Bizen Ware and Its Unique Beauty

Bizen ware derives its name from the area where it is produced, which is in Okayama Prefecture, it is one of the six ancient kilns in Japan, with a history dating back to the Middle Ages. A key feature of Bizen ware is that the molding and firing processes give it a simple, rustic appearance. No glazes are used.

There are several characteristic coloring patterns on the ware such as goma, sangiri, hidasuki, botamochi. They are made entirely from the transformations that occur from the flames inside the kiln, with the item’s location being a significant factor. Since the firing process takes time and is carried out at a temperature over 1200℃, every piece of ware attains a unique appearance.

History of Bizen ware

Bizen ware was developed based on the manufacturing method of Sue pottery, which was introduced around 1700 years ago, during the Kofun period. It took form as Bizen ware about 800 years ago, during the Momoyama period, classic tea utensils were produced. However, in the Edo period, porcelain be made in the other areas such as Kyoto, Arita, and Seto, and Bizen ware struggled a lot to keep the flames lit. Toyo Kaneshige found a way to toreproduce the classic tea wares of Momoyama period. He was selected as a Living National Treasure for his work as a Bizen ware ceramist. Nowadays, there are many talented artists and ceramists who keep the spirit of Bizen ware.

Bizen clay

The brown-colored clay distinctive of Bizen ware is called hiyose and dug up from underground rice fields in Imbe. There are very few places where you can obtain it. Depending on the type of work and each artist style, it may be mixed with mountain clay or black clay. After subsoiling, Hiyose is matured and it is said that Toyo Kaneshige used a clay that has been ‘aged’ for 10 years. Hiyose is very viscous and has a low refractoriness and compared to other types of ceramic clay it contains a lot of iron. Since Bizen ware is unglazed, selecting good clay is one of the most important parts of the whole production process for ceramists.

Coloring patterns of Bizen ware

Bizen ware does not use glaze, but the ready-to-use ceramic is famous for various colors and patterns. Due to the chemical reactions of the iron contained in the clay, the temperature in the kiln, red pine ash, and wrapped a piece with rice straw in the kiln during the long firing process, no two pieces are ever the same. This is why even the creator cannot predict how each piece will turn out. That translates into beautiful Japanese craftsmanship.

Goma

Red pine ash adheres to the wares and creates a natural ash glaze, giving the pieces a beautiful, brown color, which resembles sprinkled sesame (goma) seeds. The state where the falling ash melts at the high temperature is called tama dare (ball drop). Nowadays, it is also possible to add pine ash before firing in order to artificially create goma patterns. There are various colors such as yellow, brown, black, and green (blue-green).

Sangiri

Sangiri is a coloring pattern that changes from black to gray blue. It appears in some places on the floor buried in ash where flame and air do not pass through (ibushiyaki). These days, it is possible to create the effect artificially by putting in charcoal in the kiln at end of firing.

Hidasuki

Hidasuki is a coloring pattern with characteristic hues of red, vermillion and yellow on a light brown ceramic body. It is made by wrapping several with a rice straw this was used originally as a separator to prevent adhesion between stacked wares. The iron in the clay and alkali in the rice straw create a chemical reaction inside the kiln resulting in the ‘fire-marked color’. Since the flame and ash do not come into direct contact, the ware develops a light brown color, and fiery scarlet pattern appears in the place where rice straw is burned. Nowadays, it is common to use electric kilns for firing.

Botamochi

Botamochi pattern resembles a sticky rice ball containing red bean paste, called botamochi, placed on a plate. When smaller plates are stacked on larger plates and bowls, the areas that are covered receive no ash, producing round patterns. To create a spot of different color in various shapes, like the Hidasuki, potters use an additional piece of clay placed against, or laid on a pot.

Types of kiln

Noborigama kilns are set up on an incline with various chambers. It takes one to two weeks to fire them with red pine producing magenta color, hidasuki, sangiri and goma coloring patterns.

Anagama kilns are an early version of a single-chamber climbing kiln. They are tunnels with no chamber on an incline, and are often used for creating tobi goma, kase goma and scarlet patterns.

For combined kilns and square kilns, gas is used for firing red pine ash at high temperatures. The firing can be completed in a couple of days, patterns resemble a Noborigama kiln.

Electric kilns and gas kilns are mainly used for creating scarlet lines. In recent years, various efforts have been made to produce different shades by charcoal and reduction firing using charcoal.

Where to find Bizen ware

If you are just looking for some stylish souvenirs, you can buy Bizen ware at the department stores in big cities or galleries in Tokyo. For those interested in the variety of coloring patterns and shades, Bizen city in Okayama prefecture would be the best place to visit.

There is an exhibition and specialty shop on the 2nd floor of Bizen Ware Traditional Industry Hall (Bizen City, Okayama Prefecture) where you can learn the art of making the famous Bizen ware on Saturdays, Sundays and National holidays.

Once a year, the Bizen Ware festival is held on the third Sunday and preceding Saturday of October in Bizen City, Okayama Prefecture. During this annual festival, many ceramists in Bizen City open their places and offer great deals.

*In 2020, the 38th Bizen Ware festival was postponed due to the COVID-19