The earliest forms of ceramics in Japan were found about 10,000 years ago during the Jomon Period (13,000 BC to 300 BC) when most inhabitants were hunters and gatherers. The era's name, Jomon, refers to the typical patterns seen on the contemporary pottery which was made unglazed and baked in large bonfires. It was not until the Kofun Period (300 AD to 538 AD) that firing techniques were further developed and covered kilns were used.
Early Japanese ceramics were either stoneware or earthenware. Earthenware was fired at lower temperatures but was typically porous if left unglazed, while stoneware was fired at higher temperatures and yielded vessels that were non-porous, i.e. they did not need to be further glazed to make them waterproof.
In the early 1600s, kaolin, the clay required to make porcelain, was first discovered in Japan in the town of Arita. Compared to previous ceramics, porcelain allowed for the production of stronger and more durable, yet thinner vessels.
There are over 50 famous pottery towns and districts across Japan, each with their own characteristics and differences in the clay, glaze and firing method used. Below is a list of some of the most popular pottery styles and related sightseeing spots:
A must-see destination for Japanese pottery fans, Arita is the birthplace of porcelain in Japan with the discovery of kaolin in a nearby stone quarry. Arita ware tends to be made of porcelain with painted designs. Paint colors used in Arita-yaki include red, gold, yellow and green, and may resemble Kutani-yaki; however, the use of cobalt blue is the most distinguishing feature of Arita-yaki.
Arita is a small town in western Saga Prefecture and the birthplace of Japanese porcelain. Everything in the town evolves around pottery. Tourists can appreciate the local creations at multiple museums, visit historical sites related to the discovery of kaolin and the production of porcelain and partake in workshops.
Okawachiyama is a small, isolated village in the mountains just outside of central Imari and across the mountains from Arita. The village was one of the first places in Japan to produce porcelain and kept isolated to guard the extremely valuable, new technology from competitors. Ceramics produced in Okawachiyama were known as Nabeshima-yaki after the clan that ruled the region. Today, pottery studios and galleries line the picturesque streets of Okawachiyama.
Across the mountains from Arita along the sea lies the town of Imari whose port was used to ship out ceramics from Arita across Japan and the world, while a local pottery industry also evolved. A few pottery-related attractions can be found around town.
Kutani-yaki pottery started in the beginning of the Edo Period (1603-1868) in Ishikawa Prefecture (then Kaga Province), not long after the Maeda Clan came into power to be the lords of Kaga and one of the richest clans in the country. Kutani-yaki tends to have drawings with bold colors like red, yellow, blue and green that are easy to recognize. Some may consider kutani-yaki to be slightly gaudy, but the colors and intricate designs show off the skill of the artists.
The Kutani-yaki Museum is an art museum in the Kaga Onsen area. It displays collections of Kutani-yaki pottery, a famous style of pottery characterized by the use of green, purple, yellow, red and blue glazes, which developed during the Edo Period.
Located just outside central Yamashiro Onsen, this pottery museum displays a variety of antique and modern kutani-yaki pieces as well as the ruins of a large, multi leveled kiln from the Edo Period. Hands-on workshops are offered as well.
Rosanjin, one of Japan's most famous ceramicists, lived in Yamashiro Onsen for a short period of his life. This is his restored former residence in the center of Yamashiro onsen town, with a small attached museum displaying some of his work.
Compared to many of the other ceramics town in Japan, Mashiko-yaki has a relatively short history and only came about in the 19th century. The clay used in Mashiko-yaki tends to be rough rather than smooth and usually has a higher iron content resulting in a finished product with copper hues. There are a number of traditional mashiko-yaki glazes, including off-white, matt black and celadon. Mashiko wares became popular as everyday tableware after the Meiji Period when the local craft flourished in the country and resulted in many potters in the town.
Located just under 100 kilometers north of Tokyo in Tochigi Prefecture, Mashiko is one of the easiest accessible pottery towns from the capital. The town's main street is lined with many studios and shops retailing mashiko-yaki. Twice a year, the large Mashiko Pottery Fair is held for a few days around Golden Week in spring and around early November.
Shigaraki-yaki is made in southern Shiga Prefecture and is one of the oldest pottery centers in Japan, alongside Bizen in Okayama. The region is the largest producer of ceramic tanuki (racoon dogs) in the country. High-quality clay mixed with minuscule, coarse stones is one of the features that ensured the longevity of the tradition, and shigaraki ware is often unglazed or adorned with simple designs.
Hours: 9:30 to 17:00 (entry to the museum until 16:30)
Closed: Mondays (or following day if Mon is a national holiday), New Year holidays
Admission: Free except museum which typically costs 500-800 yen
The Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park is a large park in Koka City in Shiga Prefecture, about a 20 minute walk from Shigaraki Station. The park serves the promotion of the local ceramics and offers a free exhibition hall a paid museum with rotating, temporary exhibitions. There are also facilities for artists in residence.
Based in Kyoto, the Raku family has been producing tea bowls with muted designs and colors for about 450 years. The techniques and philosophy behind making the first raku wares were a collaboration between the founder of the family and famed tea master Sen no Rikyu, and the tradition still continues today with the 15th generation of the Raku family. Raku tea bowls fetch a high price and are highly sought after in the tea ceremony world.
The Raku Museum features pottery created using the techniques and traditions of the Raku family. Many of the ceramic works are related to the tea ceremony, especially tea bowls, but also vases and water vessels. The family put down roots in the location of the museum in the Momoyama Period and was favored by tea master Sen no Rikyu.
Bizen-yaki is named after the old province of Bizen which makes up the eastern side of today's Okayama Prefecture. It is one of the oldest styles of pottery in Japan. Bizen ware is not glazed like many ceramics, but instead is fired at temperatures of between 1200 to 1300 degrees Celsius. This results in a typically reddish-brown shade which is a distinguishing feature of bizen-yaki.
The Bizen Pottery Museum, located just next to Imbe Station on the JR Ako Line, showcases a selection of Bizen pottery from different eras, dating back from as early as the Nara Period (710-794) to contemporary pieces by modern artists. The museum is split over multiple floors with each area concentrating on a different theme including pottery crafted by living national treasures.
Hagi-yaki is named after Hagi, a pretty, former castle town in Yamaguchi Prefecture along the Sea of Japan coast. Hagi ware tends to be simple and unadorned, and its traditional glazes include a thick white that covers up the clay and a thinner white that allows the shape and color of the clay to come through. Several pottery-related attractions can be found across town, including some museums and shops
The Yoshika Taibi Memorial Museum is located in the outskirts of the city. It presents a large collection of valuable Hagi-yaki pottery, as well as ceramic pieces and paintings done by the artist and potter whom the museum is named after. In front of the museum is a workshop where visitors can observe the making of Hagi-yaki, and a shop where Hagi-yaki wares can be purchased.
The Hagi Uragami Museum is housed in a modern building within short walking distance from the former castle town. It exhibits art works of Hagi-yaki pottery, ukiyo-e and contemporary art. On showcase are valuable Hagi-yaki pieces, some of which have been preserved for centuries. Also on display are documents and films on Hagiyaki wares.
Karatsu-yaki has its origins in Karatsu, a port town in Saga Prefecture. Karatsu-ware has very sedate tones, resembling Bizen-yaki, with a thin layer of glaze. Karatsu ceramics do not come in loud colors nor have flashy designs, with the artists often opting for a simple accents or glaze.
Located on the second floor of the Furusato Kaikan Arpino next to Karatsu Station, the Karatsu-yaki Pottery Gallery is one of the better places to see some of the local pottery. The gallery outlines the history of Karatsu pottery and has many artworks on display. Locally made pottery is also sold at the gallery, and there is an experience section where visitors can try their hand at painting pottery.
Tsuboya-yaki is the most famous pottery from Okinawa. Common products include large storage vessels for awamori and other liquids and foods, and shisa, ceramic lion-dog statues that are placed on roofs or entrance gates to protect against evil.
Located in central Naha on Okinawa Island, the Tsuboya district is the center of Okinawan pottery. A nice museum and several pottery workshops and stores can be found in the area today.
How to participate in a pottery making activity
Pottery activities are offered by museums, craft villages and individual workshops across Japan, especially in famous pottery towns. Sessions are typically two hours long and cost around 1500 to 6000 yen. Reservations are usually required to participate in a pottery making activity, but some places in pottery towns allow for walk-in customers. Note that English-speaking studios are far and few, but some listings can be found on activity reservation websites, such as Voyagin.
The two most common pottery activities that tourists can participate in are those in which a pottery wheel is used and those in which the vessels are hand-formed. A typical experience begins with the instructor showing the basics of how to throw or knead the clay. Students then form their vessels under the watchful eyes of the instructor. Given two hours, most people can form 3-5 vessels on an electric wheel, while those using just their hands are typically limited to one vessel.
Studio staff will trim your freshly formed vessels thrown on the electric wheel, while hand-formed vessels are not usually trimmed. After the end of the activity, the vessels will be air-dried, fired once and then glazed before being fired again in a kiln which completes the process. The entire process can take more than a month as the kiln is typically filled to capacity before firing. Afterwards, the creations are delivered to the activity participants by mail.
How to appreciate Japanese ceramics
Today, it is common to see Japanese pottery being used in everyday life, and prized ceramics are treated like precious silver, only brought out on special occasions. When dining at nice restaurants or ryokan, ceramic dishes are often carefully chosen to reflect the season and mood. Embellished ceramic dishes can take the place of food decoration, adding to the visual dimension of the dish.
In the tea ceremony, the ceramic tea bowl (chawan) is central to the process. All the different pottery regions in Japan produce their versions of the tea bowl. The bowls are typically handmade, range in shape, size and color, and no two bowls should be the same. It is considered good manners to inspect your tea bowl after drinking the tea to appreciate its form and design.
Where to buy Japanese pottery
Pottery towns in Japan are generally good places to find ceramic wares. For those who do not have a preference for regional brands, department stores and upmarket stores curate their selection of pottery products, while at the opposite end of the spectrum mass-produced ceramic tableware can be found at 100 yen stores.