19 December 2023
Discovering the Art of Bizen Ware: A Journey Through Hozan Kiln's Legacy
The day after the kiln opening, we revisited Mori Toshiaki at Hozan Kiln. Surrounded by a multitude of freshly fired ceramics, I asked if the previous day had stretched late into the night. Mori greeted us with a smile, "Not at all."
Inside the newly refurbished gallery of Hozan Kiln, Mori's exquisite pieces adorned every corner, sparking a conversation about the art of Bizen ware.
- At Hozan Kiln Gallery
- As a Successor of Bizen Ware - New Challenge
- The Charm of Bizen Ware
- Bizen Ware Trail
- Personal Shopping Time
At Hozan Kiln Gallery
Hozan Kiln's gallery is a testament to the artistic legacy of Mori Toshiaki and his father, Yasushi. One corner is devoted to their signature works - large pots, vases, and treasure jars with meticulous craftsmanship. Adjacent are items designed for everyday use: cups with thin rims for easy drinking, flat plates popular in restaurants, and ergonomic tea bowls and donburi. Interspersed are items with whimsical touches, like chopstick rests shaped like humorous fish and playfully wobbling sake cups, showcasing the versatility and depth of Hozan Kiln.
Mori shared the gallery's history, "This modern building was constructed around 1975, in the Showa 50s. It has undergone several renovations, with the most recent one being about three years ago, just before the pandemic."
Entering the gallery, a display shelf from the late Edo period immediately catches the eye. "This shelf can be seen in old photos and films from around the Showa era (1926 – 1989). It used to be near the front window," Mori notes. "During the renovation, it was decided to place the shelf in a spot where it would be more visible and accessible to visitors, rather than within a window display."
When asked about the use of such an old shelf in everyday operations, Mori replied with a smile, "You'll understand once you visit places like the Kita-Ogama ruins. Old things are so common here that they don't seem rare to us." He also mentioned that visitors, especially those studying folklore from other prefectures, often express concern about the condition of these artifacts. "But for Bizen ware, with its long history, it's a typical story," he added. Mori, prioritizing practical use over preservation, explained, "This shelf needs to be used rather than just stored away." This approach reflects Mori's sensibility, where the new and old naturally blend throughout the gallery.
As a Successor of Bizen Ware - New Challenge
Bizen ware, steeped in an 800-year history, is unique even among Japanese ceramics. Mori's lineage, in particular, is directly descended from the six families known as the Bizen-Yaki Rokusei. These families were specially authorized and encouraged to produce Bizen ware by the Bizen feudal lord, Ikeda. One might imagine the weight of carrying such a historic name, yet Mori's manner of speaking and thinking is remarkably flexible and nimble. This became apparent during the interview, reflecting his journey up to this point.
Interestingly, Mori didn't choose to study Bizen ware or pottery in college, but instead focused on cultural properties and museum curatorship. "I had the opportunity to learn about the situation of traditional Japanese crafts at that time. Being born into a family of kiln owners, I thought it would be better to study ways to benefit the pottery industry and how to showcase Bizen ware to wider audiences," he explained.
About ten years ago, Mori traversed America, creating and exhibiting his pottery. He traveled to various pottery-related locations. "I first visited studios attached to galleries on the West Coast, explored Native American pottery, and eventually fired my own pieces at two locations before holding an exhibition in New York," Mori recounted.
He mentioned that until then, there hadn't been many opportunities to exhibit Bizen ware overseas. "There were some prominent masters and avant-garde artists who received invitations to exhibit, but it wasn't common for others like us to go and present works in foreign countries."
When asked about the increase in international expansion, Mori said, "During my trip across America, there wasn't much focus on the overseas market, but now there's a growing interest. My Bizen ware colleagues who traveled with me at the time are also actively approaching international customers nowadays."
In fact, an international film crew attended the kiln unloading the day before. Mori also mentioned that kiln firings and unloading are often open to the public. "It's important for people to see and really feel what the production process is like. Nowadays, you can view things online and gather information, but having a tangible experience is incredibly valuable," he emphasized.
Through Mori's challenges and initiatives, the charm of Bizen ware has expanded beyond Japan to people all around the world.
The Charm of Bizen Ware
Bizen ware, known for its distinctive texture and tactile quality, achieves its unique aesthetic by forgoing glaze and undergoing a single, high-temperature firing process, exuding a raw, primitive allure. Despite this, it retains a refined elegance, far removed from any semblance of roughness.
When asked about the allure of Bizen ware to him personally, Mori said, "The beauty lies in its creation alongside nature. We gather natural clay, prepare it by hand, and shape each piece before kiln-firing. Although we control the fire, not everything is within our power. This unpredictability and the uniqueness of each piece are what make it fascinating. Even when crafted similarly, the way ash flows and patterns form is always different. We're always delivering one-of-a-kind pieces to our customers."
Moreover, the clay used varies in composition among the Bizen ware kilns. "We use clay from an area spanning about 10 km (about 6.2 miles) east to west and 3 - 5 km (about 1.9 - 3.1 miles) north to south in Bizen city. The surrounding mountains, rich in clay, contribute to the unique soil layer that forms the clay for Bizen ware."
"Each kiln has its method for preparing the raw clay, which often contains stones and grass. For example, at my kiln, we dry the clay, crush it into powder, and then sift it to remove the stones."
Bizen ware, handcrafted using the abundant resources nurtured in a region blessed with a mild climate all year round, benefited greatly from its advantageous location in the Imbe area. In ancient times, this allowed for efficient transportation to Kyoto and Osaka via land and water, contributing to its prominence as a major pottery production center. Bizen ware is indeed a miraculous creation, a product of the perfect convergence of various elements.
Bizen Ware Trail
Lastly, Mori guided us around the Hozan Kiln area, rich in Bizen ware heritage. Though initially planned as just an interview, Mori offered a leisurely tour of local shrines and ancient kiln sites.
A shrine dedicated to Bizen ware, even its approach and kawara, roof tiles, are made of it. To the left of the pathway facing away from the road, ceramic plaques by Bizen ware artists line the path, each identifiable by Mori.
Hozan Kiln's ceramic plaque.
Exploring for ceramic representations of the twelve zodiac animals scattered around is a fun activity.
One of Amatsu Shrine's specialties is its votive plaques, made from Bizen ware. Interestingly, the previous head priest was a researcher of Bizen ware, and Mori sometimes references his books.
Statues of the Seven Lucky Gods were found at the back of the shrine grounds.
Situated between Amatsu and Imbe Shrines, this ancient kiln site was known for making large water jars. The kilns were placed on the mountain slope to utilize the natural upward flow of flames, as chimney technology was not yet developed.
Located above Amatsu Shrine, this shrine's talismans, usually attached to kilns when firing, were also gifted by Mori to international potters.
Descending from Imbe Shrine, this kiln was in use until the beginning of the Showa era. It was told that Mori's grandfather participated in its last firing. Kilns with existing arch structures are rare and valuable.
Personal Shopping Time
Back in the gallery, we all spent time as we wished. Art Director Umehara was busy selecting new items for future sale at Musubi Kin, choosing those that fit well with past popular trends. A dedicated collector of Hozan Kiln pieces herself, she also bought some dishes for her home. Photographer Shindo, inspired by the shooting, chose a donburi bowl, imagining a delicious udon dish in it.
I picked out some plates and a beer tumbler to take to the register. Then, Mori shared a tip with us: tilting the beer tumbler and pouring the beer slowly along the rim creates the perfect foam. "This tumbler is very popular with our customers, especially for craft beer lovers," he said. Such pleasant exchanges add a special connection to these items. We all know that behind these beautiful pieces await delicious meals and enjoyable moments.
If you ever visit Japan, we recommend exploring the birthplace of Bizen ware in Okayama. Witness where these beautiful stonewares are created, touch them, and experience their making. With these thoughts in our hearts, we bid farewell to Hozan Kiln gallery.View Hozan Kiln