The small tranquil town of Hagi is situated at the western end of Honshu Island far from the bright lights and maddening crowds of Japan’s big cities. I was excited to set foot here in the company of the pottery group tour organized by Bill Geisinger and Ben Horiuchi because I had recently been drawn to the quiet beauty of Hagi-ware and was eager to find out more about the origins and nature of this celebrated tea ware.
Even though Hagi is off the beaten track and appears to be a sleepy backwater, do not be misled by outward appearances. This isolated town has had an outsized influence on the cultural, industrial, and political history of Japan through its famed Hagiyaki pottery and as the home of some of the leading revolutionaries and industrialists responsible for the Meiji Restoration from the second half of the 19th Century.
Hagi owes its colorful history to the confluence of historical circumstances and geography. When local lord Mori Terumoto found himself on the losing side in the famous battle of Sekigahara in 1600, he decided to channel some of his focus and wealth to the pursuit of perfecting the making of Korean style tea bowls that were all the rage among feudal lords during this period in between their political intrigues and internal wars for domination.
Terumoto brought two Korean potters to Hagi, which is less than 150 miles from the Korean Peninsula across the Sea of Japan. The two potters, brothers Lee Jak-Gwang (李勺光 이작광) and Lee Gyeong (李敬 이경), were the creative masters behind the genesis of Hagiyaki.
A typical Hagi-ware is either white or a warm loquat or ‘Biwa’ orange in color with no decoration. Its austere form might “seem bland and unfinished at first sight”, says Hatano Hideo, a Hagi potter from the Hatano Shigetsu-gama Kiln. But he further explains “this is because Hagi-ware is not complete until it is used”. What Hatano is pointing out is that not only is Hagi-ware created for the explicit purpose of being used, but that it also dramatically changes color through use.
Many Hagiyaki are still made by traditional wood firing in a Korean style multi-chambered climbing kiln. The local clay is rough, sandy, and resistant to heat, and does not harden unless fired to an extremely high temperature. The ingenious Hagi potters turned this serious disadvantage into a major advantage and distinctive characteristic of Hagiyaki.
In their experimentation many centuries ago, the pioneering Hagi potters found that when the pots were fired just enough to melt the glaze but not harden the clay completely, the expansion difference with the clay and glaze caused minute cracks or crackles on the glaze. As a result, when a Hagi tea bowl is used, the tea is absorbed through these cracks into the soft clay and slowly stains the pot. This gradual and exquisite change in color is commonly referred to as “the seven transformations of Hagi” or “Hagi no nanabake”.
The war making but tea loving feudal lords were enamored with this rustic, aged look that these pots developed because they symbolized the beauty of degradation and passage of time cherished in wabi tea. So the powerful and mighty competed to get their hands on Hagiyaki.
The Hagi potters make their own clay by combining three local clays called Daido, Mitake and Mishima. The color transformation through staining is calculated by adding or removing just the right amount of sand, which requires an acute sense of judgment and a wealth of experience. “The clay means everything to our pottery”, said Okada Yu, an eighth generation potter of the Seiunzan Okada Kiln. Okada-san is one of Japan’s most sought after Hagi tea-ware makers.
Hagi-ware is mostly plain in appearance, but many potters show their originality in the foot of their tea bowls by boldly making cuts into them or leaving finger marks. While there are several theories as to the origins of the notched foot, tea aficionados pay considerable attention and relish this feature of Hagiyaki. The potters show much restraint in the shape and glazed surface of the bowl but the foot is where they can show their originality. It is fascinating that a seemingly marring act of cutting the foot is employed by the potter to show their creativity and is in turn appreciated by their fans.
Contemporary Hagi-ware is not limited to the enjoyment of tea drinkers. The work of Kaneta Masanao of Tenchozan-gama, for example, is very sculptural and brings out the Hagi clay’s chunky and warm texture. Instead of traditional wheel throwing, Kaneta-san shapes his work by slapping the clay with a paddle or a stick and scooping out the inside. The depth of clay is intensified through this unique process and his work is extremely popular internationally.
How Hagiyaki came about and evolved shows the developmental arc in the history of Japanese tea ceremony and its fascination to the waring feudal lords. It began as a cosmopolitan art form enjoyed by the ruling elites and has today become a much-loved icon of a unique wabi aesthetic, namely simplicity, rustic elegance, and witnessing beauty in the gentle deterioration and passage of time through use.