Bizen, Japan: A Primal Union of Man, Earth, and Fire - Imprint -

Bizen, Japan: A Primal Union of Man, Earth, and Fire

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. 

A piece of Bizen ware is man, earth, and fire embodied. It is rugged like the land, kissed by flame and ash, and born of traditions rediscovered and passed down through generations. It is at its core a pure human trust in nature.

Bizen ware is traditionally from Inbe, a small village facing the Katakami Bay in the Bizen Province in the Okayama prefecture. Nestled amongst bright red maple trees and towering pines, the village tucks snugly into the base of the mountains; on the south end of town trains chug lazily through the station six times a day. The soil of the region is stained umber with sticky, iron-rich earth—it is a village born of clay, built by clay, and that lives by clay. The Bizen province is one of the six Ancient Kilns of Japan; in the 15th century the beauty of its clay craft cleared battlefields when feudal lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi declared the area a no-war zone. Still, this decree provided no protection from capriciousness of time, and in the Edo period, Bizen ware and the demand for it fell out of vogue; in the Meiji period the kilns shifted to producing pipes and bricks (objects of more practicality); during World War I, the clay craft was even briefly commissioned for hand weapons by the military, a somber stain on the region’s history. 

 Traditional Bizenware 

After the war, a young saikumono statue maker named Toyo Kaneshige, in search of techniques for making teaware, unearthed the ancient Momoyama Bizen methods of his ancestors. Through meticulous trial and error, he revived the Momoyama techniques of processing clay, building kilns, and firing clay, revitalizing the Bizen craft for a modern age.

To this day, the craft of Bizen-yaki permeates almost every aspect of life in Bizen from storage vessels and municipal works to tea ware and art sculptures. Red brick chimneys and Bizen-yaki roof tiles dot the old town landscape; there are 400 potters and studios in Inbe alone.

A chimney smokes in Inbe

Of the few hundred potters, some, like Jumpei Kaneshige and his cousins, are direct descendants of the legendary Toyo Kaneshige; others, like Bifu Kimura, have married into other storied Bizen clans. There are also the mavericks, like Kazuya Ishida, a second-generation potter that mixes British techniques into his work.

Kiln Charcoal
Broken shards of Bizen ware 

The process of creating Bizen-ware is painstaking and laborious. Potters harvest mountain clay (yamatsuchi) or bottom-of-the-rice-field clay (hiyose), then transport it to the workshops to inspect for pebbles and impurities. The clay’s pliable consistency molds particularly well under the fingers, but also causes it to shrink from the heat of the kiln, making it typically unsuitable for glazing. The harvested clay is left to age for weeks to years; the dried clay is then crushed into pieces, soaked again in water, and kneaded by foot or machine. As the potters continue to craft their wares through the year, the greenware sits idle until the twice-yearly spring or autumn (weather-permitting) firing, the final culmination of months of work.

Most of the firing takes place in wood-fired traditional noborigama (登り窯) climbing kilns built with various chambers along a slope or anagama (穴窯) single-chamber cave kilns . The kilns are fed with oil-rich Okayama red pines from Akamatsu, suitable for the high temperatures (up to 1250 celsius) demanded. A single firing takes more than 20 truckloads (approximately 4000 pieces) of firewood.

Just the loading of the kiln takes two weeks; the potters meticulously consider the placement of their pieces in the kiln as the finish is determined by how the flames and ashes flow and fall around the vessels. The fires require constant tending—during the firing process, firewood is added by hand at regular intervals, day and night. Each potter harnesses the flames and ashes in their own way: too much air, too little ash, or not enough heat—each aspect affects the final color and patterning.

Kiln Doors
nobirigama climbing kiln sits empty 

Some wrap their pieces in rice straw hidasuki (火襷)—when the straw burns away, it softly scorches the clay with dark calligraphic strokes. Others coax the ashes to fall around the pieces, spotting the clay with a tiny sesame seed goma “glaze” (胡麻). A technique specific to Bizen is adding bits of broken charcoal through a side-stoke opening, further deepening the resulting colors and textures. No matter the method, the true beauty of Bizen ware is what is left up to fate. 

Kiln View
Bizen pieces stacked against a noborigama kiln  

Ten days after the loading—the time can vary depending on the kiln and temperatures—the earth is reborn from the ashes as Bizen ware.

The opening of the kiln is a moment that, for some potters, even after lifetimes of practice, is not any less fraught. Jumpei Kaneshige says, “Loading is full of hope. Unloading is a lot of anxiety.” Other potters approach with less apprehension—accustomed to the process, they open the kilns with stoic calm and without expectations.

The entire process is unpredictable and in many ways a leap of faith—the potters take the clay as far as they can, then cede their trust back to the elements. Before each firing, a small blessing of sake, rice, and salt is offered; a quiet prayer is murmured; after a brief silence, the kiln is lit. The ritual is a moment of reverence and hope for a good firing. By a simple stroke of bad luck, a year’s worth of work could end in broken shards; if the spirits smile down, it could unveil happy accidents and unexpected beauty.

Bizen ware details 

It is easy to see why Bizen pottery has been beloved for almost a millennium. Despite the widespread reverence, a common worry among the potters today is yet another decline of the craft. They fear they are an endangered species, that they will soon become obsolete; they wonder how the craft will live on, how it might evolve while still staying true to the spirit of Bizen, and who among their descendants will choose to pick up their mantles. And they hope that their craft will continue to further cross oceans and borders, bringing a bit of Bizen to homes and hands far away.