Celebrating the elemental ceramics of Japan

Taiko drumming fills the air, intense flames shoot out of a multi-chambered climbing kiln, the words ‘Fire, Air, Earth and Water’ appear sequentially on the screen. This is the intense start to the video ‘Elemental‘ featuring the Japanese ceramic artist Ken Matsuzaki. The spirit and energy of the artist is a fifth element that brings the ceramics to life. Locally sourced elements are artfully combined to produce unique ceramic pieces in Japan, a tradition that spans thousands of years. The Way of Tea was a decisive juncture in the evolution of the ceramic arts, adding diversity, vitality and ritualised meaning. To celebrate these compelling creations I invited three friends with a passion for Japanese ceramics to share the pieces they felt embodied the elements. The selections and associated reflections by Robert Yellin, Allen S. Weiss and Tatsuo Tomeoka provide nourishing food for thought about the genesis, function, beauty, spirituality and environmental sustainability of hand-made ceramics in Japan and beyond.

To best represent the insights and inspiration offered by Robert, Allen and Tatsuo, the post is divided into three main sections, one for each friend, drawing on their own words as well as images. I thank them deeply for their enthusiasm and encouragement when approached about the post. A personal perspective wraps-up the blog.

Robert Yellin

Robert Yellin is the owner of Robert Yellin Yakimono Gallery, a specialist Japanese ceramics gallery located on the Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto. He is renowned in the ceramics world of Japan, writing extensively on the topic and regularly giving presentations and leading tours. The Gallery website and Facebook page contains a wealth of material for those thirsty for information and imagery.

The celebration of the elemental ceramics of Japan starts with Robert’s selection of the Shigaraki foursome by Koyama Kiyoko (b. 1935), a woman making it big in what until recently has been a man’s world.  Shigaraki, located close to Kyoto, is one of the ‘Six Old Kilns’ of Japan with a history spanning several centuries.

Four hand-made elemental works by Koyama Kiyoko. These natural ash-glazed works have been the epitome of Japanese ceramics for centuries.

One characteristic of Shigaraki ceramics is called hi-iro, or fire-colour, the glaze arising from the intensely hot-firing the creations are exposed to in the kiln. Scarlet, the title of a 2019-2020 NHK morning drama based on the life of Koyama Kiyoko, is a play on this defining attribute of Shigaraki-yaki (Shigaraki ware).

The cover of the NHK DVD collection of the popular Scarlet TV series includes ceramics in the title. It’s a nice touch. Source: yesasia.com

Robert identifies fire, water, air and clay as all the elements of life, ones that haven’t changed since the first pots were fired in Japan. Take one of those elements away and we wouldn’t have human existence as we know it, if at all. His second elemental selection is a Shino chawan (tea bowl) by Yoshida Yoshihiko (b. 1936), highlighting the significance of the Way of Tea to Japanese culture and ceramic arts.

A chawan by Yoshida Yoshihiko. Shino is one of the great glazed styles of Japanese pottery.  Glaze colours range from milky white to orange and at times charcoal grey. In many cases the glaze has a texture of pinholes or ‘curdling’ due to the thick application and composition of the clay.

Westerners are often baffled by the importance and often the cost of a chawan. Robert describes the experience of nestling a tea bowl in your hands as holding the spirit of a place, a culture, a person, to holding a clay painting. This brings a deeper perspective to the meaning and value of hand-made ceramics and emphasises the importance of touch in the celebration of these works.

In his 2020 interview on ‘Seeking Sustainability Live‘ (a podcast run by JJ Walsh from Hiroshima), Robert elaborates further on the spiritual aspect of finding divinity in the daily rituals of life. He says “the spiritual aspect for me was holding a piece of the earth, quietly nourishing my body with whatever liquid or food was within that vessel, and just quieting my mind.” The intangible spirit that permeates the pottery connects the object, maker and user.

The third elemental piece selected by Robert was created by Akiyama Yo (b. 1953), a leading artist in the field of  Ceramic Sculpture in Japan and internationally. Based in Kyoto his work stands apart from traditional, colourful Kyo-yaki (Kyoto ware) ceramics.

A sculptural ceramic by Akiyama Yo: a breath-takingly organic work, truly of the earth.

Several Akiyama Yo creations were included in the exhibition ‘Earth and Alchemy‘ held in 2012 at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Boston. His work is described in the exhibition blog as profound in its size, conception, and forms; created with the theme of disintegration in nature and how life returns to clay. His approach is non-functional, the blog says, in the sense it doesn’t serve a purpose at the table or in the tea room. Its function is how it challenges us to think of ceramic art and it’s place in society and our minds.

When I reflect on the function of Akiyama Yo’s work I see it akin to, in a broad sense, the early Jomon clay figurines created in Japan several thousand years ago. Both these early and later forms have an imposing physical and spiritual presence and neither were created as commonplace, day to day receptacles for food or drink. They are special objects to be appreciated and designed to ultimately return to the earth.

Ceramic Sculpture started with the Sodeisha movement in the aftermath of the Second World War, when a new contemporary aesthetic was pioneered in Japanese ceramics. This juncture was a critical point in the evolution of hand-made ceramics in Japan. An earlier juncture was the Way of Tea where multiple ceramic vessels and dishes, each revered for their beauty, and changed seasonally, were required for the formal tea ceremony.

An interjection between friends

Robert and I met through Writers in Kyoto (WiK), a group of published and self-published English-language authors working, living or strongly connected to Kyoto  Allen S. Weiss and I met the same way. Robert and Allen have both written captivating books on Japanese ceramics, focusing on sake utensils (shown below). They both contributed essays to the ‘Encounters with Kyoto‘, the third Writers in Kyoto Anthology that I co-edited, designed and self-published for WiK in 2019. Allen wrote about Junichiro Tanizaki, a major writer of modern Japanese literature and Robert about Kawai Kanjiro, a renowned Kyoto potter and co-founder of the Mingei (folk art) movement. We will meet Kawai-san again later in the post.

Two books on Japanese ceramics by Robert L. Yellin (left: first written in Japanese in 1995; then published in English in 2004) and Allen S. Weiss (right: appearing in 2016). Both publications are beautifully illustrated.

Allen S. Weiss

Allen is a Distinguished Teacher at New York University, has lived part-time in Paris for 40 years and spends a month or more every Autumn in Kyoto. He is an accomplished photographer, translator, curator and playright and the author and editor of over forty volumes in the fields of art history, performance theory, landscape architecture, gastronomy, sound art and experimental theatre.

The selection of elemental ceramics from Allen’s personal collection are from potters he considers to be among the great contemporary ceramists in Japan. All of the images are from The Grain of the Clay (Reaktion Books, 2016); additional descriptions and insights can be found in this highly readable book. The 2016 publication builds on Allen’s earlier title Zen Landscapes: Perspectives on Japanese Gardens and Ceramics (Reaktion Books, 2013), the first in-depth study in the West to examine the correspondences between gardens and ceramics in Japan.

The first of three sake cups chosen by Allen represents Fire. It was made by Yamada Kazu (b. 1954). Yamada-san has mastery of several traditional styles, as well as amazing inventiveness. This astounds Allen who finds it strange to think of this, the most volcanic glaze he has ever seen, as Shino. I find the intensity and fluidity of the glaze mesmerising. Drinking from this sake cup would bring warmth to your heart.

A positively glowing sake cup (J. guinomo) by Yamada Kazu. It’s poetic name is ‘Enbu-Shino‘ (Dancing Fire Shino).

An interjection about fire

A celebration of the elemental ceramics of Japan must include an image of one of the traditional kilns used to fire the ceramic pieces. Made of clay themselves, two types of climbing kilns have been used for centuries in Japan. The one depicted here is a 52 m long open-chambered anagama kiln built by Mori Togaku (b. 1937) and used to fire Bizen-yaki.

Temperatures can reach 1200 -1300 degrees celsius inside the kiln. The ash-glaze on the pottery varies depending on the position of the pieces on the shelves. Through this placement the potter can have some influence on the final design; ultimately however it is fire that creates the pattern. The wood that feeds the fire is another important element in traditional ceramic production, with Red Pine the favoured species. Photo: Robert Yellin.

Many books and articles have been written about the traditional kilns in Japan, as well as their uptake overseas, particularly in the USA. In this vein my favourite publication is Body of Clay, Soul of Fire. Richard Bresnahan and the Saint John’s Pottery (by Matthew Welch; Aston Historical Society Press 2001). The elemental credentials of these kilns are rock solid. They are sacred  places, as shown by the white folded paper (J. shide) in front of the kiln, with Shinto rituals conducted before each firing.

From fire to water, Allen’s second piece

This flat, saucer-like sake cup, chosen by Allen to represent Water, is known as a sakazuki. It was created by Murata Makoto (b. 1956).

The form of this sake cup lends itself as a great support for painting, as illustrated by this striking image of a tai, or sea bream. It looks like it could jump off the plate.

The underside of the sakazuki by Murata Makoto. The ‘pottery foot’ (J. kodai) is an essential element of hand-made Japanese ceramics. When admiring ceramic works, especially a chawan in the tea ceremony, viewing and appreciating the foot of the vessel is of supreme importance.

Allen describes the kodai as the place usually untouched by the fire with its extreme transformative effects, and most touched by the potter’s hand, with its delicate carving. It is the place that reveals the ‘clay flavour’ (J. tsuchi-aji) essential to the appreciation of the ceramic work, as well as the artist’s touch. The concept of ‘clay flavour’ appeals to me as it demonstrates a knowledge and appreciation of  variation in the Earth element used in Japanese ceramics.

The list of elements associated with Japanese ceramics expands when the tomoboka is considered, along with the wood used in traditional kilns. Tomobako are the wooden boxes in which Japanese artworks, including ceramics, are stored. They consist of a body and lid, often made of Paulownia, held together by a woven or braided ribbon. The creator of the artwork will brush their name, and the name of the artwork (if there is one), on the wooden box. For ceramics that have a tomoboka, the box becomes part of the art work and is important to take care of.

The third sake cup selected by Allen represents ‘Night Snow’ (J. Yoru no yuki). Allen suggested this name to the creator Koie Ryōji, who agreed, and accordingly inscribed the interior of the tomobako cover with the name of the piece. It is not every day that you get to name a piece of elemental pottery. The guinomi is a stunning work. Drinking from this sake cup would bring the deepness of a winter’s night to your heart.

Night Snow‘ by Koie Ryōji (1938-2020). The artist was among the originators of pottery-based performance art in the 1960s. I would love to learn more about this aspect of Japanese ceramics.

In his 2016 book, Allen describes the elemental imagery associated with the name ‘Night Snow‘.

“Here we are no longer in the initial whirlwind of the storm, but rather indoors, hours later, after night has already veiled the world and the steadily falling snow, illuminated by the lamps within, continues to accumulate. The snow is distinctly formed by the drips and splatters of the purest white lustrous glaze, worthy of Abstract Expressionist ‘abstract painting’. “……..

“As I turn over this Koie guinomi, I discover that the deeply hollowed foot has been halfway dipped in the same white glaze; that there appears an incongruous splotch of silver glaze; and most importantly, I find the source of the night sky: a surface of the unadorned steel-grey clay. This deep grey, when mottled and attenuated on the side of the work by the thick matte white slip, creates the indistinct depth of night distanced from us by the falling snow.”

Allen continues the story celebrating this sake cup, and shares much more, in his 2016 reflections on ceramics and the art of collecting.

Tatsuo Tomoeka

Tatsuo Tomeoka is the owner of Charaku Fine Japanese Tea and WaSabiDou Antiques and Folk Crafts. He lives in Seattle and is passionate about the simple, healthy, natural and honest beauty of traditional crafts, inspired by the Mingei movement.

The celebratory Japanese ceramics Tatsuo has selected are utilitarian and beautiful. He uses them, and other ceramics, on a daily basis to serve the food he cooks for his family. The serving dishes and vessels are changed daily to complement the seasons and recipes. Tatsuo shares these meals on Facebook, describing the provenance of the ceramics, the details of the food, and sharing Japanese cultural information where relevant. He is a great communicator. If he lived closer I would drop by for a meal to experience his food and ceramics first hand.

The first elemental ceramic selected by Tatsuo is an E-Shino (Picture Shino) tea bowl with brush strokes in iron depicting a grove of bamboo. It is by an unknown craftsman. The chawan has always reminded Tatsuo of bamboo in the snow in Japan. He tends to use this bowl at the first snowfall (J. hatsuyuki) each year.

E-Shino Tea Bowl by an unknown craftsman containing vivid green matcha (powdered tea), ready to drink and savour.

The tea bowl is a perfect segue to the book titled ‘The Unknown Craftsman‘ by Soetsu Yanagi, sub-titled ‘A Japanese Insight into Beauty‘. His writing and philosophy, first translated into English by Bernard Leach, has influenced Tatsuo, Robert, Allen and myself. Soetsu was the co-founder of the Mingei Movement and the first to fully explore the traditional Japanese appreciation for “objects born, not made.”

The second ceramic selected by Tatsuo is a Mashiko-yaki Kakuzara (a Mashiko ware square dish) from the Hinata Kiln with a sasayuki pattern (snow on bamboo grass).

Kakuzara from the Hinata Kiln, Mashiko, Tochigi Prefecture. Tatsuo used the square dish for Temarizushi (“Ball/Round” Sushi) on a recent Hinamatsuri (Girl’s Day Celebration, March 3rd). Two small dolls can be seen at the top of the plate. In celebration of this celebration, this blog was posted on the 3rd of the 3rd, 2021.

Tatsuo’s third choice of an elemental ceramic is a small Shino-glaze ‘Kiku-zara’ (Chrysanthemum-shaped dish), selected for the distinctive and wonderful glaze. The piece is attributed to Kato Tokuro (1897-1985), a masterful and much discussed figure in the Japanese ceramic world.

Kiku-zara ceramic attributed to Kato Tokuro. The appetiser is ‘Fried sardine stuffed with Japanese Pickled Plum Paste (Neri Ume) and topped with Fresh Shiso Chiffonade, served on toast’. The fusion of Japanese ingredients with those from other cuisines is a feature of Tatsuo’s cooking. The presentation is quintessentially Japanese.

In providing his thoughts about the elemental nature of Japanese ceramics, Tatsuo wrote “the relationship between nature and humanity is so well expressed in pottery used for food. Pottery is nature, earth and water, formed into functionality by air and fire. Functional pottery is completed when used by man. We often think of pottery’s tactile surface as where man and pottery meet. To me, it is the (filled) Void where this magical connection happens.”

Void, or Space, is one of the five Buddhist elements in Japan (J. godai) joining Earth, Water, Fire and Wind. In terms of using pots for food or tea, Tatsuo notes that for him the Void, which represents a spiritual element, is often the most important part. It is how the ceramic piece adapts to food that makes it useful, and, in his opinion, thereby beautiful. Japanese plating is likened to landscape architecture, where the pottery is an integral part of the dish like a part of a garden.

Jann Williams, wrapping up

Hand-made Japanese ceramics are a celebration of nature, the seasons and the human spirit, providing nourishment for our senses and sustenance for body and soul. Some have elemental names like ‘Dancing Fire Shino’ and ‘Night Snow’.  All are made from the elements of earth, water, fire and air, mixed with the spirit of the maker. Robert, Allen and Tatsuo have enriched our lives by sharing their passion for these creations.

My eclectic collection of Japanese ceramics contains several chawan, guinomi, serving dishes and bowls (used on a daily basis), and some ‘objet d’art‘. The latter are principally hand-painted, finely-finished porcelain pieces such as Imari and Satsuma ware, made for export to Europe after Japan ‘opened’ to the West. This aesthetic tradition contrasts with the hand-made works presented in this post and is ripe for further exploration.

My most ‘elemental’ ceramic piece from Japan, both literally and metaphorically, is a gorinto (five-elements pagoda) created by Lawrence Jiko Barrow; yet another person I met through Writers in Kyoto. Lawrence, an ordained Zen Monk, became fascinated by the beauty of traditional Japanese arts and chose to become a potter.  When I bought the piece directly from him in 2016 Lawrence was living in Kyoto. The gorinto now resides in our home in Tasmania.

Ceramic gorinto by Lawrence Jiko Barrow. Made of earth and water, shaped by fire and air, representing the five Buddhist elements (from the bottom up) of Earth (square), Water (circle), Fire (triangle), Wind (half sphere) and Space/Void (jewel).

The selection of elemental works in this post demonstrate that Japanese hand-made ceramics have risen to the level of great art and are National Cultural Treasures in their own right. Ceramics are also appreciated and used on an everyday basis in Japan. A typical Japanese meal relies on multiple dishes that contain a tactile element important to the user. The importance of touching the ceramics was unanimous. By doing so you can feel the vibrations and energy embodied in the works.

The coupling of the hand-made ceramics with food, drink, flowers, the human spirit and imagination, was another common theme. These ceramics, made from the elements, are made to be used. We will always require objects to eat and drink from: vessels and dishes made by hand from locally-sourced materials are long-lasting, environmentally sustainable, and bring beauty into everyday life. Strengthening our connection with nature is at the heart of the elemental ceramics of Japan.

When all is said and done, it is the human element that creates, defines, uses and celebrates hand-made Japanese ceramics. I have selected a striking image of Kawai Kanjiro (1890-1966) to represent the spirit of ceramic artists. Kawai-san was a prolific ceramist, poet, writer and co-founder of the Mingei (folk-art) movement that kept many ceramic traditions alive in Japan.

Portrait of Kawai Kanjiro with some of his ground-breaking works in the background.  Taken at the Kawai Kanjiro Museum, Kyoto, this engaging image makes you feel that Kawai-san is in the room with you. When you next find yourself in the ancient city, a visit to his museum is a must.

The thoughts of Kawai Kanjiro are recorded in a book by Yoshiko Uchida titled ‘We Do Not Work Alone’. Kawai-san felt that there was a force bigger than himself and that through this force he was able to work and create things of beauty that someday, somewhere would find a use; that while a potter can lay the fire and light the flame, it was the fire that really completes the bowl. Having learnt to tap the wonderful and rich resources of the universe, he and his works are one with the elements.

4 thoughts on “Celebrating the elemental ceramics of Japan

  1. Hi Jann, this is such a satisfying blog, I feel full of the delight of the pieces and the depth of the words spoken. I would like to share the highlights I have taken with me, for further contemplation:
    From Robert: He says “the spiritual aspect for me was holding a piece of the earth, quietly nourishing my body with whatever liquid or food within that vessel, and just quieting my mind.” The intangible spirit that permeates the pottery connects the object, maker and user.
    From Allen: Allen describes the kodai as the place usually untouched by the fire with its extreme transformative effects, and most touched by the potter’s hand, with its delicate carving. It is the place that reveals the ‘clay flavour’ (J. tsuchi-aji) essential to the appreciation of the ceramic work, as well as the artist’s touch.
    From Tatsuo: Tatsuo notes that for him the Void, which represents a spiritual element, is often the most important part. It is how the ceramic piece adapts to food that makes it useful, and, in his opinion, thereby beautiful. Japanese plating is likened to landscape architecture, where the pottery is an integral part of the dish like a part of a garden.
    Thank you for bringing their stories together in such an informative and endearing manner.


    • Story telling touches the human heart, which is why perhaps this post has been so well received. Beauty touches the heart as well, another reason for the positive response. Like you, I was deeply moved by the insights of my three collaborators and the images they provided. They provide rich material for contemplation. Thank-you for your comments as always. I look forward to them each time I post something new.


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