Shigaraki is undoubtedly the Japanese “heartland” of ceramics. Over 1200 years ago, the Emperor designated Shigaraki as the capital of Japan and in the next year he issued an Imperial Ordinance for the construction of a great Buddha. This was the origin of the province of Shigaraki, the birthplace of unglazed ceramics or Shigaraki-Yaki, one of the original six ancient styles.
Pottery commenced around the Kamakura period (1192–1333). Historically, now it appears there were more than six ancient styles; however, regardless of history, Shigaraki is without a doubt one of the most fascinating areas to visit if one wishes to soak in a genuine ceramic climate.
Located about one and a half hours from Kyoto, Shigaraki is characterized by tanuki (statues of a mythical animal) of all shapes and sizes in gallery after gallery, some approaching 20 feet high. They are also found all over Japan in front of temples, restaurants, and noodle shops.
Today, Shigaraki has largely escaped development, with its narrow streets and interesting little galleries, many unfortunately closed by the current recession. The Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park (http://sccp.main.jp), a magnificent facility created for the study of ceramics, and the Miho Museum (www.miho.or.jp), a world-class museum, have added uniqueness to the area.
My last visit was some eight years ago, so the opportunity to walk around the narrow streets and visit the numerous galleries was like stepping back in time. I was particularly looking forward to meeting again the iconic pioneer Shigaraki master, Yasuhisa Kohyama, whom I had met at his exposition in Kyoto a few years ago.
Kohyama was born in Shigaraki and graduated from the local Industrial Experiment Center. He was the major force, together with the late Michio Furutani, in reviving the use of the anagama kiln in order to produce Ko-Shigaraki (old Shigaraki) style pottery. This renaissance has since spread world wide. In those days, he created traditional works (vases and tea-ceremony pieces that are usually associated with Japanese ceramics). The first exhibition of work in Tokyo from the anagama kiln created enormous interest and was visited by many well-known potters, including Shoji Hamada.
Kohyama would later travel and become more aware of the beauty of nature in its various forms, inspiring him to create his own unique sculptural style. He has a great respect for ceramic tradition in Japan (see sidebar on facing page) and he pays homage to these ceramic roots by creating his own original forms.
Kohyama was the first Japanese artist to experiment extensively with cutting techniques (mentori-waza). He wanted to remain true to the original ways and use traditional Shigaraki clay, which is extremely coarse, and this meant eventually fashioning a cutting implement using guitar strings.
The forms and textures he has developed are unique and are based around nature. His signature Wind forms, which can have wavy edges, are sometimes partially cut to reveal the feldspathic nature of the clay. Some of the forms are reminiscent of stark, winged warriors, while others are deeply incised. All are of a sculptural nature but have a distinct primeval feel. Many of the pieces are refired to achieve a steel-gray surface similar to early sueki ware, which were glazed by fly ash when firing with pine. Kohyama’s surfaces are achieved by control of the reduction atmosphere in the kiln. He deliberately avoids running ash glazes—synonymous with typical Shigaraki fired work—as they would interfere with the simple powerful forms he has developed.
Control of the kiln, which reaches temperatures above 2370°F (1300°C), is entirely by instinct; neither pyrometer nor cones are used. The current kiln takes one week to load and one week to fire. It has been rebuilt four times over the years, and is now much smaller than the original. Adjacent is a second anagama that has not yet been fired. This kiln is of a different design and incorporates a lift to assist with loading his large work.
Kohyama has a novel approach to creating work. The pieces are initially constructed with thick coils, then they are left for one day to firm up, and then they are cut. He constructs three pieces simultaneously, not necessarily in families of work, but as required for future exhibitions. His creations suit Ikebana arrangements and he is highly skilled in the art of flower arrangement, having learned from the age of ten.
Today, Kohyama is a sprightly 73 years old. With obviously enormous inner strength and vitality, he lives up a narrow winding road about 15 minutes drive from Shigaraki Station. He still travels regularly to Europe, the United States, and the South Pacific, exhibiting and giving workshops while still keeping up a busy schedule in Japan, where he is assisted by Wakae Nakamoto.
Within his house, which is traditionally Japanese in style, there are two large display rooms and works in many other places—their soft neutral toning enhanced by flower arrangements. Kohyama will often arrange the flowers himself when he exhibits.
While he closely follows the traditional ways in the use of pottery techniques, Kohyama has constructed a small wood-fired “pizza” oven, which, he admits with a grin, is strictly controlled by a pyrometer.
by Yasuhisa Kohyama
What is today known as sueki was called suemono by the ancient peoples. Suemono and the technique for creating it were born in southern China and were brought to Japan from South Korea in 5 BCE. In the high-temperature kiln, silica in the clay and sodium in the pine wood ash combined to impart a glassy appearance to the surface of the pieces. This technique spread throughout Japan and its influence can be seen in each ceramic-producing area: Bizen, Echizen, Shigaraki, Seto, Tamba, Tokoname, etc.
I find it fascinating that sueki can continue to be embroiled in Shigaraki ware. It has been 50 years since I first stared to fire according to these original principles, depending only upon the wood, the weather, the temperature—that is to say, upon nature itself. Every time I fire, I am grateful to nature, I brace myself, I strive to approach the experience as the ancients did. Now, I would like to create my original interpretation of Shigaraki suemono.