The history of Shigaraki pottery

by Shiho Kanzaki



Based upon the evidence of prehistoric hunting tools which have been found in Miyamachi, near Shigaraki, it seems altogether likely that the Shigaraki area was home to a Jyoumon era settlement as early as 12,000 BC - 2000 BC. Other evidence suggests that a site close to the current town of Shigaraki was likely in existence during the Yayoi era (500 BC - 3rd century AD). In addition, two ancient mounds which were found in the northern part of Shigaraki give evidence of development dating to the 5th and 6th century AD.

Further evidence indicates that the Handou Temple was built on top of themountain near Shigaraki during the Wadou era (708 - 715 AD). At the height of its development, there were 36 temples around the Handou Temple. All of this archeological evidence simply indicates that the area around Shigaraki has been developed and populated since a very early age.

One cannot relate the history of Shigaraki with mentioning the fact thatShigaraki had been a country capital before the capital was moved to Nara. In 742 AD Emperor Shoumu ordered government officers to build an Imperial Palace in Shigaraki (Tempyou Era 14th). Until recently there had been a good bit of scholarly debate about the existence of this Palace in Shigaraki. Some scholars believed that archeological excavations indicated that only a temple site existed in Shigaraki. However with the 1973-74 discovery of three large wooden pillars (40-50 cm thick and 60-70cm long) buried in a rice field just 1.5 kilometers north of the suspected Palace remains, evidence of the Palace was confirmed.

Since that time, continuing investigation and excavation has uncovered manyimportant archeological finds, including potsherds, earthenwares, sueki (atype of unglazed or bisqued pot), hajiki, and mokkan (a narrow strip of woodon which an official message is written).

History suggests that on October 15, 743, Emperor Shoumu ordered the building of a great Buddha (the Vairocana Buddha) to be started in Shigaraki. Immediately the Emperor instituted a tax which would fund the building of the Buddha, and in so doing, established Shigaraki as a capital city in Japan.

However the building of the Buddha was never completed in Shigaraki. During April and May of year 745, there was a prolonged series of huge earthquakes and fires. This disaster caused the Emperor to come to the reluctant conclusion that the capital city must be moved to Nara. This he did. And the Vairocana Buddha was eventually completed at the Todaiji Temple, in Nara, where it may still be seen today (cf. Nihon Shoki and the articles of Shousouin).

As I indicated earlier, the beginnings of Shigaraki pottery may be literallytraced back to the origins of Japanese pottery as seen in Jyoumon doki, Yayoi doki, Hajiki, and Sueki. Eventually I wish to give more of my time to tracing the history of Shigaraki pottery from the medieval period (the end of the 12th century) to the present, since it is from that time that real stoneware firing had begun in Shigaraki. However it is important to remember that the Shigaraki Pottery Valley (identified as one of the six oldest pottery centers in Japan -- see) is undeniably indebted to the medieval Sueki tradition.

Unfortunately, only a portion of the old kiln sites in Shigaraki have beeninvestigated and excavated. However, in the Kumoi area alone (where Emperor Shoumu built his palace) 47 kiln sites have been discovered. So I suppose that it would be safe to estimate that more than 100 kiln sites existed in the Kumoi, Chokushi, Nagano; and Koyama areas of Shigaraki. I am afraid that it is likely that many of our ancestors' kiln sites have already been destroyed without having been investigated.

The town of Shigaraki is located on the southern edge of Shiga prefecture,and borders the town of Iga in Mie prefecture, and is close to Kyotoprefecture as well. It is a convenient distance from the larger cities ofOsaka, Kyoto and Nara. Its proximity to these larger cities was one of thefactors influencing Emperor Shoumu to choose Shigaraki as a site for thecapital city.

Sixteen kilometers from the town of Shigaraki is Kagami Mountain. More than 50 Sueki kilns have been discovered around the base of this mountain, indicating that it had once been a large community. A quote from the Nihonsyoki reads as follows: "Suebito (potters) live in the village of Kagami, who are obedient to Amenohiboko"

The Suebitos were producing Sueki. They were firing this ware in Anagama kilns, in a reducing atmosphere, to the temperature of 1100 - 1200 C. Some of this pottery achieved natural ash glazes.

Izumi has been found at the historic Simoyama kiln site, in the town of Minakuchi, which is located between Kagami and Shigaraki. And it is safe to say that there are many historic kiln sites where natural-ash-glazed ware and green-lead-glazed pottery had been fired even prior to the medieval period. Such production is likely to have gone on continuously between the 5th century and the 12th century.

I mention the above examples because I believe they are related to theorigins and development of Shigaraki pottery.

The book of "kougeishiryou", which was written in 1878, described the beginning of the establishment of the Shigaraki kiln site as having taken place during the era of Tokimune Houjyou (1268-1284 AD). The site is thought to have been almost fully established by the beginning of the Sadatoki Houjyou era (1284 -1301 AD). This description seems to be consistent with the archeological remains.

In Japanese we use the words "chuse no yakimono", to refer to the pottery of the medieval period before 1603 when Ieyasu Tokugawa had established his Edo Bakufu.

After the17 century, in Shigaraki and other major kiln sites, potters beganbuilding the efficient cross-draft kilns (noborigamas) with many chambers. They stopped using Anagama style kilns.

During the Muromachi Era (1331-1573), "the way of tea" gained popularity and respect. Jyukou Murata, who was a founder of the way of tea, had selected Shigaraki pottery as the most appropriate for tea utensils. That is why "wabi cha" has pursued the Japanese concept of beauty: "wabi and sabi". "Wabi and sabi" may generally be defined as the fulfillment of sensibility beyond the incompleteness of material things.

"Wabi" may be defined with words like: asymmetry, simplicity, wizened austerity, naturalness, profound subtlety, and unconditional freedom. "Sabi" may be defined with words like: restrained refinement and luster.

So "wabi and sabi" and Shigaraki pottery began to be associated together in Jyuko's mind. Up until that time, the way of tea had been Shoin Karamono Kazari, which used ornamental utensils which had been brought to Japan from China and Korea. But Jyukou had incorporated learnings from the spirit of Zen Buddhism into his way of tea, and in so doing, he ennobled the former tea ceremony to "michi" and "sadou", a way of tea. So we can say that Jyukou is a founder of "sadou". Rikyuu Sen (1522-1591) said, "I have learned a manner of tea by Jyouou, learned a way of tea by Jyukou".

Jyukou had appreciated the simple beauty of Shigaraki and Bizen pottery, and he made use of them for tea ceremony's utensils for the very first time. Jyukou adopted the ordinary Shigaraki pottery as the utensils of tea ceremony. Prior to that time, utensils for tea ceremony had never been made in Shigaraki.

Jyouou Takeno (1502-1555) took the tea ceremony, which was originated by Jyukou, and helped it evolve to the "sou-an-cha", tea ceremony at the thatched-cottage. He adopted the Shigaraki "onioke" (stoneware buckets which were used for dyeing) to be the tea ceremony water jar. He found beauty in the asymmetry, simplicity, naturalness and calmness of "wabimono". Jyouou so appreciated the Shigaraki pottery for use as the utensils for tea ceremony that he ordered Shigaraki potters to make utensils of his design. These became known as "Jyouou Shigaraki". Rikyuu Sen, Soukyuu Imai and Soukyuu Tsuda were apprenticed to Jyouou.

Rikyuu Sen (1522-1591) was next crowned as the successor of the "cha no yu" tea ceremony. He had studied the way of tea since his childhood, and held his first tea gathering at the age of sixteen. He had become an apprentice of Jyouou Takeno and starting to learn the soul of Zen philosophy at the age of nineteen.

Prior to Nobunaga Oda taking control of the whole country in 1573 (the so-called "Azuchi Momoyama" era), Rikyuu had been a master of the tea ceremony with Soukyuu Tsuda and Soukyuu Imai. And after the Honnou temple incident in which Nobunaga was assassinated by his close adviser in 1582 (Hideyoshi Toyotomi then reigned over Japan), Rikyuu again became a master of tea ceremony.

So Jyukou was the founder of tea ceremony, Jyouou caused tea ceremony to flourish, and Rikyuu made the way of tea an accomplishment which was appreciated all over the world. Rikyuu had studied the roots of Jyukou's tea ceremony and tried to refine and promote a better understanding of the rules and ideals of the way of tea. The long and short of it is that Rikyuu pursued the soul of "wabi-cha" and he came to "sou-an-cha", which is the tea ceremony at the thatched-cottage, and is at the very soul of the way of tea.

Rikyuu appreciated the quiet elegance of Shigaraki pottery, just as his predecessors, Jyukou and Jyouou did. And because Shigaraki pottery was in such accord with the spirit of Rikyuu's tea, he also ordered Shigaraki potters to make untensils of his design for tea. These are know as "Rikyuu's Shigaraki".

As you can see, our ancestors had already started to fire utensils for tea ceremony by the middle of the16 century. The coming together of "Wabi Sabi", Shigaraki pottery, and the spirit of the way of tea have together transformed the primary pottery products of the medieval Shigaraki period (farmhouse utensils, earthenware mortars, and big water jars) into works of art.

In 1597 when Hideyoshi Toyotomi invaded Korea, he brought many Korean potters back to Japan. These potters opened many pottery sites in Japan at such locations as Arita, Hagi, and Satsuma. They brought with them the cross-draft kiln design (noborigama) which had many chambers. These kilns possessed far more thermal efficiency and were able to make pottery much more consistently and dependably than the Anagama style kiln. As a result, the cross-draft kilns were built all over Japan, starting at the beginning of the 17th century. Shigaraki was no exception. Anagama style kilns began to vanish and the Noborigama cross-draft kilns were built in their place. Since the early 17th century, there were no Anagama kilns in Shigaraki. It was not until around 1965 that the first Anagama was again built in Shigaraki. I will explain more about this in my article about the Anagama.


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