The Thousand-Year Legacy and Evolution of the “Six Ancient Kilns”

Present-day images of the Six Ancient Kilns
Top left: Photo courtesy of Yamagen Touen (Pottery factory), Top right: Photo courtesy of Seto Hongyo Kiln,
Bottom left: Photo courtesy of Tamba-Sasayama City, Bottom right: Photo courtesy of Suiyou

   Japan is a pottery powerhouse, boasting an abundance of ceramic production sites all over the country. Among these, the six regions of Echizen, Seto, Tokoname, Shigaraki, Tamba, and Bizen—known as the "Six Ancient Kilns"—are said to have been active for more than 1000 years, and were registered as Japan Heritage sites in 2017. This spawned the Six Ancient Kilns Japan Heritage Promotion Council, which holds summits and works to strengthen ties between the six regions.

The Six Ancient Kilns: Where Japan's Ceramic Culture Took Root

   One of the reasons behind Japan's abundance of pottery is its food culture. Japanese people pick dishes up with their hands and drink soup directly from the bowl. These table manners bring Japanese people closer to their crockery, while other customs such as changing bowls and dishes depending on the season are also closely tied to Japanese sensibilities.
   The areas around the Six Ancient Kilns are rich with clay used to make ceramics, located on hilly land where kilns are easier to construct, and blessed with plenty of woodland for gathering firewood. They're also a hive for young ceramicists, who move to these towns for the numerous historic kilns, ceramic schools, and rental workshops.

A location map of the Six Ancient Kilns. Each region has its own characteristic style. Photo courtesy of the Six Ancient Kilns Japan Heritage Promotion Council

Bizen ware: Retains a rustic appearance through an absence of decorative paint or glaze. Photo courtesy of Bizen City

Seto ware: Characterized by its white clay accentuated by decorative glazing and paint. Photo courtesy of Seto Hongyo Kiln

Tokoname ware: Typically high-fired and unglazed. Photo courtesy of Tokoname City

Echizen ware: Simple and robust. Natural ash glaze gives it a folk-craft feel. Photo courtesy of Echizen Town

Shigaraki ware: Characterized by embedded feldspar and quartz granules due to an absence of glaze.

Tamba ware: Features a richly ornamental, natural glaze produced by ash. Photo courtesy of Tamba-Sasayama City

   Towns, artisans, and ceramicists have inherited and developed the traditions of the Six Ancient Kilns for over a thousand years, and people working in the ceramics industry continue to take on new challenges today.

Pushing Boundaries in Pursuit of Innovation

   In Tokoname, a region known for producing small teapots and bonsai tree pots, a project has been launched to re-evaluate and further explore the potential of traditional materials and techniques. Teapot craftsmen, artisans, and ceramicists joined together to review everything from clay mixing to crafting techniques, producing some truly unique articles by adding various colors with a distinctive Tokoname liquid glaze called chara, sprinkling on ground oyster shells for decoration, among other methods. These innovative dishes heighten the presentation of food, and are lovingly used in famous restaurants both in Japan and overseas.

Left: Spraying a dish with chara.
Right: An oyster shell decoration on the surface of a plate. Photo courtesy of Tokoname Ban Project

The color and texture of the plate elevates the appearance of the food. Photo courtesy of "aru" Toyohashi City, Aichi Prefecture

   Takarayama Kiln in Bizen has turned its attention to "sustainable Bizen ware" that makes use of local ingredients such as discarded oyster shells, seaweed, eel grass, and Chinese pistache tree leaves. This has resulted in some beautifully colored, eco-friendly products that offer something different from the simple, brown look of traditional Bizen ware.

Some Takarayama Kiln plates before firing in the kiln. Photo courtesy of Takarayama Kiln

   There are also new studios that have been set up by young potters looking to bring the techniques of Seto ware into the future.This breaks the mold in an area full of historic kilns passed down through generations. These young potters have helped connect people to the area in new ways, like posting ceramics classes on YouTube and running events that promote the joys of the town by encouraging visitors to explore local kilns and stores.

Left: Pottery studio Suiyou helps spread the appeal of Seto ware via YouTube.
Right: Seto ware techniques can be used to create bumpy surfaces reminiscent of lotus flowers. Photo courtesy of Suiyou

Passing on Tradition and Instilling Local Pride

   In the areas around the Six Ancient Kilns, cultural classes on ceramic art and local tradition are taught in schools. Tokoname City runs a "one and only rice bowl in the world" project, while Konda Elementary School in Tamba-Sasayama City features an on-site climbing kiln in which the children create their own works every year. Children in Echizen Town decorate commemorative rice bowls when they graduate nursery school, while elementary schools in Bizen City serve lunch on Bizen-ware crockery. Lots of schools are creating opportunities like these for kids to come into contact with ceramics at a young age.

Tokoname City's "one and only rice bowl in the world" project. Photo courtesy of Yamagen Touen (Pottery factory)

Left: Children are taught how to decorate bowls at local pottery studios. Photo courtesy of Echizen Town
Right: Children using the kiln at Konda Elementary School. Photo courtesy of Konda Elementary School

   The ceramics of the Six Ancient Kilns have been indispensable in the lives of Japanese people for centuries, and are still widely used and loved today. By actively incorporating modern sensibilities and esthetics into their products while respecting the traditions passed down through the years, these areas are now finding ways of taking ceramics to the next level.