The Six Oldest Pottery Centers in Japan

In Japan we use the terms "Nihon Rokkoyo" or "Chuse Rokkoyo" to refer to the "six oldest pottery centers in Japan" or "the six typical pottery centers of the medieval period". But upon more recent investigation is has been discovered that there were medieval pottery centers in more than 20 areas. However, the once so-called "six oldest pottery centers" are quite typical of the medieval pottery centers. Because of that, I would like to describe them to you. They are: Shigaraki, Bizen, Tanba, Echizen, Seto and Tokoname. Because there were three general categories of clay work being pursued in the medieval period ( "Sueki:, :Hajiki:, and "Shiki"), I would like to explain them to you before proceeding on to the descriptions of the six oldest pottery centers in Japan.

Sueki, Hajiki and Shiki


Sueki was made in ancient Japan, and was usually gray and vitreous. The technique was introduced to Japan from Korean in the middle of the 5th century. The products of sueki were fired to yellow heat, at between 1100 - 1200 degrees Centigrade in a reduction atmosphere. Sueki products were generally made on the wheel, and usually served the function of everyday utensils and ceremonial vessels.


Production of hajiki began in the Kofun period around the 4th century, in the wake of "Yayoisiki-doki". Hajiki was usually reddish bisque ware used for everyday utensils and ceremonial vessels. It was fired at lower temperatures (from 600 to 800 c.) than the "sueki" ware, which was produced around the same time.


Shiki is the oldest glazed bisque ware in Japan. A three color lead glaze, "sansai-enyu", was applied to this work. It was fired to relatively low temperatures (around 800 centigrade), and it was produced in the Heian period (794-1185).

The Oldest Six Pottery Centers in Japan

The map of kiln centers

Shigaraki Pottery Center

Shigaraki wood-fired stoneware was produced in the town of Shigaraki, Koka gun, Shiga prefecture since the Heian era at the end of 12th century. Shigaraki potters identified themselves with "sueki", and produced unglazed high-fired stoneware. Those pieces which were located in the high-heat flame patterns (approximately 1300 degrees Centigrade) acquired natural ash glaze deposits. The main products of the kilns were jars, vases and bowl-shaped mortars, all of which were used for everyday utensils. The potters of that time were both farmers and potters. They made pottery at the times of year when they were free from farming responsibilities. While it is primarily a guess, it appears that the remains of more than 100 kilns may exist from this period. Unfortunately almost all of the remains have gone uninspected and have been utterly neglected. Nearly 25 years ago, Mr. Sadahiko Yamamoto introduced me to the remains of about 25 of the old Shigaraki kilns. He had moved to Shigaraki from Kochi prefecture, and continued to inspect the ancestral kiln sites. However I am afraid that his are the only existing contemporary records of the old Shigaraki kiln sites.

Bizen Pottery Center

Bizen wood-fired stoneware was produced near Bizen city in Okayama prefecture starting at the end of 12th century. The firing process was similar to that of Shigaraki's and followed the processes of "sueki". The main products were also jars, vases and bowl-shaped mortars. The Bizen pottery center began making utensils for tea ceremony beginning at the end of the Muromachi era (1331-1573). (Other pottery centers began making tea ceremony ware at about this time, as well.)

Tanba Pottery Center

Tanba pottery was produced in Tachikui, Imada cho, Taki gun, Hyougo prefecture begining in the medieval period. Though three kinds of vessels are typical of this period, (jars, vases and bowl-shaped mortars), few bowl-shaped mortars were fired in Tanba. Tanba pottery also belonged to the way of "sueki", along with the Shigaraki and Bizen traditions.
I have already noted that the centers of Shigaraki, Bizen and Tanba, which are located in the Kansai region (western Japan), were following the category of "sueki". The other kiln centers which are located in the Kanto region (eastern Japan), and the Hokuriku region (north-central Japan) have a category other than "sueki". They were following the general category of "shiki".

Echizen Pottery Center

Echizen pottery was produced near the villages of Odacho and Miyazaki, in Fukui prefecture. There were other Echizen kiln sites as well (for example: Kaga, Tamasu and Ouenzawa in the Hokuriku region). The main products of Echizen ware were jars, vases, and bowl-shaped mortars, similar to those of the other kiln centers which I have mentioned. Alhough Echizen pottery basically belonged to the category of "sueki", it should be pointed out that Echizen was influenced by "hakushi" (which was fired in Seto), and influenced also by the "shiki" tradition. The point of all this is to say that there was a small, but noticeable difference between the Echizen tradition on the one hand, and the traditions of Shigaraki,Bizen, and Tanba.

Seto Pottery center

Seto pottery belonged to the "hakushi" category, and made glazed pottery. Ithas had a continuous history of firing at Seto City (in Aichi prefecture) from the medieval period right up until today. Seto was the only pottery center firing glazed pottery in the medieval period and in so doing, went its own way. The products of the other medieval kiln centers were of three kinds: jars, vases and bowl-shaped mortars. But the products of Seto were yellowish-green and blackish-brown glazed vases, jars and "yama jawan" (coarse bowls). The beginning of pottery making and firing in Seto is surmised to be during the 14th century. Evidence of nearly 500 kilns has been found around the base of Sanage Mountain. You can see the design of three old kilns at Aichi Kenritsu Touji Shiryoukan.

Tokoname Pottery Center

Many scholars are in agreement that there is an intimate relationship between the decline of the Sanage kilns in Seto and the birth of the Tokoname kilns. Chita peninsula, where Tokoname is located, has the remains of 3000 ancient kilns. The oldest artifacts which were excavated from these sites were confirmed as "sankinko" (a pot with three lines) and "shihou-busseki" (a square of Buddhist stone) on which was written "Tenji era the second" (1125 AD). Some of the other remains from these sites were "yama jawans", short neck pots, and wide mouth jars similar to the remains found at the Seto kilns. Other products were jars, vases and bowl-shaped mortars, similar to the work of the other pottery centers in the medieval period. It should also be noted that the design of the pots from the Tokoname kilns are very similar to those from Shigaraki. Because of this, we suppose that there was some sort of cultural interchange between them.

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