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by Cassandra Lord
Many of Japan’s most famous arts and crafts find their home in Kyoto, so it is no surprise that some of the most highly esteemed Japanese ceramics comes from this former capital.
But what makes kyoyaki pottery so special, and why should you seek it out? Let’s find out!
1. What is Kyoyaki?
Tealeaf Jar by Ninsei, 17th Century
Kyoyaki (京kyo Kyoto, 焼yaki fired) simply means ceramics made in Kyoto, so it can also be referred to in English as Kyo-ware or Kyoto-ware. It is also sometimes referred to as kiyomizuyaki (or Kiyomizu-ware), which strictly speaking refers to pottery made in the area around Kiyomizu temple in Kyoto.
As kyoyaki is categorized by where it is made, rather than how it is made, it means that ceramic styles, textures, and designs can vary a great deal from kiln to kiln.
Kyoyaki and kiyomizuyaki are jointly designated as traditional crafts by Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, meaning that they are made using traditional techniques that reflect the country's history and lifestyle.
Two of the existing works of kyoyaki artist Ninsei Nonomura are also designated national treasures for their representation of an iconic era and artwork.
In this age of automation and industrialization, it feels like a miracle that such an intricate and time-consuming craft has survived. On top of that, Kyoyaki is a living symbol of the history of Kyoto and Japan as a whole.
2. The History of Kyoyaki
While there are records of different forms of pottery being made in Kyoto long before, the first record of the word kyoyaki, was in 1605 as part of a tea ceremony. By that point, tea had long been an important part of Japanese culture, but this was kyoyaki’s first notable entrance to the tea ceremony stage.
From the 1600s onwards, the rise in popularity of the tea ceremony brought with it a rise in demand for tea pottery. This encouraged more artisans to come forward and make their mark on the pottery scene, such as Ninsei Nonomura who was renowned for his extravagant glazed ceramics.Over the centuries, kyoyaki gained popularity both within Japan and overseas, and the Kyoto City Ceramic Research Center was established in 1896 to further develop the artform.
Tealeaf Jar by Ninsei, 17th Century
Even after production was heavily curtailed during World War II, dedicated artisans continued the craft. Today, despite the availability of cheap machine-made pottery, the classic styles and hand-made quality of traditional kyoyaki is seeing a resurgence in popularity.
3. Kyoyaki and the Tea Ceremony
Much of Kyoyaki’s development and popularity can be traced back to its relationship with the tea ceremony.
It is believed that Japan was first introduced to tea as early as the 8th century, but it wasn’t until the 16th century that the tea ceremony really started to gain popularity amongst the upper classes. With a heavy concentration of entrepreneurial kilns, the ceramic industry in the capital grew rapidly to cater to the needs of the new tea-enthusiasts. The simple styles of Rakuware tea bowls were especially popular, but hand-painted pottery was also often used in conjunction with decorative scrolls to decorate the tea room.
4. What is the Difference between Kyoyaki and Other Japanese Ceramics?
The most fundamental marker of Kyoyaki is that it is a part of the history of Kyoto. As Japan’s capital for nearly a thousand years the city was a cultural hub where court culture, literature, the tea ceremony, and Buddhism all shaped the aesthetic of Kyoto pottery.
These influences have allowed a wide variety of ceramic styles to develop. In contrast to many Japanese ceramic traditions Kyoyaki does not have one set style or rule, and is instead known for its refined elegance and versatility, with works ranging from rustic to highly decorated. Each kiln has its own traditions and signature look.
Kyoto ware stands out because of its rich palette and variety of techniques used. Kyoyaki artists employ various methods such as underglaze painting, overglaze enamels, intricate carving, and embossing. They often depict themes drawn from nature, literature, and Zen Buddhism.
5. What Types of Kyoyaki are There?
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As Kyoyaki is so varied, it encompasses a few different styles. The most noticeably distinct styles are hand-painted, crystal glaze and rakuware.
Kyoto ceramic artists take inspiration from centuries of imperial culture in creating hand-painted designs. These often feature seasonal motifs like cherry blossoms for the spring and pine trees for new year, as well buddhist imagery.
Crystal glaze is a more recent addition to the Kyoto potter’s skill set. This technique involves using a glaze that crystallizes during the firing process, creating unique and beautiful surface patterns. When the ceramics are fired in a kiln at high temperatures, elements such as silica within the glaze combine to form crystals. As the kiln cools down, these crystals continue to grow, eventually becoming visible on the surface of the ceramic piece.
Perhaps the most famous ceramic style from Kyoto is rakuware, which is sometimes considered as its own separate artform. Rakuware, or rakuyaki, embodies a very rustic, wabi-sabi aesthetic which emphasises the fundamental nature of the clay, and the beautiful imperfection of hand-made objects. Rakuware is very closely associated with the tea ceremony
6. How is Kyoyaki Made?
© Kumagai, Hand-painted Kyoyaki
As a traditional artform, kyoyaki is made by hand, meaning each piece is unique. Most Kyoyaki is shaped on a potter’s wheel rather than hand-formed, although rakuware is a notable exception. The rakuware teabowl is specifically designed for how it feels in the hand, so the potter is careful to mold it into a unique hand-held form.
The hand-painted designs that are the focus of many kyoyaki artists add to the idiosyncratic nature of Kyoto pottery. The potter generally does not strive to recreate the image exactly, but instead to create a new and beautiful piece.
7. Where Can you Buy Kyoyaki?
As we’ve mentioned, Kyoyaki is only made in Kyoto. This makes it a beautiful souvenir to get when visiting the area.
A good place to go is the Kyoto Ceramic Center near Kiyomizu Temple, as they have an elegant selection of Kyoyaki on display and for sale. But there are a number of kilns all around the town, such as Touan.
However, if you aren’t in Japan, Japan Objects Store has you covered. You can see our collection of Japanese teabowls and cups, teapots, vases, sake sets, and many other unique ceramic artworks.
8. How to Take Care of Kyoyaki
While there are many different types of Kyoyaki, many of them use a variety of glazes in production which often include metal elements.. Because of this, it’s best not to put Kyoyaki in the microwave or dishwasher. As with any fine ceramics, it is also best not to subject your Kyoyaki to sudden temperature changes, to avoid cracking.You will have to treat your Kyoyaki with some care, but after all, it was made with a lot of care just for you!