Mashiko pottery: Beauty forged by fire

Mashiko pottery: Beauty forged by fire

Whether you like to throw your own or just collect, Japan’s ceramics capital is a must-see
Mashiko pottery
Don't save it for the kitchen: Pottery isn't just dishes these days. Clay cats await a new home in Mashiko.

If you’ve been to Japan you’ll know that ceramics are a Big Deal in the country -- from tiny teacups the size of a thimble to ornate religious artifacts, the whole world of baked, glazed earthenware is here.

And at the top of the heap is the town of Mashiko in Tochigi Prefecture.

From its Edo era roots as a manufacturing region for quotidian kitchen items to its more modern incarnation as a haven for creatives and folk-craft artisans, the town is built literally and figuratively on its pottery-perfect clay foundation.

History pieces

Mashiko potteryCan't you just imagine eating your morning tamago-gohan and pickles off these?

Although pottery pieces have been found in Mashiko that date back to the Jomon Period (14,000-600 B.C.), modern Mashiko pottery, known as mashikoyaki, begins in the early 1850s when a potter from nearby Kasama named Keizaburo Otsuka noted the quality of the clay and decided to set up a kiln.

With a large demand for everyday cooking items in nearby Tokyo, Otsuka was able to expand his workshop and raise a stable of skilled potters. He soon became one of the leading pottery producers in the country.

In 1924, Shoji Hamada, a potter later recognized by the Japanese government as a Living National Treasure, came to Mashiko and set up a workshop.

With the philosophy that there was beauty in utilitarian objects, Hamada began promoting the folk art movement (“mingei”) among the craftsmen in Mashiko.

Gradually, the pottery produced there came to be seen as works of art, not just functional pieces, and Mashiko was transformed from a manufacturing center to an enclave for art and traditional craftwork that has allowed it to flourish in the modern age.

How it works

Mashiko clay is dug from the mountains near the city then mixed with water in tanks to separate out the larger sediment. The creamy top layer has just the right plasticity for pottery making -- soft enough for molding, but firm enough to withstand the firing process.

When the time comes to craft something from the clay, the first step is to knead it to expel any air bubbles or other particles that can cause cracks during the firing and to give it a smooth, even consistency for the wheel.

Mashiko potteryRacks of ceramics waiting to get a little color in their lives.

Next, the clay can be molded, termed “throwing,” and the finished pieces left to dry before biscuit firing, a preliminary firing process that heats the pieces to between 600 and 800 C.

After that stage, the pieces can be decorated or glazed. Mashiko is particularly famous for a reddish glaze made from a local stone called Ashinuma.

When fired, the texture and color is reminiscent of persimmon seeds, so it became known as a kaki, or persimmon, glaze.

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There are also lovely celadon green and opalescent white glazes made from the ashes of local rice husks.

The final step is to fire the pottery. Many of the workshops in Mashiko still use traditional, wood-fired climbing kilns called noborigama, which have several chambers that ascend a steep incline.

The temperature inside can reach up to 1,300 C, so the pottery must be left to cool for a full two days before it can finally be removed and declared finished.

Trying and buying

Mashiko potteryBe sure to trim your nails before or you'll be digging clay out for days.

Traditionally in Japan, craftspeople were born into their professions, but Mashiko has long had a reputation as an open and educational community where experts and complete novices alike are welcome.

Many of the workshops offer pottery lessons to anyone willing to get their hands dirty -- and pay a small fee, naturally.

Studio Fuwari offers lessons in English, and the Mashiko Tourism Board has compiled a complete list of vendors if you can get by in Japanese.

If you plan to take part, you may want to wear some old clothes. The clay washes out fairly easily, but it does tend to get pretty messy at the potter's wheel.

If you'd rather leave the crafting to the experts, shops to pick up some functional ceramics or one-of-a-kind art pieces abound.

You can start on Jonai-zaka Street, where many of them are clustered, and work your way out from there.

The best time to visit if you are thinking of buying is during one of the biannual pottery fairs, where in addition to the 50 or so bricks-and-mortar stores, local artisans and farmers gather beneath 500 tents to sell their wares at discounted prices.

There are also frequent civic festivals, such as the next on November 19 and 20, so start saving your yen now and take home something beautiful.

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Getting there: The easiest way to get to Mashiko from Tokyo is to take the JR Utsunomiya line from Ueno to Utsunomiya. Transfer to a Toya bus bound for Mashiko at bus stop 14 outside the west exit (¥2,990/160 mins).

A faster but more expensive route is to take the Shinkansen from Ueno to Oyama, transfer to the Mito Line to Shimodate and then take the Moka Tetsudo to Mashiko (¥4,460 reserved, ¥4,150 unreserved/145 mins).