27 March 2024

Exploring Artistic Kyoto’s Ceramic Culture

As spring began, I made my first business trip to Kyoto with Umehara-san and Shirata-san, members of our merchandising team. The destination was Kyoto, a city with a long and storied history. Since 794, for over a thousand years, it served as the capital and flourished as the center of Japan. Shrines, temples, memorable sites, and traditions of its elegant culture still remain vividly today, captivating people from all over the world.

The primary objective of our trip was to visit the renowned ceramic artisans of Kyoto and experience the unique charm of Kyoto pottery firsthand. Although our visit did not coincide with the cherry blossom season, I felt the arrival of spring in the surrounding environment. For instance, the cherry blossom-themed decorations in the shops along the streets, people seen wearing kimonos in soft colors of spring, and the adorable golden mimosa displayed in flower shops. I was delighted to have this wonderful journey of exploring Kyoto's ceramic culture during such a beautiful season.


  • A Journey to the Kyoto Craft Exhibition
  • Beholding the Birth of Beauty at Touan
  • Enchanted by the Gloss of Raku Ware

A Journey to the Kyoto Craft Exhibition

The organizer of this exhibition, Dialogue Kyoto, believes that crafts, serving as tools that support people's lives and culture, have transcended time and have been carried forward by artisans. They emphasize the importance of not only preserving the techniques of craftspeople but also continuing to incorporate various elements from around the world that extend across different fields to create new art and invigorate the industry. Therefore, in this exhibition, I not only witnessed many traditional forms of artisanal work but also saw numerous innovations in crafting techniques.

The venue for this exhibition was Hotel Kanra Kyoto, a hotel that places great emphasis on incorporating traditional designs cultivated in Kyoto. It blends natural materials such as wood, stone, iron, clay, and greenery to convey the beauty of wabi sabi in the style of a modern interpretation of Kyoto's old machiya townhouses. This concept complemented the theme of the exhibition perfectly. During visits, attendees will not only see outstanding exhibits but also experience the classic ambiance of Kyoto.

Looking out through the hotel window, I could see the renowned Higashi Honganji Temple. The temples, scattered and adorned with golden decorations, made me feel as if I were gazing at a magnificent painting.

Various series of pottery from SINGAMA were placed on a pristine, soft mattress, accentuating the gentle and beautiful blue and white hues of sometsuke. The sometsuke technique involves drawing designs on a white base with gosu, a cobalt oxide pigment, then firing it with a glassy glaze. The indigo hue varies depending on the potter's choice of base material, glaze, and firing method. Special attention is given to selecting the soil, glaze, and gosu to enhance the contrast between white and indigo.

Artisans at SINGAMA focus on creating this striking yet harmonious contrast of white and blue, offering the warm and elegant experience of handcrafting and painting in their everyday lives.

During my visit, I couldn't help but be drawn to a beautifully arranged spot amongst the many exhibited items. Carefully placed on dark-colored pebbles was a furoshiki, a Japanese wrapping cloth, from Yamada Sen-i, adorned with cherry blossoms, on a pink and green fabric. Under the warm yellow lighting, the fabric emitted a gentle, soft glow, making the cherry blossoms appear as if they were blooming under the warm spring sun, coming to life.

At the exhibition, I also encountered a washi brand that beautifully combined traditional Japanese paper with a contemporary aesthetic. They showcased the process of handcrafting washi using age-old techniques. Observing this time-honored manufacturing process felt almost therapeutic. Using molds to imprint  patterns, the washi came in different sizes, designed to be used for various occasions.

This exhibition provided me with the opportunity to witness numerous crafts rooted in Kyoto's heritage, deepening my appreciation for the intricate allure of craftsmanship passed down through generations.

Beholding the Birth of Beauty at Touan

At the exhibition, I encountered many exquisite pieces of porcelain, igniting my curiosity to delve deeper into the processes of porcelain making and painting, as well as exploring the beauty of its creation.

Our next stop was Touan in the Higashiyama District. While this district boasts bustling entertainment areas like Gion and Sanjo, the atmosphere gradually grew quieter as we approached Touan, with a number of ceramic workshops dotting the landscape, further fueling my desire to explore.

The first thing that caught my eye was the workshop's outer wall, constructed from numerous tiles. Touan's name was written in kanji with white brush strokes hanging by the side of the entrance, conveying a simple and rustic atmosphere.

As we entered the workshop, Dobuchi Yoshiaki, the warm-hearted owner, offered us hot tea and led us on a tour. I felt extremely fortunate to be able to see the intricate process of making exquisite porcelain.

The first floor displayed a vast array of completed ceramic products, both in variety and quantity, which was astonishing. Each item on display was flawless, with various colored teacups glistening in the sunlight and lucky cats adorned in diverse colors and patterns, all too beautiful to divert one's gaze from.

Proceeding to the second floor, the scene that unfolded was truly amazing. Many artisans were intently painting designs on the bisque ware with colored brushes, their concentration so intense that I held my breath in awe. Afraid of disturbing them, my breathing became even lighter.

We also visited Dobuchi's gallery, where we saw yohen tenmoku matcha bowls, known for their extremely difficult firing process. They possessed a mysterious beauty, as if one could see the vast expanse of the universe within the small bowl. Everyone was astonished by their beauty.

After visiting Touan's workshop and witnessing the birth of porcelain pieces, I was not only captivated by their beauty but was also deeply moved by each artisan's passion towards their craft.

Enchanted by the Gloss of Raku Ware

Next we visited the Raku ware kiln, Raku Studio Waraku. Raku ware, born in Kyoto, is hand-molded without the use of a potter's wheel, primarily crafted as tea ware for tea ceremonies. Waraku boasts a history of about 180 years.

Upon our arrival, Kawasaki Motoo, the eighth generation, warmly welcomed us and gave us an introduction to Raku ware. As we entered, my eyes were immediately drawn to a red matcha tea bowl with a dragon design displayed on the shelf. Under the gentle afternoon sunlight, the glaze on the surface of the bowl reflected a moist, mild luster that was unforgettable.

Later, Kawasaki served us tea in black Raku and red Raku teacups. Holding the Raku teacup in my hands, I could more tangibly feel its lustrous sheen and gloss. This luster offered a highly smooth yet textured feel, conveying a sense of luxury to the touch.

Kawasaki explained in detail the production process to us and showed us around his workshop. Crossing a small path, we arrived at the workshop, where two artisans were earnestly hand-shaping matcha tea bowls.

Beside us was the kiln currently in use, unassuming in appearance yet fiery red inside, where exquisite teacups were being born.

When the firing was completed, Kawasaki carefully removed the fired teacups from the kiln using metal tongs and placed them aside. Due to the sudden change in temperature, kannyu cracks appeared on the surface, emitting a series of crisp, pleasant, yet subtle crackling sounds, reminiscent of wind chimes in summer. Having just been through the high-temperature firing, the teacups radiated a warm glow, like elves born from flames.

At the end of our journey, we visited Yasaka Shrine, where we saw many foreign tourists dressed in kimonos, as well as devout worshippers. Everyone greatly enjoyed the surprises and emotions that Kyoto, this ancient city, brought us. During this trip, I witnessed the birth process of porcelain's beauty and experienced the allure of Raku ware. This has made me eagerly anticipate future encounters with more traditional crafts.

By Zhao Minyi