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.
Dressed in aged denim overalls and a sleeveless white shirt, Kazuya Ishida hovers over his Shimpo pottery wheel, peering down at a hollow column of wet clay.
He picks up a plastic credit card with serrated edges and drags it slowly upwards from the base of the column until the surface of the clay is fully encircled in unbroken vertical indentations. Setting the wheel in motion, he inserts the whole of his right arm in the column and carefully pushes the clay outwards; the clay stretches and expands outwards—it is a fluid, effortless gesture honed through years of practice. He removes his arm; the wheel careens to a stop. The vessel that emerges is transcendent: sharp, fluid lines trace the exterior; its sweeping curves echo the spiral of a sea shell or windswept lines upon ocean sand.
Kazuya, or “Kaz” as his friends call him, sits back and beams, satisfied. 1990s American hip-hop buzzes softly from the clay-powdered speakers in the corner of his studio—on other days the speakers may be playing J-Pop or sit muted in silence. He sits surrounded by a collection of unusual tools; his playful and experimental spirit on full display. Some are self-made, like the credit card razor or a slender wooden rod chiseled down to mimic his right index finger; others are scrounged from local, kitchen tool shops, repurposed from their original functions. The assortment seems random, but each tool serves a purpose and is a point of pride. “Tools should be precise enough to become a part of your body—an extension of you,” he says.
Kaz is a second generation potter in the village of Inbe, in the Bizen province, the oldest pottery region in Japan. Despite coming of age surrounded by clay and centuries of tradition, Kaz was fiercely independent. He didn’t plan to follow in his father’s footsteps. Instead, he took up less obvious interests, finding life in the raw, improvisational, gravity-defying movement of break-dancing.
It wasn’t until a chance meeting with the famed master potter Jun Isesaki (a Living National Treasure in Japan) that Kaz considered turning to a life of clay. Jun told Kaz, “Clay is not just clay, it is material from the earth which comes with endless possibilities.” This teaching opened Kaz up to the infinite potential and fluidity of the medium.
Kaz began to cross oceans and cultures in search of new inspiration to blend into his craft. He made frequent visits to the U.K., sharing the ways of Bizen, eventually helping to build two kilns for the Oxford Anagama Kiln project in Wytham Woods.
He also borrowed several techniques from his British peers. One technique that continues to feature prominently in his work, involves brushing white slip (effectively liquid clay) to the exterior surface of a piece, then passing a large blow torch slowly and rhythmically over the piece. The blast of high heat sears the slip, drying it instantaneously. The crackling that results creates rich, organic textures on the surface. This technique was beautiful, different, and not found in Bizen.
Bizen, Japan: A Primal Union of Man, Earth, and Fire
By the time he returned home, Kaz’s work was a harmonious blend of tradition and modern impulses. “I want to be a bridge, connecting people and inspiring new paths rooted from tradition,” he said.
Kaz draws from the soul of Bizen ware—its wabi sabi spirit and strong grounding in the materiality of clay—but continually pushes boundaries in form, technique, and finish. The surface of his pieces reflect the brittleness of tree bark, the crackle of red earth, the grainy layers of a sandstone cliff. The determined yet whimsical swoops of his forms speak to how the clay dances in his steady hands; he often closes his eyes when throwing, leaning in to the clay’s rhythms and whims and to what feels true in the moment.
“I have created techniques by learning about chance, the golden ratio, and by using the laws of the natural world.”
With a piece of Kaz’s work in our hands, we hold where the rhythms of tradition and modernity meet; we are at once reminded of the rawness of the earth, the ingenuity of man, and that humanity and nature are all inevitably intertwined—that energy and motion, whether the crest of a wave or the spin of a breakdancer, are all part of a larger whole.
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