Bizen Ware: A Tradition of Japanese Pottery

Bizen ware, also known as Bizen-yaki (備前焼), is a renowned type of Japanese pottery that originates from Bizen province, currently a part of Okayama prefecture.

Bizen yaki; Echizen Yaki; Seto yaki; Shigaraki yaki; Tamba yaki; Tokoname yaki

Historical Significance

With its roots in the village of Imbe in Bizen province, the pottery earned its name from this region and is often referred to as Imbe or Inbe ware. Its origins can be traced back to the 6th century, during the Heian period, with influences from Sue pottery. However, Bizen ware gained prominence during the Kamakura period in the 14th century. Notably, scholar Koyama Fujio recognized Bizen as one of the Six Ancient Kilns. The art form flourished during the Momoyama period in the 16th century, receiving support from the Ikeda lords of the Okayama domain during the Edo period. Bizen’s rustic charm made it a popular choice for the Japanese tea ceremony. The earlier phase of Bizen ware is referred to as the “old Bizen style” or “Ko-Bizen-ha.”

Revival and Recognition

During the Meiji era in the 19th century, as modernization took hold, many traditional crafts, including Bizen, faced the threat of disappearance. However, the efforts of artist Kaneshige Toyo in the early Shōwa era during the 1930s helped revive the Momoyama style, preserving Bizen ware. Kaneshige Toyo’s contributions earned him the title of Living National Treasure. In 1982, Bizen ware was designated as a traditional Japanese craft by the government. At present, approximately 300 operating kilns produce Bizen ware.

Renowned Artists and Characteristics

The Okayama Prefectural government has recognized several artists as Intangible Cultural Properties, including Fujita Ryuho, Kaneshige Toyo, Fujiwara Kei, Fujiwara Ken, Fujiwara Rakuzan, Mimura Tokei, Isezaki Yozan, Ishii Furo, Oae Jindo, Kaneshige Michiaki, Kaneshige Sozan, and Yamamoto Toshu. Kaneshige Toyo, Fujiwara Kei, and Yamamoto Toshu have additionally been registered as Living National Treasures. Other notable artists include Konishi Toko I, Matsuda Kazan I, Nishimura Shunko, and Suzuki Osai. Contemporary artists like Hajime Kimura, Kosuke Kaneshige, Harada Shuroku, Mori Togaku, Abe Anjin, Nakamura Rokuro, and Kakurezaki Ryuichi contribute to the continuing legacy of Bizen ware.

Bizen ware is characterized by its remarkable hardness achieved through high-temperature firing. Its reddish-brown color resembles earthen tones, and while it lacks glaze, traces of molten ash may create glaze-like effects. The markings on Bizen ware result from firing in wood-burning kilns.

The clay found in Imbe is sticky and fine, featuring a high iron content and organic matter that makes it resistant to glazing. While this presents challenges such as shrinkage and low fire resistance, Bizen ware artisans appreciate its plasticity and strength. Due to the clay’s properties, applying glaze is impractical as it would peel off during firing. The firing process requires gradual temperature changes to avoid rapid high-temperature fluctuations.

The Bizen ware festival, held annually near Imbe Station, celebrates the artistry and heritage of this pottery tradition.

Bizen ware stands as a testament to the skill and artistry of Japanese potters, showcasing the unique beauty and enduring appeal of this celebrated ceramic style.

The Creation of Bizen Ware: A Journey through the Firing Process

Bizen ware production primarily involves using a potter’s wheel, and although the same clay body and firing method are used, the outcomes vary widely due to the unique properties of the clay. The distinct surfaces of Bizen ware are entirely influenced by “kiln effects” known as yohen. The placement of individual clay pieces within the kiln results in firing under different conditions, producing a diverse range of results.

Due to the clay composition, Bizen wares undergo a slow and extended firing process. Typically, firings occur once or twice a year, lasting for 10 to 14 days. Red pine, chosen for its resin content that facilitates high-temperature fires, is used as firewood. A staggering number of logs, sometimes reaching thousands, are consumed in a single firing.

The final appearance of the pottery is determined by the potter’s mastery over the fire. The majority of the firing takes place in traditional climbing kilns with multiple chambers called noborigama or in a tunnel kiln known as an anagama. The vessels are stacked within the kiln, and the flames meander through the stacks, enveloping each individual piece. Throughout the firing process, the vessels may undergo color transformations, transitioning from black to grey.

The color variation from reddish-brown to blackish is influenced by the amount of firewood used. A reduction in firewood leads to an oxidizing environment, resulting in reddish-brown hues. However, oxygen alone is not the sole factor; the movement of flames within the kiln also plays a crucial role. Additionally, the potter must skillfully manage the flying charcoal ash. When the charcoal ash melts under the intense heat, it forms a glaze-like coating on the pottery surface. This ash creates distinctive yellow speckles referred to as “goma” or “sesame seed” effects. Hence, both flames and ashes are vital elements in achieving the distinctive Bizen style.

Throughout the firing process, the potter continuously adds firewood directly into the kiln’s firebox, every 20 minutes, day and night. The temperature slowly rises, starting from 600 degrees Celsius, to prevent any sudden cracking of the ceramics. The pieces remain in the kiln for a period of 10 days.

On the eighth day, as the firing nears completion, the temperature reaches its peak, close to 1200 or even 1300 degrees Celsius. A radiant glow emanates from the white-hot charcoal, completely enveloping the pottery after ten days of firing. The final touch involves directly throwing charcoal into the kiln, reducing the oxygen supply and creating dark patterns on the vessels. Six days after firing, the flames are extinguished, and the vessels are carefully removed from the kiln, concluding the extraordinary process of crafting Bizen ware.

The Potter’s Artistry: A Tapestry of Styles and Surprises in Bizen Ware

In the realm of Bizen ware, the potter’s meticulous arrangement of the vessels within the kiln plays a vital role in determining their final appearance. This deliberate placement, combined with careful firing control, gives rise to a captivating array of visual styles. However, the exact patterns and colors that emerge during the firing process are not always predictable.

Let us delve into some of the remarkable effects observed in Bizen ware:

  1. Goma (胡麻 – Sesame Seed): As the heat intensifies, charcoal ashes undergo a transformative process, melting and forming a glaze that adheres to the pottery surface. This creates a distinct and textured appearance.
  2. Sangiri (桟切り): By partially burying the vessel in sand within the kiln, the exposed area acquires a blackish tone. This effect occurs due to the ashes covering the vessel, retarding oxidation and altering its visual character.
  3. Hidasuki (緋襷): A traditional Bizen technique, Hidasuki produces scarlet lines reminiscent of brush strokes. This effect is achieved by wrapping rice straw around the piece before firing it in a saggar, a box-like container. Shielded from direct contact with flames and flying ashes, the straw-covered areas undergo a chemical reaction with alkalines in the straw and iron in the clay, resulting in striking red and brown burn marks. Potters employ different approaches to create hidasuki patterns, ranging from clear, thin lines to soft, out-of-focus marks, achieved by pounding the straw to soften it and wrapping the pieces in large bunches. This technique yields a rich range of scarlet hues and creates a captivating contrast against the plain background.
  4. Botamochi (牡丹餅): The outcome is reminiscent of small round rice cakes, leaving behind two, three, or five circular marks on the pottery surface.
  5. Blue Bizen (青備前, Aobizen): This style involves incorporating blue hues into the Bizen ware, introducing an intriguing color variation and expanding the artistic palette.
  6. Black Bizen (黒備前, Kurobizen): In this variation, the pottery showcases a deep black shade, offering a visually striking departure from the traditional reddish-brown tones.
  7. Fuseyaki (伏せ焼): By intentionally stacking pieces on top of each other or sideways, the potter manipulates the extent of coverage by the charcoal ashes. This deliberate arrangement creates different colors at the top and bottom, resulting in a captivating interplay of shades.

Throughout the firing process, the potter orchestrates these effects through careful placement and skillful manipulation of the kiln’s environment. Each piece of Bizen ware carries its own unique story, born from the potter’s artistry and the awe-inspiring alchemy of the firing process.

Museums Showcasing Artistic Excellence

Immerse yourself in the rich heritage of Bizen ware at two captivating museums:

Bizen Ware Traditional Industry Hall: Situated in Imbe Station, the Bizen Ware Traditional Industry Hall, also known as Bizenyaki Dentō Sangyō Kaikan, offers a remarkable display of works by contemporary potters. Delve into the innovative creations of today’s artisans, marvel at their mastery of the craft, and witness the evolution of Bizen ware. Additionally, this museum houses a curated collection of historic Bizen ware, providing a glimpse into the artistic legacy passed down through the ages.

Okayama Prefectural Bizen Ceramics Museum: Nestled in the heart of Okayama Prefecture, the Okayama Prefectural Bizen Ceramics Museum, or Bizen Tōgei Bijutsukan, proudly showcases a distinguished collection of over 500 Bizen ware masterpieces. Immerse yourself in the diverse forms, captivating textures, and exquisite aesthetics of these treasured pieces. As you journey through the museum, gain a deeper appreciation for the profound influence Bizen ware has had on the art world and its enduring significance in Japanese culture.

Both museums provide a captivating glimpse into the world of Bizen ware, offering a delightful blend of contemporary artistry and traditional craftsmanship. Prepare to be enchanted by the beauty and intricacy of these remarkable ceramic treasures.

Leave a Reply