Akio Takamori's Cross-Cultural Gaze

Keramikmuseum Westerwald
German Collection of Historical and Contemporary Ceramics
Lindenstraße 13
D - 56203 Höhr-Grenzhausen, Germany

Weighted with sorrow, a diminutive ceramic figure of the German Chancellor Willy Brandt kneels on a plinth, hands stacked and head tilted down. His eyes are swollen, and furrowed frown lines are etched with creases, echoing in the graphic folds on his coat. Referencing a significant moment in 1970 when Brandt knelt before a memorial honoring the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising against the Nazis, the exhibition marks the first time it has been shown in Germany.

Backdropping the woeful Brandt are three Sumi-ink paintings depicting Japanese company bosses amidst a public apology. Although the works from the Apologies/Remorse series are the first to greet visitors, ironically, they were the last pieces that ceramicist Akio Takamori produced before surrendering to cancer in 2017. 

His final works are a departure from his customary whimsical tone. For decades, Takamori—with his incisive, child-like curious eye and sociologic lens—studied, documented, and captured human behavior, transmuting their essence and eccentricities into puffy stoneware forms. 

His charming figures are standing, lying, and squatting on a low and long perpendicular plinth, which divides the negative space of the gallery with bursts of hues, lively lines, and sensuous undulating forms. A woman, draped in a watery cadmium gown with blushed rouge cheeks, reclines on the floor with her heavy head resting on her hand. Another woman, adorned in a robe with blue stripes accentuating her curves, peacefully sleeps with her naked infant tenderly nestled on her breast. Meanwhile, a drifting man, with expressive eyes, clad only in a white tank top and briefs, carries a child on his back. Despite portraying routine scenes, the peculiar blend of awkwardness and sensuality introduce a fresh and uplifting perspective to these everyday acts.

Presenting thirty-nine ceramic sculptures spanning various periods of the artist’s career, the exhibition titled Rücksicht, which is dually defined as “consideration” and “retrospective,” encapsulate Takamori’s inquisitive imagination and examination of human behavior, psychology, and nature.

“When you consider something, you try to understand it.” Dr. Nele van Wieringen, director of the museum and curator of the show explains, “You try to go to the background and go deeper than just surface. You have to bring in a lot of different variables to get a fuller understanding.”

It wasn’t until Takamori, born in Nobeoka, Miyazaki in 1950, moved to the United States that he began to delve deeply into expressions of the human form. During a two-year apprenticeship at Koishiwara Pottery in Japan, where Takamori threw two hundred cups a day, acclaimed American ceramist Ken Ferguson visited the studio, and the two instantly formed a bond. Subsequently, Takamori migrated to Kansas City in 1974, where he studied ceramics under Ferguson's guidance at the Kansas City Art Institute.

Upon arriving in the West, he experienced culture shock, finding himself as a minority in a foreign land. This environmental shift catalyzed a self-conscious examination of the tensions between cultural and racial identities. He began considering how Asians were perceived and how he, in turn, appeared to Westerners. This introspection prompted his pursuit of creating clay figures sculpted from his memories of people in Japan and their collective observable idiosyncrasies as exemplified by the woman in a deep squat with her soles flat on the floor facing forward (a pose often associated with Asian mannerisms and stereotypes).

Takamori also explored the dichotomy between the East and West, drawing inspiration from both traditional Japanese and European masters. Against stoneware mountain landscapes with billowing clouds, a Japanese woman carrying a child on her back faces a white, blonde woman in a royal blue dress. Though both women stand in the same position with hands held in front, they emit distinctly different energies. The curation explores the complexity of identity and reveals how racial and cultural distinctions subtly shape the viewer's perception and interpretation of their narratives.

Takamori's personal life intersected with this dichotomy, as he was married to a Swedish woman—a dynamic reflected in his Interracial Couples series. In these sculptures, nude couples of diverse ethnicities intimately embrace and hold each other, composing a singular mass with shared brushstrokes and drips.

Rather than the repetitive task of throwing hundreds of small cups, as he did during his apprenticeship, Takamori dedicated his days to obsessively sculpting hand-built figures. This shift in focus ultimately led to the development of his distinctive and singular style.

Akio Takamori's aesthetic features undulating, soft, and dense figures characterized by hyperbolized hands and feet, as well as supple thighs and arms, which dramatize the characters with Rubenesque abstractions. The exaggerated physiognomy is further emphasized by calligraphic strokes of lines, creases, contours, and stripes that meander throughout the frame, bringing volume to the form. His works possess a distinctly Japanese sensibility reminiscent of ukiyo-e prints, yet they also draw inspiration from Greek Kouros and Renaissance sculptures. The soupçon splashes of rose-stained cheeks, knuckles, and knees infuse warmth and vitality into his figures, evoking a sense of pulsating life within their voluptuous bodies.

Youthful energy emanates from Takamori’s sculptures, accentuated by his inclusion and admiration for children. Running along the back wall of the gallery, a series of painted children sheltered in cocoon-shaped porcelain plates serve as an homage to the innocence and promise they embody.

“Children, especially infants, catch my attention. My heart grows tender with the sight of innocence and novice. I wonder what this brilliant, totally observant mind is looking at, thinking, experiencing, and taking in from our current world.” - Akio Takamori (CNAA)

This remarkable gathering of Takamori’s personal yet universal expressions serves as a psychological realm for contemplating humanity in an increasingly polarized world–a poignant reminder of the transient nature of time. Although Takamori is no longer with us, his subtle evocations of powerful emotions will continue to resonate, prompting viewers to reflect on the enduring beauty in human interactions, relationships, and expressions.


Visit Keramikmuseum Westerwald at Lindenstraße 13 D - 56203 Höhr-Grenzhausen, or explore and learn more about the exhibition "Rücksicht" and Akio Takamori's works online at Keramikmuseum Westerwald.

UPCOMING EXHIBITION AT KERAMIKMUSEUM WESTERWALD

40 years Gruppe ´83. Identities

April 7- June 23, 2024

40 years ago, the West German members of the Académie Internationale de la Céramique (AIC) joined forces to strengthen ceramics as an independent art form in Germany and to promote young talent. However, a unified artistic position was never their goal. Nevertheless, shared values are visible that create a common framework. United, they are committed to clay as a material in very different ways. The love and life for ceramics are the cement that unites a number of individualists into a group.

The history of Gruppe 83 reflects the development of artistic ceramics over the last 50 years. The eighties were full of impulses for West German ceramics. Last but not least, the Westerwald Ceramics Museum was built in 1982. Members of the group have always been welcome guests and have participated in many exhibitions in our museum. After reunification, East German positions represented a great enrichment and logical extension of the friendly network. 

It is therefore not only pleasing, but also logical to present this important association again in its anniversary year. The exhibition shows selected pieces that react to each other in their diversity and thus express the diversity of ceramics in a special way.

36 Hours in Osaka, Japan



To see all the destinations listed in this guide and other ceramic sites worldwide, check out Ceramic World Destinations (CWD), MoCA/NY's interactive map listing over 4,000 destinations!


While Osaka may be renowned as 'Japan's Kitchen,' the city also holds great cultural significance and boasts a rich tradition in the arts. Its proximity to Kyoto, the ancient capital, and being the birthplace of Sado (the tea ceremony) further contribute to Osaka's artistic heritage.

Ceramics are collected and donated for public viewing, highlighting the role of passionate ceramic enthusiasts in preserving and sharing cultural treasures. These collectors, described as lovers of ceramics, have played a crucial role in assembling a diverse and extensive collection of ceramics for visitors to enjoy. Their dedication has allowed for the preservation and exhibition of ceramics, and the connection between the arts and ceramics adds depth to the cultural experience for visitors exploring Osaka's artistic landscape.

WHERE TO STAY

It's highly suggested to stay near Osaka/Umeda Station.

High-end accommodations: Conrad Osaka, InterContinental Osaka, The Ritz-Carlton, Hotel Hankyu International, and the Hilton Osaka. Mid-range options: Mitsui Garden Hotel Osaka Premier, ANA Crown Plaza Osaka, and Imperial Hotel Osaka. Hostels: Nine Hours Shin-Osaka Station, J-garden Shin-Osaka Capsule, Linda Hostel 106, Guesthouse U-En, Hotel the Rock.

TRANSPORTATION

Public transportation, train and bus, is the easiest and most affordable option for traveling around the city. Consider purchasing a prepaid Icoca card (a Suica or Pasmo card from Tokyo will also work). SUBWAY MAP

RESTAURANTS

To explore restaurant options, check out this comprehensive list published by Eater.


DAY 1

MUSEUMS, TEA CAFE & GALLERIES

10:00 AM - The Museum of Oriental Ceramics

Grab a coffee or breakfast at a nearby cafe and head to the Museum of Oriental Ceramics, where visitors can explore an extensive collection that goes beyond Japan. Noteworthy highlights of the collection include items from Korea and China from various periods, such as the Han, Ming, and Qing Dynasties. Additionally, the museum boasts a significant assortment of snuff bottles.  Korean celadon wares are divided into three distinct parts, showcasing the diversity and depth of the collection. 

While the museum is known for its traditional wares, it keeps pace with contemporary developments in the ceramic arts. Visitors may be pleasantly surprised to find special exhibitions featuring works by important modern ceramics artists, providing a dynamic and evolving perspective into the world of clay. This combination of traditional and modern elements make the museum a fascinating destination for enthusiasts and art lovers alike.

Photo courtesy: Zi-Han Hsu
Photo courtesy: Zi-Han Hsu
Photo courtesy: Zi-Han Hsu

11:30 AM - Nakanoshima Kosetsu Museum of Art

The Nakanoshima Kosetsu Museum of Art offers a unique experience, featuring a collection of privately collected tea wares from Mr. Ryohei Murayama, the founder of the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. This museum reflects Murayama's passion for art, showcasing not only Japanese tea wares but also works from other countries in East Asia.

Visitors can expect a diverse and comprehensive collection that goes beyond national boundaries. The inclusion of tea wares suggests a focus on the traditional aspects of East Asian culture, particularly to the tea ceremony, which holds significant cultural and artistic value.

Exploring this museum provides an opportunity to appreciate the convergence of art and tea culture, offering insights into the rich artistic traditions of Japan and its neighboring East Asian countries.

Photo courtesy: Kate Strachan and  private collections catalog
Photo courtesy: Kate Strachan and  private collections catalog

Photo courtesy: Kate Strachan and  private collections catalog
Photo courtesy: Kate Strachan and  private collections catalog

1:30 PM – Wad Café & Wad + Gallery 

Photo courtesy: Kate Strachan

Wad Café offers a delightful and immersive experience for its guests. The carefully selected décor creates an ambiance that promotes relaxation and enhances the enjoyment of conversations. The prospect of having to wait for a table adds to the anticipation, encouraging visitors to explore the adjacent gallery space on the 2nd and 3rd floors. The gallery space, accessible from the building behind Wad Café, provides a holistic artistic experience, combining the pleasure of tea with visual arts. 

The diverse assortment of tea choices caters to a broad range of preferences. The cafe also accommodates non-natives with an English menu. The mention of experiencing each tea differently implies a focus on the nuanced aspects of tea culture. Furthermore, the opportunity to select a tea bowl from Wad's display adds a personal touch to the tea-drinking experience. They also provide the option to choose sweets enhances the overall tea-drinking experience, making it not just a beverage but a sensory journey. This attention to detail in both ambiance and offerings makes Wad Café a promising destination for those seeking a unique and immersive tea experience.

Photo courtesy: Kate Strachan
Photo courtesy: Kate Strachan

The presence of contemporary ceramic artists exhibiting at Wad + Gallery indicates a dynamic and evolving space that embraces the latest trends and expressions in the world of ceramics. The emphasis on a well-curated display suggests a thoughtful and intentional approach to presenting the artwork, creating an environment that invites guests to engage with the pieces on a personal level.

Photo courtesy:  Han-Yun Liang

3:00 PM – Fujita Museum

The Fujita Museum is a treasure for art enthusiasts. Its status as a privately owned family collection, rooted in Denzaburo Fujita's passion for art, adds a personal dimension to the museum's history. The opportunity for visitors to explore the former family mansion, immersing themselves in the ever-evolving tea-ware collection, speaks to the museum's deep connection to both art and personal heritage.

The dimly lit exhibit room constructs a meticulously designed presentation that isolates each piece of art, encouraging focused attention and suggesting a curated and immersive environment. This setup allows visitors to engage with the tea-ware collection, highlighting the importance of each piece within the broader artistic experience.

Following a day immersed in art appreciation, the museum offers a thoughtful space for relaxation. The various options for guests to take a moment for themselves, be it in the tatami room, on the café's encircling steps, or at a seated table, introduce an additional layer. 

Photo courtesy: Kate Strachan
Photo courtesy: Kate Strachan
Photo courtesy: Kate Strachan
Photo courtesy: Kate Strachan

Photo courtesy: Kate Strachan

7:30 PM – RAURUAJI Gallery & Antique

The RAURAUJI Gallery offers a diverse and interesting blend of contemporary ceramic art and furniture antiques. The combination of these elements suggests an eclectic atmosphere, where traditional and modern aesthetics come together. This mix of mediums provides visitors with the opportunity to explore the intersection of different artistic expressions. Described as a place where one can casually "pop in" to view the current exhibit featuring tea-ware objects and figure sculptures, the gallery conveys a relaxed and accessible environment.


9 PM - Osaka Castle Main Tower (Osaka Castle Museum)

Consider a late night stroll around Osaka Castle, which is lit up with the Sakuya Lumina light display when the sun sets. With its roots tracing back to the Sengoku period, the castle has endured a rich history, witnessing battles, reconstruction, and pivotal events in Japanese history. It houses an ever-changing exhibition of cultural assets related to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the Sengoku period, and Osaka Castle's history. 


DAY 2

MORE MUSEUMS & ARTIST STUDIOS

On the second day,  seize the opportunity to visit a local artist or continue along the path of exploring private collections housed in museums.

Photo courtesy: Yoshiko Naragino

10 AM - ARTIST STUDIO: Yoshiko Naragino

Yoshiko’s work consistently aims to express joy, vitality, and happiness through various creatures, events, and patterns, creating a larger-than-life fantasy that evokes familiar sceneries and stories. The size of the works requires viewers to look up, squat down, or move around, allowing for an immersive three-dimensional experience that emphasizes the weight and presence of the art.

Yoshiko Naragino Website

Photo courtesy: Yoshiko Naragino

11 AM - KATE STRACHAN

Kate Strachan is a transdisciplinary artist, who divides her time between Asia and the US.  Her clay work integrates various materials such as wax, wood and fiber to form manuscripts, sculpture, installation, and video art. Kate's work is viewed as a collection of both relics and texts conveying and preserving the routine of action, sexuality and silence. ​

Photo courtesy: Kate Strachan

1 PM - Japanese Folk Crafts Museum Osaka

Photo courtesy: Kate Strachan
Photo courtesy: Kate Strachan

The Japan Folk Crafts Museum Osaka, originally constructed as an exhibition hall, has undergone transformation and currently functions as the western base for the "Mingei Movement." Founded by Muneyoshi Yanagi, the Mingei Movement underscores the value of appreciating folk crafts and recognizing the beauty inherent in everyday, utilitarian objects.

Special exhibitions are held twice a year in the spring and fall, showcasing domestic and foreign folk art objects. The variety of folk-art objects, including ceramics, dyed and woven textiles, wood and lacquer works, and braided pieces, indicates a comprehensive approach to representing different aspects of traditional crafts.

The inclusion of commemorative lectures for each special exhibition adds an educational element to the museum's programming. 


3 PM - Itsuo Art Museum

The Itsuo Art Museum, dedicated to the memory of Kobayashi Ichizo (1873-1957), honors the legacy of Itsuo, a prominent figure renowned for his contributions to culture and art. Established in 1957, the museum boasts an extensive collection of 5,500 works of arts and crafts meticulously gathered by Itsuo throughout his lifetime. 

This remarkable collection reflects Itsuo's diverse interests and includes many prized gifts bestowed upon him by business associates. While photography is often restricted within museums, visitors have the opportunity to acquire well-printed catalogs, allowing them to take a piece of the collection home with them.

Photo courtesy: Kate Strachan
Photo courtesy: Kate Strachan

To explore our extensive listings of galleries, museums, design stores, and other destinations in Japan, go to the CERAMIC WORLD DESTINATION MAP!


CONTRIBUTOR

Kate Strachan is an interdisciplinary studio artist with a background in ceramics and fiber. She divides her time between Osaka and Philadelphia and has a rich artistic journey that includes an apprenticeship in Kanazawa, Japan, and studies at the Tainan National University of the Arts. 
Her recent accomplishments include receiving a grant from the Dutch government for the 2024 EKWC residency, winning NCECA's 2023 Emerging Artist Award, securing 3rd place for Blanc de Chine in 2021, and having her work selected for the New Taipei Yingge Ceramics Biennale in 2022.

Kate Strachan's Website

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Visions of Shigaraki, Japan


To see ceramic destinations in Shigaraki, Japan, and other sites worldwide, check out Ceramic World Destinations (CWD), MoCA/NY's interactive map listing over 4,000 destinations!



En Iwamura, a ceramic artist currently residing in Shigaraki, shares his experience working in the cultural heritage site and the benefits and challenges of living in the region. This essay is part of our three-part feature on the cultural heritage site Shigaraki. GET TO KNOW SHIGARAKI written by Michio Sugiyama provides insights into the historical, cultural, and traditional aspects of Shigaraki, and Hitomi Shibata shares a personal essay, Shigaraki - Our Journey in Clay, reflecting on her time living, working, and making art in Shigaraki.
Miho Museum: photo courtesy: Michio Sugiyama
Local train station - photo courtesy: Michio Sugiyama

I was born in Kyoto, Japan, and received my BFA and MFA at the Kanazawa College of Art and Craft in Kanazawa. I decided to study in the US and received my second MFA at Clemson University. After living and working in the US for six years, I returned to Japan and moved to Shigaraki. 

Shigaraki is not far from my hometown (about 30-40 min driving distance) and I found myself missing time spent with my family while I was abroad. I also want to raise a family with my wife in Japan.

While traveling and working at residencies, I felt like a nomad. Every time I moved, I had to also transport all my studio equipment, tools, and glazes and I found this to be too burdensome and prevented me from developing a consistent studio practice. I wanted to find the perfect place to settle and Shigaraki was the place as it not only has an international ceramic reputation but also because of the quietness and peace of the atmosphere necessary for my practice. I moved to Shigaraki in 2018 as a resident artist at Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park.

Shigaraki is a small village located in southeast Shiga prefecture, and known as one of six ancient ceramic kiln sites in Japan. The environment is pretty calm, surrounded by mountains, and the population is small. The image is like a picturesque Japanese traditional old village. My first impression was “What a beautiful and peaceful place!” It was nice to stay away from the business of the city and have a place to focus solely on my work. I quickly fell in love with the city.

Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park - photo courtesy: Michio Sugiyama
Palace ruins Shigaraki - photo courtesy: Michio Sugiyama

Of course, even with the positive aspects of Shigaraki, there are issues with this small village in the countryside of Japan. A key issue is the low population density. Getting to know the community and communicating with local people, I began to realize the reality of this place. After many years of shrinking demands for Japanese ceramic industries, there are so many factories and businesses that are closing, risking the future of this cultural heritage site. The younger generation of local people is leaving Shigaraki for a bigger city to seek their own life therefore, their heritage, passed down from generation to generation is disappearing. So, there are many empty houses and factories but people have no idea how they should approach these challenges.

En Iwamura in his studio in Shigaraki
En Inwamura's ceramic in his studio in Shigaraki
En Inwamura's ceramic in his studio in Shigaraki
En Inwamura's ceramic in his studio in Shigaraki

As an artist who works at this cultural heritage site, I would like to use existing resources and am thinking about the potential of the town. Thinking about all the empty factories, and houses, I would like to see the younger generations of people utilize the opportunities Shigaraki provides and create their own creative and innovative community here. For instance, I bought an abandoned gift shop and renovated it as my studio. I hope to see some kind of new creators’ community here in the future to preserve Shigaraki and its culture, traditions, and history.


CONTRIBUTOR:

En Iwamura

En Iwamura was born in Kyoto, Japan in 1988. Under the influence of both parents who are painters, he grew up in an artistic environment. After graduating with a BFA in craft at the Kanazawa College of Art and Craft, he began to be interested in the international Art world. he considers that ceramic has the potential to be one of the international languages, that can cross different cultures, people, and countries. En Iwamura's current research investigates how he can influence and alter the experience of viewers who occupy space with his installation artworks.

WEBSITE


SHIGARAKI - Our Journey in Clay

Hitomi Shibata, a ceramic artist and author of the book Wild Clay, shares a personal essay about her time living, working, and making art in Shigaraki. This essay is part of our three-part feature on the cultural heritage site Shigaraki, aiming to provide the most robust coverage of this historically rich and significant region. Read the first feature - Get to Know Shigaraki written by Michio Sugiyama, which provides insights into the historical, cultural, and traditional aspects of Shigaraki. Stay tuned for the last essay written by Shigaraki-based ceramic artist En Iwamura which will be published later this month. Subscribe to MoCA/NY and follow us on social media to keep up-to-date on upcoming features and interviews!
Takuro and Hitomi in front of our Shigaraki style Anagama plus a chamber wood kiln in Seagrove, NC. Photo taken in 2022 - photo courtesy: Takuro and Hitomi Shibata
Wheel Throwing studio at the Shigaraki Ceramic Research Institute. This research center provides pottery training programs to support succession planning in Shigaraki - photo courtesy: Mr. Hiroaki Takahata, A Chief of Ceramics Design Department, Shigaraki Ceramic Research Institute

I first became involved with ceramics in 1990 as a craft education major at Okayama University in Japan. I found ceramics to be the most challenging medium, so I worked diligently to become proficient. In 1996, after earning a master's degree in art education with a concentration in ceramics, I became an artist-in-residence at the Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park, which is the most prestigious international ceramic art center in Japan.

Shigaraki, a small town steeped in a thousand-year legacy of pottery, was one of the few places in Japan where young potters who were not from pottery families could learn how to make a living, and this experience led me to pursue a career as a professional potter.

During my time in Shigaraki, I held a variety of positions, from employee at a local pottery studio to sales representative at retail and wholesale pottery galleries, but my most educational and useful job experience was as a research assistant at the Ceramic Research Institute.

My thirst for knowledge and practical experience was insatiable, but as a young female potter, I faced numerous challenges. It was during this period that I met Takuro Shibata, who would become my lifelong partner and teammate.

Takuro had earned a degree in applied chemistry at Doshisha University in Kyoto and had been working as an engineer in his hometown of Osaka. However, in 1997, he seized an opportunity to become an apprentice at Tanikan Gama, one of Shigaraki's oldest pottery studios.

His apprenticeship not only allowed him to hone his craft but also facilitated interactions with numerous other potters and ceramics businesses in this historic pottery town.

Together, we leased a modest studio space in Shigaraki's historic kiln site area and embarked on our journey as independent potters. While we sold our pottery in galleries, we also juggled various other jobs. At times, we engaged in mass production for the commercial market, although it wasn't our preferred path, it was a necessary step to make a living. Our true passion lay in the Shigaraki style of wood firing, and we took advantage of every opportunity to participate in wood firings and refine our craft. Despite being young and strapped for resources, we poured our hearts into chasing our dreams.

Old Noborigama’s details - photo courtesy: Takuro Shibata
Old Noborigama on the pottery trail - photo courtesy: Takuro and Hitomi Shibata

Shigaraki has a flourishing ceramic industry, supported by a diverse range of auxiliary businesses. These encompass local clay companies, clay cooperatives, tool manufacturers, kiln builders, glaze producers, machine workshops, box makers, freelance wheel throwers, wholesale enterprises, and a multitude of shops and galleries. 

Additionally, the town hosts several educational ceramic art organizations such as the Shigaraki Ceramic Research Institute and the Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park. These institutions offer programs for ceramic material research, pottery training, and cultural exchange, regularly hosting lectures, workshops, and events that foster connections between professional ceramic artists and potters from local, national, and international communities. This exposure inspired us to seek opportunities abroad as we aimed to further our careers in ceramics.

The Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park’s International Clay Studio accommodates about 10 ceramic artists from Japan and abroad. The artists work together to create a diverse atmosphere in the old pottery town by sharing studio space, accommodations, firings, information, and cultural exchange. photo courtesy: Takuro and Hitomi Shibata
One of the biggest clay companies, Seido, in Shigaraki. There are many filter press machines in their huge building - photo courtesy: Takuro and Hitomi Shibata
A view of Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park’s Clay studio from their wood kiln site - photo courtesy: Takuro and Hitomi Shibata

Today, Shigaraki is a unique pottery village that blends the old and the new, tradition and innovation, and toughness and kindness. While it was not our permanent home, it was a place where we honed our skills, deepened our understanding of materials, and expanded our knowledge. It is a powerful and special place that attracts people from all over the world. Now, there are many new businesses, shared studios, and interesting events taking place in Shigaraki. They are seeds for a new era and a hope for the future of the ceramic field.

Tanikangama was one of the oldest and biggest pottery studios in Shigaraki, and Takuro studied there as an apprentice for several years - photo courtesy: Takuro and Hitomi Shibata
One of the remaining old kilns in Shigaraki. This old Noborigama was well maintained and tourists can see it on the pottery trail - photo courtesy: Takuro and Hitomi Shibata

CONTRIBUTOR:

Hitomi Shibata

Hitomi Shibata is a Japanese ceramic artist based in Seagrove, North Carolina. She holds a Bachelor of Education in Art and Craft, and a Master of Education in Fine Art, Ceramics from Okayama University in Japan. In 2001-2002, she received a Rotary Foundation Scholarship to study at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. She has been a member of the International Academy of Ceramics since 2017, and is a co-author of Wild Clay, published by Bloomsbury Publishing, London, UK in 2022.

WEBSITE

Instagram: @studiotouya @hitomishibataceramics

GET TO KNOW: Shigaraki, Japan

MoCA/NY asked three Japanese ceramic artists and academics to collaborate on our feature exploring the traditions, culture, and history of the significant cultural heritage site Shigaraki in Japan. Stay tuned for Hitomi Shibata's personal essay about her time working and participating in the artist-in-residence program at the Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park, and En Iwamura's essay about his experience working as an artist in Shigaraki.

Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park - photo courtesy: Michio Sugiyama
Michio Sugiyama, who formally worked at the Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park, currently operates as Director of “Shigaraki Share Studio.” Sugiyama, with his extensive knowledge of the region, answers critical questions about the cultural heritage site. 

HISTORY OF SHIGARAKI

Shigaraki, one of Japan’s Six Ancient Kilns Sites, is one of the oldest pottery-producing regions in Japan. Shigaraki was a crossroads for transportation between Nara and Yamashiro of the central Kinai region and the Tokai region (Nagoya area).

Since Shigaraki is near Kyoto and Nara, where the tea ceremony was born, Shigaraki teaware developed naturally. With rich deposits of high-quality clay, Shigaraki is an ideal location for potters.

Shiga Prefecture on MoCA/NY's Ceramic World Destinations Map
Old Shigaraki Ware from 15th C. - photo courtesy: Michio Sugiyama

The Koka region (the southernmost part of Shiga prefecture), where Shigaraki ware is fired, is adjacent to the Iga region (Mie prefecture), and it is said that Shigaraki-ware and Iga-ware are very similar, but this is because they are made from the same clay layer of the Old Biwa Lake layer, which gives a unique clay flavor known as "Old Shigaraki.'' The rustic and warm feeling of the clay is due to this Old Lake Biwa layer.

By the end of the medieval period, Shigaraki potters were making jars, vats, and mortars and firing them in anagama kilns. Shigaraki had begun to develop its unique style as one of Japan’s pottery-producing centers.

Shigaraki-ware is known for the special quality of its clay. By firing in anagama or noborigama wood-firing kilns, effects such as warm, reddish hiiro flashing, deep green natural ash biidoro, or burnt black koge can be achieved. As a form of art using the media of clay and fire, Shigaraki pottery communicates the Japanese aesthetic of wabi and sabi to the present age.

Old Climbing Kiln - photo courtesy: Michio Sugiyama
Firing Anagama N. Shinohara - photo courtesy: Michio Sugiyama

The rusticity of Shigaraki ware expresses the emotions of the Japanese people. For this reason, since the Muromachi (1338-1573) and Momoyama periods (1573-1603), Shigaraki teaware evolved along with the tea ceremony and was prized by tea masters and people of culture. Charcoal braziers with namako glazeware for tea ceremonies became increasingly popular through the Muromachi, Azuchi, and Momoyama periods. 

In the Edo period (1603-1867), tea jars were produced in large numbers, and as a commercial infrastructure developed, daily cooking ware such as plum jars, miso jars, sake bottles, and flameware began to be produced in mass quantities.

In the Meiji era (1868-1912), Shigaraki potters began to produce hibachi charcoal braziers glazed with the newly developed namako mottled blue glaze. These hibachi proved to be extremely popular, at one point garnering a more than 90% share of the market across Japan. In addition to hibachi, Shigaraki produced small wares such as ritual vessels, sake vessels, and tea ware, along with large wares such as storage jars in ever-increasing levels of both quantity and quality.

In the Showa era (1926-1989), particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, one result of Japan’s rapid economic growth was the development and popularization of electric and oil heaters. The rise in the standard of living along with changes in the Japanese lifestyle meant a severe decline in the demand for hibachi, a catastrophic development for the Shigaraki economy.

Kaiseki cuisine served in Shigaraki ware bowls (UOSEN)
Kaiseki cuisine served in Shigaraki Ware (UOSEN)
Small sushi served in Shigaraki plate (UOSEN)
Cooking rice in the hot pot (UOSEN)

However, the innovation of local craftsmen combined with traditional techniques resulted in the adaptation of the namako glaze to ceramic planters. The emphasis of production shifted to planters for high-quality bonsai and other plants. These new products were well received by consumers.

Shigaraki ware was designated as a traditional craft by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry of the Japanese Government in 1976, and in April 2017, Shigaraki ware was certified as a Japanese heritage as one of the "Six Ancient Kilns of Japan.'' 

Product of Shigaraki with Flower Arrangement

Flower Vase - N. Shinohara
Flower Vase - N. Shinohara

SHIGARAKI TODAY

Organizations in Shigaraki today include the Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park, the Shigaraki Ceramic Research Institute,and the Shigaraki Pottery Industrial Cooperative Union,which is comprised of over 100 manufacturers.

The Shigaraki Pottery Wholesale Commercial Union has over 40 wholesalers, and the Shigaraki Art and Craft Ceramists Association is made up of over 80 ceramic artists.

By fully utilizing its high-quality clay and technological tradition, Shigaraki ware enhances our enjoyment of life. Shigaraki is now striving to become a world center for ceramics, creating a new culture of ceramic art based on historical tradition.

Tanuki Figures - photo courtesy: Michio Sugiyama

Shigaraki today produces utilitarian ware such as planters, flower vases, and tableware, as well as exterior ceramics such as architectural tile, garden furniture, and decorative ornaments such as tanuki (raccoon), dogs, and frogs. 

Shigaraki ceramics are rooted in our daily life and new technologies are developed in response to demand. Shigaraki clay is highly refractory, and while high in plasticity, it is also strong, making it ideal for both large-scale ceramics and small work.

The ability to develop and construct in a variety of ways is one of the unique characteristics of Shigaraki ware.

Anagama Firied Bowl(Y.Sako)
Vase (N. Shinohara)
Mizusashi N.Shinohara

There is also a characteristic phenomenon of kiln change that is often seen in old Shigaraki. One of its characteristics is that the surface of the vessel is rough and contains many fine stone grains (quartz grains, feldspar grains, and silica sand).

In addition to ash glaze, there are many types of glazes, such as the “sea cucumber glaze'' seen on flower pots and braziers, probably because there are few painted products, and the molding, drying, and firing techniques used to create large items are also typical of Shigaraki ware. 

Another characteristic of Shigaraki ware is that you can enjoy a wide variety of pottery, such as yakishime and kohiki, depending on the artist. Therefore, it can be said that modern Shigaraki ware is unique and uses a variety of techniques.

Vase N. Shinohara
Work of N.Shinohara

Like many traditional craft production areas, the recent annual production of Shigaraki ware is around 3.5 billion yen. This is about one-fifth of its peak in 1992 (16.8 billion yen). The number of establishments has also decreased by about three-quarters.

The lack of successors is especially serious. There are no living national treasures among Shigaraki ware potters. This is because "We have made everything without specializing in one thing'' (President Takahara). There are both advantages and disadvantages of Shigaraki ware. However, if one technology is not inherited, it will simply die out.

Large Bath Tub made in Shigaraki - photo courtesy: Michio Sugiyama

However, looking at the modern history of Shigaraki ware, even if an item no longer sells, new items are always created. Current hit products such as bathtubs is an example of this.

Even in the world of traditional ceramics, there are no Living National Treasures in Shigaraki ware, but many potters, from veterans to young potters, are taking on the challenge of creating the natural glazes produced by firing in anagama kilns.

Although the pottery industry generally has a difficult time finding successors, younger generations are gradually increasing in number, drawn to the charm of this Shigaraki production area, and it is a hope that they will become the bearers of a new Shigaraki tradition.

Factory Uzan - photo courtesy: Michio Sugiyama
Factory Making Large Bath tub Okuda - photo courtesy: Michio Sugiyama
View of Pottery town Shigaraki - photo courtesy: Michio Sugiyama
Factory making table ware Hinomigama - photo courtesy: Michio Sugiyama
Tea plantation - photo courtesy: Michio Sugiyama

CONTRIBUTOR

MICHIO SUGIYAMA

Michio Sugiyama has MFA from the California College of Arts and Crafts, Oakland California. After graduating, he moved to Montana to attend the AIR at the Archie Bray Foundation. In 1989. He returned to Japan and worked at the Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park in Shiga Pref. He has been organizing and operating the Artist in Residency at the SCCP until 2020. In 2018 he established a private rental ceramic studio, in Shigaraki named SHIGARAKI SHARE STUDIO and now he is the Director of the Share Studio. He is a member of the IAC and the Japan Ceramic Society.

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