The craft of Bizen ware is more than clay—it is a primal union of man and nature. In this series, we explore how different families have passed down “the way of Bizen,” and how the craft has evolved through generations.
As a youth in Kurashiki, a city sitting on the Takahashi River, Bifu Kimura felt called by the sea. He was drawn to the ebbs and flows of the tide, the promise of grand adventure, the calm between the crests of the waves. Instead Bifu found solace in the stillness of pottery.
In the early 1970s, Bifu ventured to the pottery village of Inbe where he befriended the Kimura family, one of the six Bizen families designated as honorable craftsmen (shokunin). From the Kimura family patriarch, Bifu learned “the spirit of the shokunin”: a meticulous attention to detail, the pursuit of perfection, and a commitment to do his best work for the community.
For years, his work consisted of daily practice and persistence, learning as much about the shokunin spirit as the ceramics process itself. He came to realize that each singular object created was the culmination of a whole village’s efforts—that the community all worked together towards one purpose. In Inbe, the artist and community are deeply connected; each person has their own part to play; the community takes turns gathering firewood for the kiln, foraging for clay, feeding and monitoring the fire day and night. Even the fire has a role—the sweeping flames and melting ashes bring forth the natural colors and tones of classic Bizen ware.
Bifu eventually married into the Kimura family, becoming the 9th generation in the storied lineage. The Kimura patriarch bestowed upon him the artist name “soft wind,” an ode to the simple pleasure of a gentle breeze. Bifu's moniker informs each piece he creates. “I want to meet the meaning behind my name,” he says, “I want everyone who uses my cups to feel joy.”
Every day, for some 12 hours at the wheel, he loses himself in the details of his pottery. Bifu shapes hundreds of tea sets, sake sets, vases and tableware; a photo of his wife watches over him. The physicality of producing Bizen-yaki is demanding and can take a toll on those who pursue the craft—the repetitive process becoming a way of life. At the close of each day, Bifu inspects his work meticulously. He scrutinizes every shape for slight imperfections, looking for hints of the human hand in his work.
For a trying art like Bizen-yaki, dedication is a necessity.
Bifu spends weeks just selecting and digging up iron-rich clay from rice fields, which then must be dried, sorted and mixed by hand and filtered through a sieve. This process is tedious and time-consuming, but necessary to develop clay of the right consistency and to achieve the right earthen-hue. Clay with more grog, or clay mixed with brick or fired clay ground into a powder, is used to shape vases and clay of a smoother texture is used for tableware. In all, from clay to finish, the process can take decades.
The Kimura firing begins in the Spring; thousands of greenware pieces are stacked neatly onto shelves in the noborigama kiln. Bifu places each piece with painstaking deliberation. He says, “every cup, bowl, or vase has an attitude and must be cherished individually. Each piece—with its subtle nuances of material and shape—speaks to me and tells me where they should be placed during the firing.” While most potters duly require pyrometers and clay rings to determine the appropriate temperatures, Bifu can simply look at the color of the vessels to know what the fire demands.
Still, Bifu—true to his name—knows there is only so much he can control.
Every year, after weeks of firing, he is still nervous, just as he was decades ago. “The conditions—weather, clay consistency, fire, kiln placements—are always different and unknown. There are no guarantees,” he says.
Almost 50 years have passed since Bifu first settled in Inbe. He still celebrates each piece and each unpredictable journey from earth to fire, taking a special joy knowing that more than 200,000 of his pieces now scattered far across the world. He now directs the Kimura family shop, Studio Kibido with his daughter, Mizuho, and son-in-law, Yosuke, who represent the 10th generation and future of Kimura family Bizen potters.
“I think tradition is so wonderful. It's not always good to stick to it, but it’s something we should protect,” he says.
Mizuho and Yosuke Kimura: Meet the 10th Generation of Kimura Family Potters
Growing up in Bizen as the only child of Bifu Kimura, Mizuho Kimura always knew deep down that she would likely become a potter. Yet when she left Bizen for college, she never imagined that she would fall in love with a young structural designer in New York City. After her studies, she and her new husband, Yosuke, returned to Bizen to work side by side with her father at Studio Kibido.
While Mizuho’s studies in fine arts helped her balance refined forms with coarse Bizen ware textures, the precise lines and perfect shapes that guided Yosuke’s previous career were at times in direct opposition to the imperfect beauty of Bizenware. “Even perfectly shaped pieces on the wheel almost never turn out perfect when they come out of the kiln,” says Yosuke. “Not only are they warped and deformed, but they lack soul.” From Bifu, Yosuke learned the innate beauty within the imperfect—how crude unevenness and seeming deformities could balance the simplicity of a piece. Drawing on his engineering background, he experimented with different materials and clay recipes to create soaring towers and new forms, seeking to bring a sense of modernity to traditional Bizen practices.
Today, the three potters work together at Studio Kibido, with Bifu at the helm.
Clay Coloring Techniques
Compiled by Studio Kibido
Bizen potters use no glaze, no chemicals, or artificial colors on their pieces. Instead, the colors are produced naturally inside the kiln during the firing process. While the precise designs can not be guaranteed, specific techniques can help produce the desired result.
When pine ashes melt in the high heat, they create a natural ash glaze on the vessel’s surface which looks as if it were covered with sesame seeds.
When a piece comes in contact with burning embers gets partially burned in ashes, it gets only indirect fire and poor air circulation, causing reduction firing. It creates a variety of colors on the clay’s surface.
Korogashi is a piece that is laid on its side on the ground inside the kiln supported by a few pieces of fire clay. (Fire clays are refractory clays used in the manufacture of ceramics, especially fire brick.) It often gets completely buried in the ashes, creating predominantly grayish colors and rough textures. The spots from the fire clay leave distinctive marks.
Pieces are wrapped in straw and often placed into saggars prior to firing. During the firing process, the straw burns away, leaving a reddish orange streak on the surface of the vessel.
When a small piece of refractory fire clay is placed on a plate or bowl during the firing, the small spot leaves an unfired reddish orange mark. This is called “Botamochi”