Spellbound by the Kiln Gods
by Jon Morgan
Get up close and personal with any aficionado of Japan’s renowned wood-fired ceramics tradition and it won’t be long before you hear mention of the kama no kami, the gods who preside over the notoriously fickle and unpredictable climbing kilns integral to the production of these wares. Rarely, if ever, is a firing begun without first making an offering of salt and sake to seek the blessing of these deities, for success or failure is believed to be in their lap, not least with regard to the all-important keshiki, or ‘scenery’, created on each pot by flames and flying ash.
While a potter may set out with a vision of what they hope to achieve, there is only so much that can be predetermined in the elemental world of these kilns. Decisions are made as to where best to place each pot, how to incline the piece, whether to shield it or expose it to the direction of the fire, etc. There’s a temperature to aim for and a pace determined at which to reach it. And alongside all these choices must come an intimate knowledge of the kiln’s individual characteristics and idiosyncrasies based on hard-earned experience. Beyond that, however, the result is no longer in human hands and must be left to the forces of nature.
This partnership with nature is something Japanese potters have historically felt more comfortable accommodating than their counterparts overseas, where skill was often measured by the degree to which materials could be controlled in order to achieve, for example, the technical brilliance of the finest Chinese wares. Sen no Rikyū’s 16th century revolution in the world of tea replaced one-upmanship in fine imported ceramics with an appreciation of rustic simplicity and the embrace of a meditative beauty in the imperfect, and the aesthetics of his philosophy are still alive in artists surrendering their work to the wood-fired kiln today.
For those less familiar with keshiki in Japanese pottery I’d like to illustrate some of its wonders with a few examples. Bizen, Shigaraki and Echizen are three centres of ceramics production belonging to the ‘Six Old Kilns of Japan’, and each of them fire predominantly in the yakishime style, that is to say at high temperatures and without any glaze being applied by the potter. The exquisite results of wood-firing are by no means limited to this way of working, but yakishime perhaps shows them in their purest form and so I’ve selected one piece from each location to focus on here.
A BIZEN SAKE FLASK
Bizen tokkuri from the Konishi kiln
Bizen, produced mostly in the town of Inbe a little way east of Okayama, is not always a love-at-first-sight pottery. Its colours are muted and it can appear hard and unforgiving to the eye, especially in its tourist shop incarnations. Yet when a truly magical work of the kama no kami emerges from a Bizen kiln, it can exhibit profound attributes that elicit ever-deepening pleasure and reveal why so many lovers of Japanese pottery eventually gravitate towards Bizen as one of its ultimate expressions. Such a piece, to my mind, is the tokkuri, or sake flask, from the Konishi kiln photographed above. It was not made by a famous name, just by an anonymous craftsman working there around 30 or so years ago, and yet it has been bestowed with an extraordinary presence by the kiln changes that have taken place.
The tokkuri was fashioned into a gently triangular form after turning, and it lay angled in the kiln so that the wood ash fell directly onto one of the three faces. There, the majority vitrified into a lovely greenish-ochre glaze, while some ash adhered to the surface in raw form, adding both texture and a vivid reminder of the fiery turmoil through which the piece passed.
In complete contrast, the face shielded from the direction of the ash-fall displays, almost unadorned, the deep, brooding maroon colour so typical of Bizen ware, yet even here there are subtleties to explore and enjoy. Fire markings have darkened the clay further in certain areas, for example; a pattern of tiny rivulets appears almost imperceptibly on a small section close to the shoulder; and the overall patina is perfectly poised between what would have been a dull matt and an equally unappealing high-gloss shine.
But it is on its third face that this small flask is elevated to the realms of the spiritual for me. Here, flows of vitrified ash run diagonally across a rich, blackened ground speckled with ochre, this giving way in the far corner to a small patch of much lighter red and orange where the tokkuri was probably touching an adjacent item and the surface was protected from the kiln’s fury. It’s a piece that bears many minutes of study, first holding it in the shadows then moving it into strong illumination to bring out the full, extraordinary palette of colours, patterning and texture. The potter played a secondary role in this small miracle, and somehow it’s all the more powerful for not displaying the contrivance of human intervention.
A SHIGARAKI JAR
Shigaraki uzukumaru jar by Tani Toshitaka
Situated 30km or so to the south-east of Kyoto, in the hills of southern Shiga prefecture, the town of Shigaraki is home to pottery of immediate appeal, thanks largely to the warm, earthy orange of its tactile, fired clay, often peppered with feldspar particles drawn to the surface during firing. Natural ash glazes range from a pale green through muted yellows to a deep reddish-brown, complementing the raw clay to pleasing effect.
The uzukumaru (literally ‘crouching’ or squat shape) jar is a characteristic form in Shigaraki ware and is sometimes found with a hook attached, or a cord wound around the neck, so that it can be used on a wall as a hanging vase. This beautiful example by Tani Toshitaka caught my eye the moment I walked into the Seiuemon Kiln shop, for not only does its weighty-looking form seem to exude presence and personality, it also bears an extraordinary keshiki.
The feature that immediately captures attention in this piece is the feldspar, which has burst to the surface in a firework-like display across the entire pot and has, as its backdrop, some wonderfully rich hues. On the shoulder, the ash has formed a curtain of ochre that gradually reveals a ‘night sky’ of deep, dark brown as the eye descends, while turning the piece 180 degrees changes the mood entirely and transforms the scene into a mellow glow of Shigaraki orange. As if these weren’t riches enough, the final touch is added by a dramatic river of molten light green running almost the entire height and forming the jar’s definitive ‘face’, or prime viewing angle.
AN ECHIZEN SAKE FLASK
Echizen tokkuri by Oya Mitsuo
The final example takes us north to Fukui prefecture, the home of Echizen ware. Echizen is still primarily known for the large vessels and storage jars produced there since the kilns’ inception at the end of the 12th century, yet despite the utilitarian nature of those pots the kama no kami were no less diligent and some wonderful pieces survive.
In recent years, Echizen potters have diversified their output and this tokkuri, like the Bizen example above, is a gem of the yakishime genre. It’s small in size and remarkably light, giving it the feel of a skilfully made piece, and as you cradle it in your hands, its delicacy offers a striking contrast to the power that seems to emanate from the quiet beauty that the cascading ash has created on its surface. The scenery here is subtle and all the better for being so, since it enriches you more and more the longer you stare into its depths. There are few obvious highlights, other than a small ishihaze, or stone burst, on the upper body, yet the subdued greens, ochres, reds and blacks, merging imperceptibly as you turn the tokkuri around and around, fuse into something that seems to transcend highlights, and one feels momentarily transported into its universe.
Adjectives flow freely when talking about the aesthetics of keshiki in Japanese pottery. But falling under the spell of the kiln gods and the magic they weave can be revelatory and I’d encourage anyone to open their mind to the rewards it can offer. We’re accustomed to bending the forces of nature to our will, but by allowing them to bend our thinking it’s possible to widen our definition of beauty further than we ever thought possible.
Glossary of Japanese terms used
Kama no kami
literally the ‘kiln’s god(s)’. Spirits and deities are believed to reside in all things in Shinto Japan and the kiln is no exception. Offerings are made to seek their blessing before every firing.
means ‘scenery’ and is frequently used in the appreciation of Japanese ceramics. As the word implies, it refers to the landscape of marks and patterning present on the surface of a pottery item.
the firing of pottery in its raw form, undecorated with any glaze or slip beforehand. Temperatures reach 1,200ºC degrees or more, at which point wood ash that has landed on the pieces vitrifies and forms a glaze.
the name for a sake flask. It is often said to have derived from the ‘tok-tok’ sound made by the sake as it pours out. A good tokkuri should always have a neck narrow enough to ensure this occurs.
the Japanese verb to crouch or squat is used to describe a traditional shape of vase which appears to do just that by virtue of its broad, rounded shoulder and generally hunched form. It is often seen in Shigaraki ware.
a small surface ‘explosion’ on a pot caused by a stone impurity that was left in the clay and which burst to the surface during firing. Far from being seen as a defect, ishihaze are often considered a significant enhancement to the overall keshiki.