Shigaraki Ware: The Rich Legacy of Stoneware Pottery

Shigaraki ware, known as Shigaraki-yaki in Japanese, is a distinguished type of stoneware pottery crafted in the Shigaraki area of Japan. The kiln where it is produced holds a significant place among the Six Ancient Kilns of Japan. While Shigaraki ware is renowned for its depiction of the tanuki (a raccoon dog) figures, its kiln and local pottery tradition boast a long and captivating history.

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

Historical Roots

The development of kilns in the medieval period can be traced back to the evolution of Sue ware technology. As the Heian period progressed, Sue ware production saw a decline, and the focus shifted to the Owari, Mino, Bizen, and Omi provinces. The political upheaval during the Heian period compelled Sue ware potters to create more affordable items like tsubo (jars), kame (wide-mouthed bowls), and suribachi (mortars or grinders). These changes led to the emergence of distinct regional kilns, forming what is known as the ‘Six Old Kilns’: Seto, Echizen, Tokoname, Bizen, Tamba, and Shigaraki.

The name “Shigaraki” refers to a collective group of ceramic products originating from a specific geographic area. The origins of Shigaraki ware can be traced back to the construction of tiles for Emperor Shōmu’s Shigaraki-no-miya Palace in 742. However, archaeological evidence reveals ancient kiln remains in the ruins of Shigaraki village dating back to the Kamakura and early Muromachi periods. It is believed that potters from Bizen traveled to Shigaraki and influenced the early Shigaraki wares. The presence of embedded granules of feldspar, which give both Bizen and Shigaraki wares their distinctive appearance, makes it challenging to distinguish ceramics from the Kamakura and Muromachi periods.

The town of Shigaraki was formed by eighteen independent communities situated along the Daido River in the southernmost region of Shiga Prefecture. Some of the earliest kiln sites, including Kamagatani, Minami Matsuo in Nagano, and Goinoki in Koyama, potentially date back to 1278. These sites are believed to have served as the thriving hub of the ancient Shigaraki pottery industry.

Shigaraki kilns primarily catered to local needs, particularly those of farmers who required mortars, water urns, bottles, and deep dishes. Fragments of such utilitarian wares have been discovered in the remains of the old kiln sites. The simple yet incised geometric lines found on these pieces are a testament to their purpose for everyday agricultural activities.

The Influence of Tea Ceremony on Shigaraki Ware

Tea drinking has been deeply rooted in Japanese culture since ancient times. While the general public enjoyed tea served in wooden bowls at fairs and markets, the upper classes turned it into a captivating guessing game. However, it was the tea master Murata Juko who played a pivotal role in shaping the production of Shigaraki wares specifically for the tea ceremony. Juko’s letter discussing the disciples of the tea ceremony shed light on the significance of these wares. Inspired by Zen Buddhist traditions, Juko emphasized the concept of wabi-sabi, which embraced simplicity, humility, and a profound appreciation for the present moment. The natural appearance of Shigaraki pottery perfectly embodied these principles and harmonized with the aesthetic ambiance of the tea ceremony. As a result, the tea ceremony revolutionized the Japanese perception of objects, including ceramic ware.

In 1520, following Juko’s declaration of tea ceremony principles, other tea masters began commissioning the creation of distinct styles of ceramic wares for the ceremonies. Takeno Sho-o, for instance, developed a fondness for Shigaraki ware and ordered pieces with red glazes that blended into green and brown tones. Towards the end of the sixteenth century, the renowned tea master Rikyu became a patron of a particular style known as Rikyu Shigaraki. These wares were crafted with a grey faience that imitated Korean ceramics. Subsequently, in 1635, the Todo family assumed authority and enlisted the expertise of tea master Kobori Enshu to oversee the production of what would later be recognized as Enshu Shigaraki ware.

Thanks to the tea ceremony’s influence, Shigaraki ware acquired a distinct identity and purpose, reflecting the profound philosophies and aesthetics associated with this revered Japanese tradition.

Characteristics of Shigaraki Ware

Shigaraki ware is renowned for its unique features, which arise from the local sandy clay sourced from the bed of Lake Biwa. This clay possesses a warm orange hue and imparts exceptional durability to the pottery. The ceramics exhibit irregular contours and evoke an archaic charm. In terms of firing technique, Shigaraki ware shifted from reduction to oxidation firing. This method allows ample air admission during the firing process, facilitated by the use of an ancient kiln known as an anagama kiln. Anagama kilns, often built into the sides of hills, are single-chambered structures with a sloping tunnel shape. They require a constant supply of wood fuel to reach the high temperatures necessary for firing the clay. The use of such kilns also contributes to the distinct mineral glaze surface that is highly sought-after in Shigaraki wares.

The resulting appearance of the pottery varies depending on its placement within the kiln. Typically, the surface showcases an oatmeal-like texture with a grayish to reddish-brown coloration. Small impurities, caused by partially fired embedded quartz, protrude from the body. Another characteristic of fired stoneware is the thin layer of crackled glaze, ranging from a yellowish-brown to a peach blossom red color. Some Shigaraki wares exhibit a light, transparent, or almost glass-like glaze with a bluish-green tint. These glazes were dribbled, sprayed, or spattered onto the ceramic surface. In most lighting conditions, the glaze appears nearly invisible, only becoming apparent when the piece is held and rotated in the hand. Geta okoshi, or clog marks, left by the clay resting on supports inside the kiln before firing, can also be observed on Shigaraki ware. Additionally, fingerprints left behind by potters during the construction process contribute to the distinctive nature of these ceramics.

Below are examples of characteristic Shigaraki ware:

  1. Kame (wide-mouthed jars): These vessels exhibit paddled marks around the shoulder seam, which is then carefully scraped horizontally. The lower body is scraped vertically. They have a gray, fine-grained core and a purplish-brown glossy surface. The shoulder features a fusion of purplish-brown and yellow ash, creating an olive-green glaze.
  2. Tsubo (jars): These jars bear a “well curb” mark resembling a number sign (#) in two places on the shoulder. The neck and rim are meticulously defined. The body is horizontally scraped overall, resulting in an orange color without a glaze finish.
  3. Examples with distinct characteristics: Various vessels display specific marks, smoothing techniques, scraping patterns, and colorations. The core and surface of each piece exhibit unique qualities, such as red-brown, golden-orange, pinkish-beige, rose-red fused with yellow ash, and more.
  4. Sake flask: This flask showcases horizontal smoothing on both the interior and exterior, with a scraped lower edge. Its core exhibits a brick-red coloration with numerous small stones, while the surface appears golden-beige.

Shigaraki ware’s distinctive features and artistic expressions make it a captivating and treasured form of pottery.

General Production Process of Shigaraki Ware

Creating the form

The clay used in Shigaraki ware is sourced from an ancient layer at the bottom of Lake Biwa, located north of Kyoto. This fire-resistant soil, which accumulated over millions of years, possesses the distinctive rustic texture and warm scarlet color characteristic of Shigaraki pottery. The excavated soil is mixed to create a pliable potter’s clay. It is then crushed and kneaded with water, along with other materials, to achieve an optimal texture. The artisan shapes the clay into the desired form, taking into account factors such as temperature, humidity, and clay properties. Considering that clay shrinks during firing, the initial shape must be larger than the intended final product. While a potter’s wheel is commonly used for shaping, guide boards are sometimes employed for bowls and plates with intricate forms.

Applying a design

Design elements are added to the molded vessel through carving, marking, or other techniques. Decorative patterns, such as matsukawa (pine bark pattern) or inka (small flower pattern), are often incorporated.

Underglaze decoration

In certain cases, artisans paint decorations by hand. Underglaze decoration involves the use of iron sand or impure cobalt oxide.


Following the initial low-heat biscuit firing, the ceramic material is glazed. A mixture of feldspar, limestone, silica, and iron oxide is prepared, and the glaze is applied to the piece using an air gun, brush, or ladle. During firing, the glaze melts and undergoes a transformation, revealing vibrant colors that showcase the skill and creativity of each potter. Achieving the right glaze thickness is crucial, as excessively thick glaze may fail to melt or shrink properly, resulting in an unsatisfactory appearance. Conversely, too thin glaze may be consumed by the raw clay, exposing the underlying color. Therefore, this process demands experience and expertise.

Glost firing

The arranged pieces are fired at temperatures of 1200°C (approximately 2192°F) or higher. The unique texture of Shigaraki ware can be traced back to ancient times when pottery was fired in wood-burning climbing kilns, an ancient kiln type introduced to Japan from China and Korea. The interaction between the ashes and soil in the flames led to a natural glaze formation, imparting a glass-like surface. Today, some potters employ gas or electric kilns that provide consistent heat. As the quality of the finished pottery depends on factors such as temperature and humidity, potters cannot predict the outcome until the kiln is opened. Firing Shigaraki ware requires a balance between preserving tradition and incorporating modern sensibilities and techniques. After firing for more than 24 hours, the pieces are unloaded from the kiln at a temperature of around 200°C (approximately 392°F). Workers take precautions, such as wearing gloves, to avoid burns. The top and base of each piece are then polished for a refined finish. After thorough inspection, the pottery is carefully wrapped and boxed for shipment.

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