Echizen yaki (越前焼)

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Echizen_yaki_cup

(from Wikipedia; https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E8%B6%8A%E5%89%8D%E7%84%BC)

Introduction

Echizen-yaki is one of the special products of Fukui prefecture. Echizen-yaki is usually dark red or reddish brown since it made of clay that contains a lot of iron, but it also can have color variety, like beautiful yellow green. The color and its touch give it warmth; on the other hand, it has high durability since it is fired in very high temperature. Firstly, we take a close look at this baking process. In the early stages of the manufacture, long kilns called “Anagama ” were used. The kilns are about 13-meter-long tunnel-shape holes dug on sloops of mountains. It was possible to bake about a ton of pottery at once, and it takes about a week until the pottery is fired completely. It is considered that the kilns were built in Ozowara (part of Echizen region) first, and they spread over hilly regions like Kumadani and Taira.
Echizen-yaki is famous for one of six Japanese old and traditional pottery (Rokkoyo – means six old kilns; including Seto-yaki, Tokoname-yaki, Shigaraki-yaki, Tanbatachikui-yaki, and Bizen-yaki.) However, Echizen-yaki didn’t always steadily expanded – it has overcame difficulties until its value are recognized by the public like nowadays.

History

The first Echizen-yaki was baked about 850 years ago (the late Heian period) in Echizen region. Before the skill of Echizen-yaki arrived, people in the region had baked Sueki; a pottery which was introduced from the Korean Peninsula. In early stages of Echizen-yaki, pots, jars and earthenware mortars were mainly produced and they had similar features with Tokoname-yaki (one of Rokkoyo) since potters from Tokoname region brought the technique at the time. The common technique of both two potteries is firing clay in really high temperature. The temperature is around 1,300 degrees centigrade (°C) and it gives the pottery an outstanding feature; which is high water-resistance without any glaze. Because of this characteristic, Echizen-yaki was used as a vessel for water and alcohol and a storage container of crops or dye liquor (ex. indigo dye). Besides, the first stages of Echizen-yaki were also used for religious purpose (ex. a urn). As mentioned earlier, the early stages of Echizen-yaki were affected a lot by Tokoname-yaki in both technique and feature, so that it is very difficult to differentiate those two. It was the middle Kamakura period (ca.1210-) when Echizen-yaki started to have its original features.

In Muromachi period (ca. 1390-1490), Echizen-yaki established distinctive characteristics; a light green colored mouth, a sloping shape, and inscribed letters on sides. In this period, the Echizen area became the biggest pottery producing district in the Hokuriku region (the northwestern part of Honshu; main island), and the pottery was transported to many regions. At the same time, the size of the kilns was also got larger. They are over 25 meters long, and they are able to fire about five tons of pottery at once (ex. 50 pods and 1200 earthenware mortars.) These kilns were gathered in Taira, a part of Echizen area, and the region became a big pottery producing district. According to old documents, people who lived in the district are considered to make a living by farming and pottery. As the size of the kilns and the amount of potteries they made were big, it is easy to guess that people struggled to find enough firewood and clay all the time. On the other hand, it could say that Echizen-yaki was able to develop well because of the residents’ hard work.

After Edo period (ca. 1600-), however, Echizen-yaki started to fall into a continuous decline. The first reason was the flourishing of Seto-yaki (one of Rokkoyo). Even though potters started to produce more useful jars and bottles, such as lipped bowls and sake bottles for daily use, it was not enough to stop the decline. Another reason is because Japanese life style got modernized. The water jar had been one of the major productions of Echizen-yaki ever since the first Echizen-yaki was baked, but water jars were in little demand because of this modernization. In other words, the advantage of Echizen-yaki; high water-resistance, is no longer special enough to support the demand for it. Moreover, in Meiji period (ca. 1890-1910), people in Echizen region invited many potters from all over Japan to incorporate new technique and idea, such as porcelain and painting/coloring to Echizen-yaki, but the skills were never established in it. Therefore, potteries closed down one after another from the late Meiji period (ca. 1900-1910) to Taisho period (ca. 1910-1930).
In 1940’s, Echizen-yaki finally became the focus of public attention again by three events. First event is an investigation of kiln-ruins in Echizen region. Fujio Koyama; a ceramic scholar, was the first person who gave insight to Echizen kilns (the investigation was done in 1942.) As mentioned in the beginning, Echizen-yaki is now recognized as one of six Japanese old and high-valuable potteries (Rokkoyo), but its value was not identified enough before his research. Furthermore, the term – Rokkoyo itself did not even exist before because only five old potteries were acknowledged precious (Gokkoyo). In other words, his study gave the important opportunity to reconsider the concept of Gokkoyo. According to Koyama (1947), kilns in Echizen are one of the most valuable remains in Japanese ceramic history, and the ruins of them are equivalent to Gokkoyo in value, scale, and history. After that, Kuemon Mizuno, the leading expert on Echizen-yaki, made more excavations in Echizen region, researched and studied them under the supervision of Koyama. They found more than 200 old kilns in the district, and their study revealed the history of products in the region from Heian era to Edo era (ca. 800 to 1850). By these findings of two ceramic scholars, Echizen-yaki became widely known in Japan.
The second turning point of Echizen-yaki is recognition by Japanese government. In 1986, the government designated Echizen-yaki as a traditional craft. Needless to say, this designation played an important role to put the breaks on the decrease in production and support the further development of Echizen-yaki.
Thirdly, Echizen Pottery Village was constructed with the support of Fukui prefecture in 1971. In the village, there are old kilns and a museum, which always exhibits about 1000 pottery, and they provide opportunities to learn about the history of Echizen-yaki.
Through these turning points, Echizen-yaki achieved a high valuation. Since the variety of the potteries is modernized nowadays, potters attempt to make new designs, such as beer mugs and wine glasses, by making full use of traditional techniques. Besides that, there is an increasing tendency towards local production for local consumption, more restaurants in Fukui prefecture prepare their meal with local food and serve it with Echizen-yaki. Thus, Echizen-yaki was established as a high-value pottery, and it is still developing by blending its traditional technique with life style in our time.

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