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2001 Newsletter Archive



                   Written by Robert Yellin

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June 2001


New Living Nat'l Treasure; Yakishime

Hello everyone and I hope this finds you all well - hopefully with a cool bizen mug full of beer. Or then for some a Hagi yunomi full of cold mugicha (barley tea).

A bit of news here last week - it has been three years since a new tougeika (potter) was named a Living National Treasure and last week that dry spell ended. The powers that be selected Yoshida Minori for yuri-kinsai (underglaze gold decoration) and Sakaida Kakiemon XlV for iro-e jiki (overglaze enamel decorative porcelain).

Yoshida (1932 -) is a third generation Kutani master potter of the Kinzan-gama (kiln). The Ishikawa Prefecture has already designated him a Prefectural Intangible Property and now he can claim the whole land as well.

Yuri-kinsai was termed in the 1950s as a new glazing technique. The main feature is a highly transparent overglaze on the gilded porcelain. Yoshida cuts out stencils of gold foil for his underglaze decorations. He also works in kinrande (overglaze gold decoration). Keep an eye out for his son Yukio's work as well - a personal favorite of mine.

Sakaida (1934 -) is the fourteenth generation in his illustrious family line. Kakiemon porcelain is treasured the world over and the technique itself, nigoshi-te (milk-white porcelain) was designated an Intangible Cultural Property in 1955. Now the fourteenth generation Kakiemon is linking hands with all his ancestors.

Before getting started, let me share a poem by Chinese poet Lao Tzu (Roshi, Sixth century, B.C.)

Pots are made out of clay
But the hollow space in them makes the essence of the pot
And the essence comes from an intangible something
In the spirit of the potter
Which he is able to blend into all this knowledge of the throwing,
The glazing, and the firing
So that every piece from his hand
is as much his own signature and his heartbeat
Only then will the pot be good, that is alive
And the more highly developed a potter is as a human being,
the better his pot
For there is no real beauty without character

This poem is very much in the spirit of Zen and a yakishime (ya-key-she-may) pot embodies that spirit more than any other type of Japanese pottery. Yet the yakishime aesthetic is sometimes hard to grasp for the visitor to Japan, or for that matter, to many Japanese as well. It takes a while to recognize a good yakishime pot from a mediocre one but the effort is well worth it. What is yakishime anyway?

Yakishime refers to high-fired unglazed stonewares. Famous examples of yakishime are Bizen from Okayama, Shigaraki from Shiga, Echizen from Fukui, Iga from Mie, Tokoname from Aichi, and Tamba from Hyogo.

The key elements are firing, clay, and form. Basically two types of kilns are used: (1) Anagama or single chamber tunnel kiln and (2) Noborigama or multi-chambered climbing kiln. Temperatures can reach 1350 celsius (one Echizen potter pushes his kiln to 1500 degrees) and a kiln can be fired for up to sixty days.

Clay, like rice for sake, dictates the 'flavor' of the pot - this is termed 'tsuchi-aji' or literally clay flavor. In a yakishime pot tsuchi-aji is very important.

Like sake rice, many of the impurities of the clay are removed. Some potters, however, like a rougher clay and leave in small stones that sometimes burst out on the surface during firing - called ishihaze.

After forming a piece on a wheel or by a coil method the pieces are then loaded into the kiln - this is called kamazume. The potter controls about 85% of the process but other factors beyond control, like weather, wood-condition, and kiln atmosphere are left to the kama no kami or kiln god.

1) Has been well fired and not amai or underfired.
2) Has pleasing keshiki or landscapes
3) It 'speaks' to the viewer.
4) Well-formed in balance (meaning weight), proportions, footring, and lip

Another Poem -- 'The Clay Jug' by Kabir (1398-1518)
Inside the clay jug are canyons and pine mountains,
And the maker of canyons and pine mountains!
All seven oceans are inside, and hundreds of millions of stars.
The acid that tests gold is there and the one who judges jewels.
And the music from the strings that no one touches, and the source
Of all water.
If you want the truth, I will tell you the truth;
Friend, listen: The God whom I love is inside.

Please see for images of yakishime pots and about keshiki. Just type the word yakishime in the search box. Also, if you ever have any questions or comments about Japanese pottery do let me know. As always, thank you for your interest and until the next time I send a deep bow from Japan.

Robert Yellin
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Copyright 2001

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