Essays and Articles

Foundation: Japanese Pottery and Ceramics

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Japan has an ancient history the production of ceramics and pottery, which are used both for domestic use and in traditional Japanese cultural practices such as tea ceremony, ikebana flower arranging and food service.

Japan has more than 50 pottery towns nationwide and each one has its own cultural background and history, meaning that they have cultivated a unique style of ceramic production. Japanese potters use a variety of glazes with highly honed techniques which result in a plethora of stunning outcomes including glossy finishes through to rough surfaces, bright colours and blue and white pottery designs to monochrome finishes.

There is truly something for everyone in the world of Japanese pottery. For more examples of the diverse nature of Japanese ceramics, visit our tableware, vases + vessels , bowls + plates and pottery sections of the website.


KUTANI pottery plate BIZEN pottery vase

                 KUTANI pottery plate                                                 BIZEN pottery vase



Seto ware, one of the six old kilns of Japan refers to pottery items made in and around the village of Seto in Aichi prefecture. An important region for ceramics production, Japanese studio pottery made in Seto dates back to the 13th century, with early pieces showing clear inspiration in decoration from Chinese Song dynasty ceramics and Chinese pottery, and are typically glazed in tones of green, yellow and brown.

One of the most stylistically diverse of the old kilns, early Seto ware pieces are high fired ceramics, usually of relatively heavy construction, often displaying incised decoration in the form of floral scrolls and plant motifs.

Though dribbled glazing in greenish yellow colours is characteristic of early pieces, the iron rich ‘oil spot’ glaze known as Tenmoku also became a specialty of the region from around the end of the Kamakura period.

Originally a favourite finish in glazed tea wares imported from China for use by the highest classes of Japanese aristocracy, Tenmoku pieces created in Seto became increasingly popular as the custom of tea drinking spread throughout the classes of society, cementing a lasting reputation for the area of Seto for its production of high quality tea ceremony wares.


Japanese large mouthed Seto ware jar with incised                                        Chinese 'Yaozhou celadon carved ewer,
designs of peony blooms, Kamakura period, 14th century.                             Northern Song dynasty, 11th-12th century.
Image courtesy of the Tokyo National Museum                                               Image courtesy of Sotheby's New York


           Above are two examples of contemporary Seto pottery pieces that are stocked by Kazari + Ziguzagu



Possibly the best known of Japan’s six old kilns, Shigaraki stoneware pottery originated in the middle of the Kamakura period (early 13th century) with purely practical items produced to meet the demands of farmers and merchants, including jars for tea storage known as ‘tsubo’, large plates, bowls and bottles as well as vessels used in indigo production.

During the 15th and 16th centuries, Shigaraki tea wares began to boom in popularity among the aristocratic classes thanks to the influence of tea masters like Murata Juko, who hailed such ceramics as being in the spirit of ‘wabi sabi’. The appreciation of rustic simplicity was more in line with the new form of ritual tea drinking which emphasized humility and intense awareness of one’s surroundings.

The clay body of Shigaraki ceramics is distinguishable by its warm orange tone and lighter coloured grains of feldspar and quartz, responsible for the distinctive rough texture of finished pieces. Glazes tend to be minimal and in earthy colours with classical pieces generally displaying natural ash glazes in tones of greenish yellow, grey and black or brown iron to create a uniform reddish brown.

In the modern day Shigaraki pottery continues to be produced both in the form of utilitarian items for everyday use as well as in one of a kind art pieces that bring a contemporary aesthetic to this ancient medium. Below are just a few examples of Japanese Shigaraki Pottery.




One of Japan’s six ancient kilns, the distinctive stoneware native to the Bizen area of Japan has been created since the Heian period (12th century).

Easily recognizable by its characteristic reddish brown colour, hardness and usual lack of glazing, the appearance of Bizen pottery is entirely dependent on the conditions in which it is fired, with varying placements of the pottery pieces within the kiln creating a rich array of reddish tones and additional introduced materials such as rice straw and resinous woods producing red and purplish brown scorch marks. 

Many of the forms seen in contemporary Bizen ceramics are virtually unchanged since its heyday during the Muromachi, Momoyama and Edo periods.


Oribe ware is a historically important Japanese pottery variety that emerged during the late Momoyama and early Edo periods in Tajimi, in modern day Gifu prefecture. 

Developed under and named after the Daimyo (feudal lord) in control of the Tajimi area, Furuta Oribe, (1544-1615) himself a student of the noted tea master Sen no Rikyu, Oribe pottery quickly became a firm favourite among tea ceremony practitioners, who valued its earthy, sculptural aesthetic. 

It is easily identifiable by its typically vibrant green or black glazed areas set against contrasting pale white, cream or pinkish hued grounds, often further decorated with black or brown underglaze designs. Underglaze painting is usually based around themes of nature or geometric patterns and often incorporates classical Japanese art motifs such as the famous Uji bridge, karakusa scrollwork or Buddhist wheels.

As a general rule, most Oribe wares are produced in irregular forms and uneven proportions, with many of the patterns and underglaze designs created centuries ago still in regular use today.

Now produced all over Japan, contemporary oribe ceramics are made to cater to a wide range of tastes and budgets. From dishes, bowls and plates for everyday use to traditional tea wares and sculptural works by famous artists, few other Japanese ceramic types are as varied, versatile and timelessly appealing as Oribe piece.


Early 17th century Oribe ware bowl, Momoyama period, sold at Christie's

Early 17th century black Oribe tea bowl, Momoyama period, Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art



Rare Japanese Oribe pottery sweets dish, available at Kazari + Ziguzagu



Japanese black glazed Oribe mizusashi, available at Kazari + Ziguzagu



Originating in Fukui prefecture and thought to have first been made from the end of the Heian era, Echizen pottery is an extremely hard variety of Japanese stoneware fired at high temperatures and is counted as one of the ‘six old kilns’ of Japan.

Echizen ceramics were commonly made using clays in a variety of base tones, ranging from greys and yellowish browns up to darker reddish colours, with a large degree of the final appearance being dependent on the temperature and conditions in which pieces were fired.

Historically known for being both strong and watertight without the need for glazes, large jars and pots for water and grain storage known as ‘tsubo’ were in particularly high demand during the Momoyama and Edo periods. Surviving examples tend to display thick and heavy walls with distinctly broad shoulders and bulging mid sections, sometimes with horizontal or diagonal runs of glazes in yellow or white tones.

Both contemporary and classically styled examples are still made today using techniques that are virtually unchanged from the 16th century and are still held in high regard among tea ceremony practitioners.

Echizen Tsubo, Late Edo period Japan



Tokoname, between the Heian and Muromachi periods, was one of the most concentrated areas for pottery production in all of Japan, with more than 1000 kilns known to have existed.

Widely distributed through trade to neighboring prefectures, Tokoname ceramics of various forms were already in daily use throughout Japan by the 13th century.

Historical pieces vary in colour from reddish browns to dark and pale greys depending on firing conditions and exact clay types, with the kilns of Tokoname producing a wide range of ceramics for everyday life.

Complex decoration is for the most part minimal, however incised motifs of animals, plants or maker’s marks are occasionally seen, with the earliest pieces occasionally displaying patterns of grasses and lotus leaves.

Tokoname pottery production declined during the Momoyama period, gradually reducing further until the late Edo period when a resurgence of interest was sparked, leading to a massive revival of the local ceramics industry.

Classical pieces continued to be produced alongside newer designs catering to these ‘modern’ aesthetics and tastes with fine terracotta wares known as 'Shudei', being of particular interest among tea ceremony practitioners and enthusiasts alike.

This rediscovery of Tokoname stoneware and ceramics allowed the opening of new kilns and the sharing of new and old techniques between potters throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries. This led to countless exciting new forms that have endured and evolved right up to the modern day.



Satsuma pottery (Satsuma yaki) is a major variety of Japanese pottery originally produced in Satsuma province in (now modern day western Kagoshima prefecture in Kyushu) during the early Edo period (1608-1868).

Stylistically and historically, pieces can be divided into two main categories; early ceramics dating to the first half of the 17th century that were purely functional and usually devoid of decoration, and later, heavily decorated 19th century export pieces designed to appeal toto Western aesthetics of the time.

The earliest pieces were made from iron rich clay glazed in dark tones and were intended first and foremost for everyday use.

Satsuma ware tea caddy, Edo period circa 17th century


As a rule they tend to be simple utilitarian wares including bowls, dishes and storage pots, although a number of high quality examples dating from the latter half of the 17th century survived that were created for tea ceremony use.

An esoteric field of study in their own right, old Satsuma examples are extremely uncommon and are highly sought after by collectors and museums today. The few pieces that appear on the market routinely achieve high prices due to their rarity. Most commonly seen today are later Satsuma wares created during the second half of the 19th century during the late Edo and Meiji periods.

Utilising a rich colour palette of deep red, blue, green, yellow and orange, Satsuma pieces are usually set against a beige toned crackle glazed background. These pieces are well known for their extensive gilding and sometimes extremely finely painted motifs.


Satsuma pottery tea bowl, Edo period, sold at Christie's


Designed to be highly decorative in nature and usually made in the form of vases, sculpture , tea and coffee sets and platters for display, 19th century Satsuma ceramics were intended to serve as both functional items and as flamboyant art objects within the homes of their owners.

Quality varies widely in later pieces, ranging from the finest one-off examples displaying some of the most delicate painting and gilding ever seen in Japanese ceramic design, all the way down to cheap mass produced wares utilizing basic motifs and patterns deliberately created to appeal to the Western tourist trade.



Satsuma pottery tea caddy with gilt and red design, available at Kazari

Underappreciated throughout much of the 20th century, Satsuma ceramics now represent a remarkably good opportunity for the modern day collector, with fine examples still being readily available at very reasonable prices compared to other classical Japanese ceramic varieties.



Pottery originating in Tamba,  northwest of Kyoto (modern day Tachikui) dates to the Heian period during the twelfth century. Possibly the most wholly ‘Japanese’ of the classical kilns, the earliest Tamba ceramics displayed virtually no influence from Korean or Chinese ceramics in their forms and glazes.

Early examples display iron rich, coarse clays, which on firing would change to colours ranging from dark reds through to cool greyish blue tones depending on the makeup of the clay used and firing conditions in the kiln. Being set somewhat apart from the other old kilns, Tamba pottery did not develop along the same lines of innovation as its contemporaries, many of its best known surviving examples are of a purely utilitarian nature.

Although dishes, bowls, sake bottles and other ceramics for daily use have been found dating from Tamba’s earlier periods, large storage jars tend to be its best-known survivors. Typically formed with heavy walls, a generously bulging profile and a short neck leading to a slightly irregular mouth, these jars remained virtually unchanged in form for over 400 years.

While antique pieces remain highly collectible, having gained a dedicated following among ceramics connoisseurs and tea ceremony practitioners, Tamba pottery production has continued through to the 21st century, with contemporary artisans combining the highly variegated surface colours and textures of classical pieces with modern day aesthetics .


Contemporary Tamba pottery vase



Shino ware is a glazed Japanese pottery variety originally produced in Mino province, present day Gifu prefecture. In its original form, it emerged during the Momoyama period in the late 16th century and continued to be produced into the early Edo period before largely falling out of use in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.


Contemporary Japanese Shino pottery studio vase by Tsukamoto Haruhiko (b. 1959)

Easily identifiable by their thick translucent whitish glazes, pitted or crackled surface textures and often irregular or deliberately misshapen forms, Shino ware ceramics quickly became a firm favourite among  tea ceremony  enthusiasts, with many of the earliest examples of Shino pottery consisting of tea bowls, mizusashi (water pot), kogo  (incense container) and various other implements related to tea or incense appreciation.

Aside from the most commonly seen whitish glazed Shino, there is also a reddish toned variety and a grey type, produced by coating the piece in a watery iron slip before covering it with a feldspar glaze.


Set of five Japanese 'Shino' pottery plates


Despite its initial popularity, the vogue for early Shino wares waned, ultimately being replaced by similarly glazed and often slightly more decorative Oribe style ceramics. Fortunately however, its sculptural aesthetic and timeless appeal finally won out, with the style re-emerging in the late 19th and 20th centuries during the MeijiTaisho  and Showa periods.

Today there are many Japanese artists and studios specialising in Shino style ceramics, with their work ranging all the way from small trinkets and affordable utilitarian items to one off sculptural vessels and museum worthy art pieces.

Contemporary Japanese Ceramic Vase by Ichiyo Nakajima


As with most other Japanese ceramic varieties, early Shino examples are highly valued by major collectors and museums and often attract prices in the many thousands of dollars. For the savvy collector or ceramics enthusiast however, pieces by contemporary artisans can represent a much more reasonable investment.

Kazari + Ziguzagu stock a large range of Shino pottery pieces, from tableware including Japanese stoneware bowls, antique dish sets, cups and plates to vases for ikebana all the way up to one off artist pieces.

Kazari + Ziguzagu have a diverse range of pottery and ceramics to suit a wide range of interior spaces. From classic blue and white ceramics, antique stoneware for sale, a vintage sake bottle for your next dinner party or some antique blue china, there is an array of ceramics at our store and warehouse that is ever changing. Our website is regularly updated with new stock, so keep checking in or contact us via the enquiry form to make a special request.