraki wareArt Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

The area around Shigaraki stands above the stratum produced by the upheaval of the Old Lake Biwa that was the forerunner of the present Lake Biwa. The Ōyamada Lake of prehistoric times was born some four million years ago in the area of Iga in present-day Mie Prefecture. Over a long period of time it moved to where Lake Biwa is today and in the process sand as well as animal and vegetable remains filled the bottom of the lake with sediment, creating clay suitable for making ceramics.

    The villagers of Shigaraki live surrounded by mountains. The sides of the mountains are perfect for building kilns and also produce the wood needed to fire those kilns. Shigaraki is a place that invites the production of pottery.

Jar, Shigaraki ware (16世紀)Original Source: The Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park

Medieval Shigaraki ware:  tsubo and
kame-style jars and bowls (hachi)

From the 13th through the 16th centuries, the Shigaraki kilns, like other old medieval kilns, produced three types of vessels:  tsubo- and kame-style jars and bowls (hachi).

Hand coiling, Shigaraki ware by Sawa Kiyotsugu (1948-), Photo by Sugimoto TakamasaArt Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Hand coiling

They were hand formed (tebineri) whereby the ball of wedged clay was placed in the center of a potter’s wheel, and while rotating it, the bottom of the vessel formed, after which a long coil of wedged clay was laid onto the base working upward to form the upper part. 

Without applying any glaze, the vessel was fired at high temperature to vitrify or harden it into stoneware (yakeshime dōki), the wood fuel having calcified.


Water jar "Beni kanoko", Shigaraki ware (室町時代(16世紀))Original Source: The Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park

Shigaraki tea jars

The late Muromachi period (later part of the 15th century) saw a great turning point: Shigaraki vessels that had been used as everyday utensils became implements for Tea Ceremony (chanoyū). At this time the uniquely Japanese esthetic of wabicha that found beauty in natural simplicity developed. One of the things the tea masters identified as wabicha utensils were Japanese ceramics. They discovered a beauty in the simplicity of these everyday pots and used them as tea utensils converting them into water jars and flower vases.

Along with Bizen ware, Shigaraki ware was the earliest native pottery to be used in the Tea Ceremony. Records kept at Tea Ceremony gatherings in Nara and Sakai (present day Osaka) note many instances when Shigaraki ceramics were used, particularly as water jars (mizusashi).

A Shigaraki tea jar made for the cerebration for the coronation of Taisho Emperor (1915)Original Source: Uji City Historical Museum

Edo period Shigaraki ware

In the 17th century (early Edo period) with the building of many-chambered climbing kilns, production increased. At this time glazed ceramics were spreading throughout the country. The earliest example of glazed Shigaraki ware is a tea jar with white waist made in the early 17th century to special order as a gift for the shogun’s family to store tea from Uji. In the mid 18th century, the center of production shifted from making unglazed stoneware vessels to glazed ceramics. 

信楽焼 《掛流茶壺 青簾茶壺 掛流茶壺》 (明治時代前期)Original Source: 甲賀市信楽伝統産業会館蔵

From the Edo period into the Meiji (1868-1912), Nagano village in Shigaraki Town of Koga District they made large pots such as tea jars and big kame jars.

Shigaraki ware: Sake bottles (kan tokkuri), tea bowls (chawan), religious vessels (shinbutsugu), and candleholders (江戸時代末期)Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

In the other villages they made smaller objects like clay tiles, sake bottles (kan tokkuri), tea bowls (chawan), religious vessels (shinbutsugu), and candleholders. 

信楽焼 《小杉焼》Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Among them the small tea bowls (senji chawan) and round bowls (maruwan) made in Kyoyaki style were popular from Northeast Japan through Kyushu. 

Brazier with "namako glaze", Shigaraki ware (明治末期~大正期(20世紀初頭))Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Modern Shigaraki ware

After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Shigaraki produced useful tools like hibachi braziers and caldrons for silk reeling. The hibachis were a great hit all the way through the Taisho (1912-26) and early Showa periods (1926-1989). Valued highly for their strong good quality and ability to heat and cool more quickly than ones made in other areas, they sold increasingly well. Just after the Second World War (1945-54), to fill the growing demand, the town of Shigaraki appeared to be bubbling with hibachi.

Tower of the Sun: The face of the Past (1970) by Okamoto Taro (1911-1996)Original Source: Expo '70 Commemorative Park

Tower of the Sun

Around 1955 they started to make tiles and other architectural items, and this continues to be the central product of Shigaraki ware today. The Sun Totem created by Taro Okamoto (1911-96) for the Expo 1970 held in Osaka has a back face produced with the cooperation of Shigaraki tile makers who adeptly made use of the techniques of the time.

In this way Shigaraki ware responded energetically to changes in lifestyle and fabricating anything that could be made out of clay. 

Shigaraki tanuki (1955年頃)Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Shigaraki tanuki 

Many Japanese immediately associate Shigaraki with tanuki (Japanese raccoon dog). These Shigaraki tanuki fashioned in the style of small monks selling sake are famous around the nation. In the 1920s the First Rian (Tetsuzo Fujiwara, 1876-1963) and others started to specialize in making tanuki. 

Hōgei no tanuki, Tennō heika gekō kinen (1951)Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

In 1951 when the Shōwa emperor visited Shigaraki they welcomed him by building an arch out of their main product, hibachi, and lining up Shigaraki tanuki holding Japanese flags. The Shōwa emperor was delighted and the entire country took note through the news media. 

Water Jar, Shigaraki ware (1960年代) by Ueda Naokata IV (1898-1975)Original Source: The Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park

Showa era Shigaraki ware

In 1930, a shard from a Momoyama period Shino tea bowl was discovered at the old kiln site of Mutagahora in Kani City, Gifu Prefecture, opening up a new understanding of ceramic history and raising interest in old wares. Craftsmen from every area were charmed by the Momoyama pottery and began to recreate old pieces.

Two artisans in Shigaraki also sought to reproduce old Shigaraki ware. They were the third generation Rakusai Takahashi (1898-1976) and the fourth generation Naokata Ueda (1909-1975).  The high-fired ceramic ware in Momoyama style that they made was called hechimon, and it went essentially unnoticed by the local people.

Jar, Shigaraki ware (1960年代) by Takahashi Rakusai III (1898-1976)Original Source: The Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park

In 1963, Takahashi and Ueda were designated Intangible Cultural Property Preservers of Shigaraki Techniques for their production of special Shigaraki ware that incorporated the reproduction of early techniques.Their activities influenced those that followed them. By 1970 there were quite a number of artists working in the area who were trained in the traditional techniques of old Shigaraki. After the mid 1980s artists produced creative works out of clay as one genre of modern art. This is true today. 

Fire-red color, Shigaraki wareArt Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Characteristics of unglazed (yakishime) Shigaraki stoneware: Fire-red color

The iron in Shigaraki clay sometimes lends it to turn a flame-like glowing reddish brown during firing. The color of the fired clay depends on the placement in the kiln, the circulation of the flames, the temperature, the amount of oxygen and the composition of clay,

Natural glaze, Shigaraki wareArt Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Natural ash glaze

When the temperature inside the kiln rises to somewhere between 1,250°C and 1,300°C, the alkaline and lime contained in the ash of the firewood interacts with the silicic acid in the clay, melting together and fusing into glass. This is a natural ash glaze.

Crab eyes (kani no me) or hailstones (arare)Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Crab eyes (kani
no me) and hailstones (arare)

Shigaraki clay contains a lot of feldspar. This melts between 1250°C and 1280°C creating visible white glass grains on the surface of the clay. They are sometimes called “crab eyes” due to a imagined resemblance, or “hailstones.”

Credits: Story

Information provided by The Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park, Uji City Historical Museum, Traditional Crafts Center of Shigaraki, Taro Okamoto Memorial Museum, Expo'70 Commemorative Park

Text written by Otsuki Noriko, Curator, The Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park

English Translation by Miyo Kurosaki Bethe

Exhibition created by Yamamoto Masako (Research Fellow of Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS)) and Maezaki Shinya Kyoto Women's University

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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