As the cherry blossom season beckoned in Japan this spring, I had a wonderful opportunity to travel to Southern Japan to be the interpreter for a tour of classic pottery towns organized by renowned American potters Bill Geisinger and Ben Horiuchi. It was a fascinating 10 day journey that covered a lot of ground and allowed the tour participants to meet and see the activities and lives of potters from all walks of life in Southern Japan. I will be sharing my observations of these towns and the accomplished potters that have made this part of Japan a vibrant and dynamic center of pottery creativity in this blog in the coming weeks.
The first stop of the tour was Karatsu in Saga prefecture. Karatsu is one of the most famous pottery towns in Japan and its name literally means “port to Tang (China)”. This is fitting, as the town has been a major trading port to Korea, China, and the rest of Japan.
The development of Karatsu-ware began more than 400 years ago. A key reason for this was the arrival of craftsmen from Korea brought by Japanese warlords following two invasions of Korea in the 16th Century. These potters produced ware for tea ceremonies that were very popular among the Japanese elites during this period.
The Korean craftsmen brought with them two technologies that revolutionized Japanese pottery making: the kick-wheel, and the multi-chambered climbing kiln. These technologies allowed for faster and larger scale pottery production in comparison to the hand-wheel and Anagama kiln that was used in Japan prior to this technological revolution.
Karatsu-ware or Karatsuyaki, is made of clay high in iron content that fires to a reddish-gray color and encompasses many styles. The styles that I am most familiar with are ‘picture karatsu’ or ‘e-karatsu’, which have simple drawings of plants and birds, and Korean style karatsu or ‘chosen karatsu’ that has a black glaze with runny white ash glaze over it.
Many Japanese, including myself, find that simplicity is more appealing than glitter and complexity, because one can only understand the beauty of simplicity through experience and the steady accumulation of knowledge. It is a very personal appeal that is nurtured and intensified over time and repeated use. It is similar to the sentiment you will have towards your favorite t-shirt or tea mug that is so comfortable because you have used it over the years.
Karatsu-ware today is sought-after by avid collectors and formal tea drinkers for their simple and rustic elegance. Although I am not very familiar with the formal way of Japanese tea ceremonies, even I know the Japanese saying, “Raku first, Hagi second, Karatsu third”, which denotes the rank order of the three preferred types of pottery used in Japanese tea ceremonies. But some of my Japanese friends who are knowledgeable about tea ceremonies say that they are most drawn to Karatsu-ware.
In Karatsu, I was especially excited to visit the Nakazato family kilns. The Nakazato name should be well known to anyone who regularly visits the Studio Kotokoto website because of Hanako Nakazato, who is one of our most talented artists. The Nakazato family has resided in Karatsu for the past four centuries and they include famous potters such as Nakazato Tarouemon, Nakazato Takashi and Nakazato Shigetoshi who are all relatives of Hanako. It was my private mission to get a glimpse of where Hanako came from to gain an appreciation of the traditions and lifestyle that have shaped her and her style of pottery.
The sturdy, unpretentious beauty of Karatsu-ware profoundly moved me. I felt very familiar with their time-tested and functional forms because I have witnessed their essence in Hanako’s work.
Another potter we visited in Karatsu was Bob Okasaki, who is a native of California but is now settled in Karatsu. Bob opened his own kiln called Tourigama after many years of apprenticeships under Fujiwara Yu, a famous potter in Bizen, followed by Nakazato Takashi, Hanako’s father, and Nakazato Tarouemon XII, who was a living national treasure.
I love what Bob does because he has so many beautiful works adorned with drawings of animals and plants. Bob and the Nakazato family are very close because he married Keiko, a daughter of Nakazato Tarouemon XII. Hanako, who was busy loading a kiln for a show in Tokyo, stopped by at Bob’s studio and I was happy that I got to meet her to say hello.
The tour group had a wonderful time in Karatsu, a town in a remote corner of Japan but with a very open and international feel to it. This undoubtedly stems from the town’s proximity to Korea and China, which makes it an important regional cultural gateway.
In my next tour blog, I will talk about our visit to Onta, a pottery village hidden in the deep mountains of Oita.