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Fire in the cave

A visit to the Ooshio Shoujin Kiln, Nara

The pottery of Nara City and its surrounding towns, so-called Akahada ware, is a very old traditional craft. Thanks to its unique soft, milky white glaze with a hint of red, along with the simple, cute ‘Nara-e’ drawings, Akahada ware has recently become very popular. We take a look at one of the many Akahada kilns, the Ooshio Shoujin Kiln, run by Masami Ooshio, who is the 9th generation to do so.

Masami Ooshio, is the 9th generation head of the Akahada Ooshio Shoujin Kiln. Born in 1962, he has the experience that comes from a lifetime of working with clay and the knowledge gained from previous generations. In addition to ceramics, he has an interest in the arts as well as the ability to converse with the visitors on any number of topics. His hobby is marathon running, something he started when he turned 50 years.

A framed piece of calligraphy reads: Mt. Akahada. It hangs over the entrance to the main building, written by the Sinologist (specialist in Chinese language, literature, history) Teranishi Ekido who was active during the end of the Edo and start of the Meiji Periods. History and tradition can be seen everywhere.

Clay from Mount Akahada

In a bamboo grove on the slopes of Mt. Akahada a hole has been dug to check on the condition of the clay. There is one specific strata of clay that is being looked for, one with a high iron content, which creates a distinctive red clay. This clay gives rise to a distinctive reddish brown colour when fired as an unglazed piece. If you dig a small hole you will undoubtedly find shards of broken pottery, a sign of the pottery activity here since ancient times.There are currently a number of areas where clay is collected, each with its own characteristic. It takes around six months to a year to allow the clay to mature and develop the viscosity required to be used for pottery.

A large amount of clay is piled up at the entrance to the workshop. On the right is the Akahada clay.
A climbing kiln is situated on the slopes of the grounds. It will be lit and fired as often as four times a year.

No compromise on the clay, fire or glaze

An anagama {cave kiln in Japanese} is an ancient type of pottery kiln brought to Japan from China via Korea in the 5th century. It consists of a firing chamber with a firebox at one end and a flue at the other. Although the term ‘firebox’ is used to describe the space for the fire, there is no actual structure separating the place for stoking from the pottery space. The kiln is fuelled with firewood, and needs a constant supply of fuel for the firing, as wood thrown into the hot kiln burns very rapidly. Stoking occurs round the clock. Burning wood not only produces heat of up to 1400°C (2,500 °F), it also produces fly ash and volatile salts.

 Wood ash settles on the pieces during the firing, and the complex interaction between flame, ash, and the minerals of the clay body forms a natural ash glaze. This glaze may show great variation in colour, texture, and thickness, ranging from smooth and glossy to rough and sharp. The placement of pieces in the kiln really affects the pottery’s appearance, as pieces closer to the firebox may receive heavy coats of ash, or even be immersed in embers, while others deeper in the kiln may only be touched softly by ash effects. The length of the firing depends on the volume of the kiln and may take anywhere from 48 hours to 12 or more days. The kiln generally takes the same amount of time to cool down.

The next generation, Mr. Masaki Ooshio sits at the potters' wheel. In order to continue the family kiln, as well as his studies in ceramics, he is undertaking a course in the 'Succession of traditional industrial techniques' at a college in Kyoto.

Red pine firewood

The siting for the kiln in this area of Mt. Akahada was chosen not just for the clay quality, but also for the presence of plenty of red pine. This is the ideal fuel for a wood fired kiln due to the high resin content. On site there are many piles of firewood at various stages of drying out, from freshly cut to completely dry. The piece that is used is the core section, the heart wood that has a very high calorific value. The external section is not used. 

The process takes several years to dry out, then another 3 years after splitting before it can be used.

The ideal fuel is red pine.

A particular ash glaze

The distinctive Akahada ware glaze is an opaque milky white created using the ash of straw and wood mixed with feldspar powder. Straw and wood ash are soaked in water for up to two weeks before being dried out in the sun — a time consuming process. There are few kilns that go to the same lengths to create all their own materials in this way.

The finished glaze. The colour depends on the amount and quality of each ingredient.

Gallery at Ooshio Shoujin Kiln

There are a great number of pieces all lined up in the gallery. The kiln has a very particular approach to the collection and preparation of all of the materials, which adds to the traditional Akahada character. Here we will look at just a tiny number of their wares.

The gallery features a sunken hearth in the centre of the room. There are a number of pieces including jars, large and small plates, all of which can be purchased at the gallery. Displayed at the entrance is a torch made of pine (taimatsu), used at the water drawing ceremony at Todaiji.

Bonsai pots from the Shoujin Kiln

This isn’t the first time that the Shoujin kiln has created bonsai pots. The current generation’s grandfather, the 7th generation Shoujin, was a bonsai enthusiast and he made small pots for his own personal use. Currently there are only a few left at the kiln and not many were made so it is unusual to see them in the marketplace.

The appeal of Nara-e

Nara-e is one of the appealing features of Akahada ware. Images symbolic of Nara are features, such as the shrines and temples of Kasugayama, deer and birds. The inspiration comes from an old Edo period manuscript known as the ‘Nara Picture Book’. The images are subtle, with subdued colours and have an elegant and graceful quality that really stand out on top of the warm white glaze. It is not just the traditional designs that feature, but alongside them new motifs are introduced. If desired, it is possible to commission certain pictures.

The master who paints the Nara-e pictures for the Shoujin kiln is Mrs Chikako Nakagawa. All pictures are hand painted, with the outline in black after which is added the red, green, blue, and white paints, one colour after the other. ‘A humble picture that doesn’t get in the way of the pot, is the key’

1300 years of history, clay from the east tower of Yakushi-ji temple

Yakushi-ji is one of the most famous imperial and ancient Buddhist temples in Japan, inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site under the name of ‘Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara’ and was once one of the Seven Great Temples of Nanto, located in Nara. The temple is the headquarters of the Hosso school of Japanese Buddhism. The temple’s main object of veneration, Yakushi Nyorai, also known as ‘The Medicine Buddha’, was one of the first Buddhist Deities to arrive in Japan from China in 680 and gives the temple its name.

The clay extracted from the foundations of the east tower of Yakushiji temple when it was renovated is very highly prized and was entrusted to the Ooshio Shoujin kiln. Head abbot of Yakushiji, Mr Chouin Kato, said ‘As a result of the archaeological dig in the foundations, it is impossible to return them to their original condition, though they were found to be in excellent condition. If the clay that was dug out is disposed of it simply becomes soil. If it is used, it then connects us back to the Hakuho period (645 – 710CE), giving us over a thousand years of history.’ The new bonsai pot we introduce here is made from that important clay, which connects the Hakuho period with the future, breathing new life into the clay.

From 2009 to 2021 the east pagoda was repaired for the first time in 110 years, during which time the foundation stones were inspected (photograph taken on 28th February 2015). All the soil taken from around the foundation could not be returned and so it was distributed to kilns close to the temple.

The east tower at Yakushiji is the only original 8th century structure at Yakushi-ji. The structure stands at 34 metres, and is regarded as one of the finest pagodas in Japan. Over the 1300 year history of the Yakushiji temple it has been damaged by fire, earth quake and typhoons, but it remains as the oldest building on the site.

Yakushii clay pot

The pot shown here came about because of a Satsuki exhibition held close to the Yakushiji temple that was organised by a professional who asked the Shoujin kiln to create some pots as a memento. Three or four years ago, the Nara-based enthusiast Mr Saeki Yu managed to get some of those pots and showed them to the Tokyo-based professional, Mr Eimoto Yu who was interested immediately. After that Mr Eimoto visited the kiln twice to discuss with them the possibilities. As discussions progressed Mr Eimoto wanted to create a piece that would go down in history and so this high quality pot made from special Yakushii clay, painted with traditional Nara-e motifs, was created.

Clay given to the Shoujin kiln In order to connect the present to the Hakuho period and give life to the clay, it was entrusted to them from Yakushiji. It is not ideal clay for making pots as it lacks flexibility and it creates pieces that break more easily than others. ‘But compared with other clay, it is interesting and makes unique pieces,’ says Mr. Ooshio.

From the left, Mr Masami Ooshio, the enthusiast Mr Saeki and Mr Eimoto. The enthusiasm for this idea from Mr Eimoto captured the interest of Mr Saeki. On the table we can see exposed root Azaleas planted in Akahada pots.
Satsuki 'Yata no Kagami” Height 54 cm Pot: Shoujin Nara-e round.

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