tokoname city ceramics & tea ware

A tea blog that wants yet another teapot.

Shizuoka is a name that resonates strongly with the Tea World. Located of course, in Japan, it boasts the claim of largest tea producing region in the entire country, an impressive 43.9%. Topographically flat compared to most of mountainous Japan, if one were to visit Shizuoka they would be treated to large, wheeled, mechanical tea harvesters. An impressive site when, often, tea conjures images of hand picking and precise plucking. The old adage “Two leaves and a bud” is frequently cited as a measure of quality and takes the back burner in the face large scale production. These futuristic machines are controlled by the aging tea farmers to cut tea leaves. Then, blown into large bags by the attached blowers, the leaves are destined to become sencha, Japan’s everyday tea. Noted for its marine and vegetal flavor. Bitter and umami taste. Sencha is enjoyed immensely by the domestic market and is seeing an increase in demand from the rest of us humble folk living abroad.

But this is not the topic of today’s podcast. Certainly, tea does drive our story, but today we look to the west. To neighboring Aichi Prefecture. To the Chita Peninsula. To Ise Bay. To the city of Tokoname.


Hello and welcome to the World Tea Podcast, a podcast about tea’s culture and technology. I am TJ, your host, and today we look at the technology inspired by tea. Tokoname yaki. Or in English, Tea Ware from the City of Tokoname, Japan.

First, a preface. While I have had the absolute pleasure of meeting several established and talented potters and ceramic artists in Canada, it has been my experience that the art, while incredibly important to history and culture, is not as appreciated as it should be. The skill of my Potter friends seems to be their undoing. On several occasions, one of my friends reluctantly admits to having to sell his work at a severe discount just to make a sale. I believe a friend put it best when she said, and I quote “I don’t want to buy a $30 mug. It’s very pretty, but what if I drop it?”. While I would love to blame big box stores and their relentless race to the bottom when it comes to price, I’d be remise if I didn’t step back and seek out the larger picture.  Throughout this podcast, and after, I humbly ask that whenever you take the time to sip your tea, spend a moment and ponder just how large of an influence that drinks had in driving the course of ceramic production. You may come the conclusion that you should invest in a yunomi, that being a teacup in Japanese. And what better than a piece from Tokoname.

Rising to prominence in the Heian Period, from 794 – 1185 AD Gregorian time, Tokoname wares have been found as far north as Aomori Prefecture, the northern most prefecture on the largest island Honshu, some 900km away. Needless to say, being a port city has its benefits when it comes to trade, and Tokoname was certain to make use of its fortunate geographical position. However, do take note that it wasn’t until 1889 that Tokoname becomes a certified town. And it wasn’t until 1954, 65 years later, that it achieved city staus by merging with the towns of Onizaki, Ono, Nishiura, and Miwa. If you would like to visit today, you can book a flight to Chubu Sen-to-re-a International Airport, IATA code NGO, built upon an artificial island, with direct access to one of Japan’s 6 Ceramic sweet spots.

Perhaps the best way to explore the rise of Tokoname yaki is to follow it’s progression throughout history. Tokoname ware saw popularity throughout Japan’s many historical periods. If we examine chronologically we can gain an appreciation for tea’s influence:

-          1694 (94 Years after the British East India company is incorporated) Tokoname has 12 large kilns in operation. The majority of ceramic production within the Chita Peninsula is now occurring within the town.

-          1750 we see Yahei Watanabe, a potter, is bestowed the title of Genkosai by the Lord of Owari. He begins the practice of engraving his name into his pieces.

-          1797 (8 years after George Washington becomes the First President of the United States) Nagoya City Tea Master Kagyu Tenmaya requests Choza Ina and Tozen Akai, resident potters in Tokoname and students of Shoshinji Temple priest Seishu, to craft tea wares. I was unable to find what was requested, though I suspect it was either vases or cups for the tea ceremony.

-          1811 (7 years past Napoleon's ascension to the Emperor of France) saw Koho Hanshoan, Head of the Kyoto Hisada School of the Tea Ceremony create Mizusashi in Tokoname for the Tea Ceremony. Mizusashi are water jars used to hold fresh water.

-          1825witnesses Edo Period’s Uemura Hakuho, a Tokoname Potter, craft Raku Tea Bowls in Kyoto. A different ceramic style that would develop its own following, but a solid example of tea’s influence on the potters of the day.

-          1830 Choza Ina II, by wrapping seaweed around the bisque ware (unglazed and absorbent earthenware), created Mogake glaze. I’ve come across sources which also credit Tozen II, so to be safe I’ll give him credit as well.

-          1834 Koie Hokyo, another resident potter creates a Nobori-gama.

o   I want to take a step outside of our time traveling journey and briefly look into this development. For those of you just joining us, to put it bluntly, ceramics are made of earth. Clay, minerals, rocks, and other elements are taken from the ground and broken down so as to be mouldable by the human hand. After crafting a piece, they are dried and then fired in a kiln. Going up in temperature over a given amount of time gives us what we today call “pyrometric cones” a measure of both time and temperature. Back in the day, this was done by eyesight alone; by the color of the flame. A risky job and one that, if failed, would result in dire consequences, financial loss and a lot of wasted resources and time. Some of the kilns need to get up to Cone 9 or 2336F or 1280C before the clay would mature. I have set a link in the show notes offering a more visual explanation. Sticking with the theme of tea I won’t go into this in great depth but the development of kilns enabled mass production of teawares and deserves a mention. Previously, Japan had been using Anagama, a single chambered kiln. Introduced from Korea and China in the 5th century. The spread of Nobori gama or Climbing Kiln enabled potters to create more pieces much more quickly. The Nobori Gama consisted of many separate chambers slowly rising above one another up the incline of a hill. Firing the kiln, however, was a much more difficult task when you take into account it often took 3 to 9 days to “fire”. And, since gas and oil were not yet available as a fuel, this meant wood and charcoal had to be used to stoke the flames. The potters would have to keep the kiln burning continually. This meant a lot of wood, manual effort, and incredibly long hours to oversee the continual rise or fall in temperature. I hope by now you are gaining an appreciation for the dedication these men and women had for their craft. And of course, let us not forget, many of the pieces would end up breaking in the kiln. All it takes is a single air pocket within the clay to expand to cause unwanted destruction. And you can forget about replicating pieces with any precision. The variables were simply too great to hope for any duplications. On the plus side, a lot of unique pieces were created. Compared to the anagame however, the noborigama allowed for more consistency and predictability.

-          1854 Redware becomes a popular type of teaware that would eventually become synonymous with Tokoname. It was discovered that the surrounding rice fields offered a great resource for clay, and the high iron content combined with the oxidation firing resulted in some very beautiful pieces. I suspect that the consistent flooding of the fields, soaking of the earth, and pounding made by the feet of busy farmers made for easy harvesting of the clay. The earth was ripe and ready.

-          Now it is said that due to the high iron composition within the clay the taste of the tea is changed. While I prefer to give you as much scientific information as possible I simply haven’t been able to find out the chemical interactions between the clay, water, and tea. I default to the interactions between iron oxide, the water, ions, fine-grained clay, pockets of surface area, and adsorption. What I can tell you is that many people report increased sweetness, decreased bitterness, and a rounding out of umami when green tea is brewed in these pots. I’ll continue my research of course. But, similar to Yixing pots, there must be something going on during the brew. A secret dance that I am determined to learn.

-          The creation of this redware clay is attributed to one Sugie Jyumon, a rather important figure in Tokoname ceramic history. While he wasn’t the first to create a teapot, they had been in production in Tokoname since the Bunsei Period, 1818-1829, Sugie retains the distinction of solidifying a style reminiscent of his town.  Note that green tea was the dominant player on the scene, and still is. So when teapots were being designed, they were made with green tea in mind.

-          1877-78 was a fantastic year. The Yixing wares you may be familiar with today were seeing a rise in popularity. Many favored their appearance, yet were unable to recreate them.  Enter The renown Chinese potter Jin Shi Heng of Anhui, China who, having immigrated to Japan made his way to Tokoname. Fortunately for the potters of Tokoname, the surrounding clay had considerable similarities to the Yixing wares and Jin set to work on instructing the potters on new forming techniques. With the slab-forming method disseminated among the craftsmen,  the resulting economic boom was of little surprise. Much to the delight of the potters, Jin Shi Heng also taught techniques for carving on and around the surface of the teapot. This instruction gave way to some very beautiful works of intricate lines designs and calligraphy. I’ve had my eye on a few that I would love to see in my collection. Sadly, I’ll have to wait for my wallet to grow as the prices of some of these pieces are.....well let’s say reflective of the skill.

The 1900’s are an interesting time and see a lot of development within Tokoname. Not necessarily teaware oriented but I want to highlight some important innovations that occurred here.

-          Kilns were improved in design. The down draft kilns were introduced and enabled better control over the past updraft kilns.

-          In the early 1900’s Salt glazing made its appearance. Up until the 1900’s the wood burning kilns caused a great deal of Fly Ash to be distributed throughout the kiln. For the molecular inclined, this means Silicone Dioxide (amorphous and crystalline), calcium oxide, and aluminum oxide. You also get trace amounts of boron, chromium, cobalt, manganese, selenium, and the list goes on. These elements settle on the pieces and it’s through this interaction of heat, ash, and minerals that different glazes manifested themselves. Colour and texture were dependant on the placement of the piece in the kiln. Recall how difficult it would have been to create similar pieces in these large kilns! Nevertheless, the potters of Tokoname learned to manipulate the heat and flame by recording where to place their works when loading the kiln. This “directing the flame” and “painting by fire” helped in mapping out where each interaction occurred and served to increase the potters skills and products. It was certainly an interesting time in Tokoname.

-          Later, The Tokoname Trade Association begins researching throwing techniques and methods to improve glazes. By this time there are 98 kilns in Tokoname, 76 of which are nobori Gama/climbing kilns. It is several years later, in 1934 that tunnel kilns make their appearance. Offering a different take on firing, they are heated in the center and the pieces roll through them. This allowed for greater economies of scale and mass production. Flash forward to 1958 and we see the Electric kiln spring to life, followed by shuttle kilns in 1960. Interestingly enough, the present day Kiln scene is showing an influx of anagama kilns as Japanese potters look back on older techniques.

So where are we today? Where has the high-fired ash-glazed tea ware from Aichi Prefecture found itself in the modern world? A simple Google search on tokoname yaki will bring up plenty of vendors, some of them individual potters on, many tea shops offer a selection, and of course you will see ceramic vendors offering everything from mass produced kyusu to one-of-a-kind pieces by famous Japanese artists. I’ve seen prices ranging from $30 -$500 for unique pieces. If you really want a piece of Japan I wouldn’t hesitate to purchase a yunomi or kyusu for your collection. Be aware however that the once popular red clay or Shudei that was taken from the rice fields is becoming more increasingly hard to find. From what I have read, the increased use of fertilizers in the fields has halted this practice. It is now common to use blended clays wherein iron oxide had been added for red pigment. This is by no means to say the quality is any less, simply be aware of what you are buying and do your research. Also, as with the passage of time, styles are changing. Tokoname yaki has come a long way. I’ve spent hours pouring over notes and papers trying to decipher what makes a Tokoname teapot, a Tokoname teapot. Historically, the ash in the kilns, lead to deep browns, hints of orange, and streaks of green. I’ve heard them described as masculine and raw. But as I look online at the various vendors I can’t help but see a change from these arguably primitive techniques. Bob Dylan put it best when he sang, “The times are a changing”, and Japan must press forward.

 But trends and tradition do linger, and one aspect of Tokoname yaki that I really love is the use of sasame filters. These make brewing fukamushi or deep steamed teas a breeze as they are very fine; you’ll rarely have any tea leaves make it past the spout. They are a bit of a hassle to clean, but I’ve yet to be disappointed. My current teapot is a yokode kyusuu. This is Japanese for Side Handle Teapot. It’s a lidless beauty of a rich olive green ccolor She’s glazed, so I don’t need to worry about any adsorption like you would an unglazed pot.

Historically, Tokoname has created roof and floor tiles, jars, urns, pipes, terracotta building materials, flowerpots, incense burners, shochu containers and many more items for daily life. Of course the clay itself has changed. Clay is being imported from other prefectures. Seto, Shigaraki, and Iga all contribute. But back in the day, it wasn’t at all uncommon for a town to have only one type of clay, that being from the ground they stood on.

If you really want to see some pieces of history, look up some of the following artisits:

the artists

 Yamada Jozan III

 Osako Mikio

Yoshiki Murata

Kenji Hotta – I beg you to check out his work. He specializes in a technique called Neri-komi. This is the blending of several clays which when thrown on a potters wheel form astonishingly mesmerizing swirls, patterns, and designs. I’m aiming to get one on my next visit to Japan.

And that’s going to close up our tour of Tokoname-yaki! I hope you enjoyed this week’s World Tea Podcast and consider joining me again next week as we explore tea’s culture and technology once again. If you feel the need to add to the conversation, send me an email at TJ @ world tea You can also tweet me on twitter, @worldteapodcast is my handle there. I also frequent instagram, @theteakings or @worldteapodcast will get you in touch with me. Mention me in your tea ware pictures if you have any! I’d be very happy to see what your collections are like and to hear of any recent, future, or past purchases. And of course, if you have the time, visit iTunes and leave me a review! This will help in the rankings and get others into the conversation! Search world tea podcast, as one word, to find me there. LETS BREW IT people, and as always, keep your cup warm!