Bizen pottery, along with the pottery of the Seto, Tokoname, Tanba, Echizen and Shigaraki regions is one of the six potteries of the Middle Ages. It is one of the oldest school of potteries in Japan. During the Muromachi era, Bizen pottery has brought about the admiration of many tea masters, resulting in the creation of many renowned tea utensils. During the Edo era, under the patronage of IKEDA Mitsumasa, the head of the Bizen Clan, Bizen pottery became renowned throughout the entire nation. From then on, Bizen pottery's place in history was assured. For more than 1,000 years, the tradition of Bizen pottery has continued uninterrupted, as has the smoke from the kilns.
The quiet atmosphere and subdued colors of Bizen pottery perfectly complement brightly colored flowers and food enticing the user to create a harmonious arrangement. Water preserving qualities allow flowers to last longer in Bizen vases; beer attains a wonderfully full head in Bizen cups. The color and texture of Bizen ware improve when handled. When used daily, the user can take pleasure in its increasing beauty. In this way even a small and simple article will, with time, become a treasured object.
The secret lies in the unique firing process. Thousands of pieces of pottery are loaded into several chambers of 'Noborigama', traditioanl style climbing kiln built on a slope.
It typically takes 8 to 20 days of nonstop firing to complete, reaching the maximum temperature of 2,350 degrees Farenheit. Up to 20,000 pounds (10 tons) or more of locally grown red pinewood are used to fuel the firing. This firing process combined with superior local clay brings out the rich, vibrant colors and unique individuality in each piece of Bizen pottery.
Bizen pottery uses no glaze, no chemicals and no arificial coloring. All colors are produced naturally inside the kiln during its firing. While the exact colors and patterns cannot be predicted, employment of different techniques and careful placement of each piece help to create the desired effects:
'胡麻 (GOMA)' - When pine ashes melt in the high heat, they create an ash glaze on the surface of a piece which looks as if it were covered with sesame seeds (goma). Many goma pieces are placed on the shelves near the fire, and they get covered with plenty of ash. When the ashes run on the surface of a piece, it is called “Tamadare”.
'桟切り (SANGIRI)' - When a piece comes in contact with burning embers and gets partially buried in the ashes, it gets only indirect fire and poor air circulation, causing reduction firing. It creates a wide array of beautiful colors on the surface.
'転がし (KOROGASHI)' - ‘Korogashi’ is a piece that is laid on its side on the ground inside the kiln supported by a few pieces of fire clay. It often gets completely buried in the ashes, creating predominantly grayish colors and rough textures. The spots from the fire clay leave distinctive marks. Due to the close proximity to the pine wood being thrown into the kiln during firing, it is often difficult to preserve the integrity of the piece.
'牡丹餅 (BOTAMOCHI)' - When a small piece of clay is placed on a plate or bowl during firing, the small spot leaves an unfired reddish orange spot. This is called ‘Botamochi’.