When I decided to learn and make Karatsu ware, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I knew it was several hundred years old, and the first glazed ware in Japan, but I mostly just saw some beautiful pots and thought I could reproduce. Boy, was I wrong.
I’ve been working at it for more than 10 years now, and the clay, glazes, and firings are still mostly a mystery. Trying to capture the look of the traditional ware is a continual challenge, forcing me to forget or ignore modern technology in favor of archaic, and examine 400+ year old shards, searching for clues about what the old potters and craftsmen used, and how they approached their art, which they didn’t necessarily consider to be art.
The closest I’ve come yet to a surface like the pot at the beginning of this post.
One thing I’ve learned in this time making pots is that despite the primitive technology, ancient potters had knowledge about their materials and handling of those materials that far exceeds the knowledge of most modern potters. This is what makes tradition such an important repository for us. It is the best of what has come before, proven over time and distilled for us to use. We just need to pay attention.
Chosen Karatsu teabowl, late 1500’s
Chosen Karatsu guinomi by author
Mike @ Karatsupots
Making attractive, cool, useful stuff out of dirt since 2006.
I made a trip out to the mountains in Minamihata yesterday with my mentor to collect materials for pots and glazes, and we stopped by an old kiln site as well.
We were able to collect a good amount of feldspathic sandstone, weathered feldspar, and the ever popular grey stuff (don’t know what its real name is).
First, here is what we collected that will become pots and glazes this year:
On the way to one of the collecting sites, we passed two old Karatsu kilns, Fujinokawachi and Kayanotani. I was surprised because they are separated by no more than 70 meters or so. These were big kilns. Kayanotani was a 22 chamber climbing kiln 52 meters long! Between them, there were probably hundreds of potters working. We couldn’t really access Fujinokawachi, but we were able to walk around on the hill where Kayanotani once stood.
There is an old story around here about Nakazato Muan (12th Generation Nakazato Tarouemon, Living National Treasure) finding a really great white clay seam in the Azambaru area of Taku. Here it is in Japanese for those of you who can read it:
For those of you whose Japanese is a bit rusty, it goes like this:
In the year Showa 21 (1946), the Nakazato kiln was converted from a coal burning kiln to a wood burning kiln, and it was fired until Showa 25 (1950). During this time, Muan mostly used a white clay from the Azanbaru area of Taku. There is a story, told by his son Shigetoshi, from the day they discovered this clay seam (Nakazato Shigetoshi passed away in 2015, at the age of 85, so he was probably around 16 years old at the time of this story).
So they have all this clay loaded onto a cart, which Shigetoshi is pulling and his father Muan is pushing, to Taku train station.
On the way, they reach a downward slope, and without noticing, Muan keeps pushing down the slope, and they almost run into a car speeding down the road. Shigetoshi ends up diving to avoid the car, the car ends up in a rice field, and their cart ends up broken. When Shigetoshi gets angry and starts yelling, Muan says “I was so busy thinking about what I was going to make with this clay, I didn’t notice the slope.”, apologizing to Shigetoshi.
“That was the first time my father ever apologized to me.”, Shigetoshi commented.
So why, you say, are you telling me all of this? Well, the fabled white clay seam has been looked for now by other potters for decades with no luck, but due to a fortuitous event a few months ago (and several years of looking), I believe I have found it again. Here are some pictures from our excursion out to dig some sample material for testing.
Oh, and lastly, here’s a picture of one of Nakazato Muan’s coil and paddle built jars. This one is made from white clay from the clay seam pictured above. My firing tests have almost the same color as the unglazed bottom section of this jar (although it is hard to see from this dark picture).
This firing of the kiln went too long, resulting in Orton cone 11 flat. Ideally, it would be cone 11 touching, then sagging a bit.
Upon unloading the kiln this morning, one thing was immediately apparent: the right side was far more reduced than the left. Yellower glazes and more slumping. Even on the left side there was some slumping, because of the excessive temp., and because of the clay which contained some low temp high iron clay to help seal the ware against leakage.
Chosen Karatsu came out pretty good, but the white was on too heavy, running down the pots too much. It still came out looking ok because of the clay.
Most of the teabowls warped or sagged, so I only get to keep 2 or 3 of the 15. This is why teabowls are expensive, kids…
All in all, not a bad firing, but need to adjust clay bodies, and pay closer attention to cones. Also, figure out the over reduction on the right side. It might be that one burner that sounds a bit off.
I’ve gotten pretty far behind keeping up with the blog, falling into the bad habit of making small posts to Facebook. One of my areas of increased effort over the next year will be to work more on maintaining the blog, and getting it more integrated with other forms of social media. Trying to keep track of them all is like trying to herd cats.
I had made one promise to show before/after pictures for a couple of pieces, the first of which is the slab/paddle built sake chiller w/ feet and lugs:
The other thing I’ve been working on since early this year is getting a usable kohiki/clear glaze combination, because for some reason a lot of customers have been requesting white work. They have also been requesting black, so I’ve been working on getting a reliable semi matte black glaze. Mission not quite accomplished, but I feel I’m most of the way there. Here is the kohiki I’ve come up with and I am happy with it:
Here are some of the pieces with the new black glaze. It seems to look best thin, and as with most glazes looks nicer over interesting wild clays rather than processed clays.