On a recent trip to Japan, I was very lucky to have the opportunity of spending some time with Robert Yellin, an expert in Japanese ceramics. He took me to meet a number of potters in Shigaraki near Kyoto, an area famous for its ceramics and having one of the six oldest kilns in Japan.
Shigaraki ware is traditionally high fired in an Anagama kiln (tunnel kiln) built on a slope or into a hillside. The ceramics are unglazed but ash deposits are introduced that settle, melt and create a natural glaze that can’t be achieved by any other method of firing. The kilns can take many days to fire with the wood being constantly supplied to achieve high temperatures.
One of the potters I met who really impressed me with her work not only because she makes astonishingly beautiful pieces, but also with her life story. Kiyoko Koyama demonstrates an intrinsic need to work with clay even though she encountered much opposition and hardship. She struggled to such a degree that there has been a Japanese film made about her called ‘Hi Bi’.
Kiyoko is now in her 80’s, but when she was younger, in the 1970’s, she defied the male dominated area of wood fired ceramics in Shigaraki and stubbornly ignored the traditional view of it not being suitable for a woman to do. She developed her own technique of firing her kiln for sometimes up to two weeks, catching the work just before it would collapse in extreme heat.
The results were incredible and the local potters association, who had previously forbidden woman to join finally invited her into their organisation.
Kiyoko brought two children up on her own and her son Kenichi developed into a very competent potter creating stunning pieces with Temoko glazes. He was going to take over the family kiln but became ill with Leukemia. Kiyoko did everything she could to try and save him and took to the streets to raise funds for a bone marrow transplant. Tragically Kenichi died and the gallery connected to her house has the most beautiful works he created which Kiyoko very proudly exhibits.
Photo Album of Shigaraki