( image from : http://yunokuni.jp/mori/craft/kutani.php )
The History of Kutani-yaki
Kutani-yaki is one of the most famous Japanese porcelain, and it is also known to the world with the name Japan Kutani. It is considered that the first Kutani-yaki was baked in the early Edo period, 1655. Toshiharu Maeda, the then feudal lord of present Ishikawa Prefecture, directed his attention to rocks from a mine of him and gave Saijiro Goto orders to acquire ceramics techniques in Hizen Arita (the Arita-yaki producing district). The first kiln was located in Kutani region. In 1700, however, all of sudden the kiln closed down. The causes or reasons are still not determined. This is an interesting and unique point of Kutani-yaki because its history ceased once even though it is one of the world-famous Japanese porcelain. (Many of Japanese porcelain were confronted with great difficulties, but they managed to survive without ceasing baking.) The porcelain that was baked in this short period is called Kokutani, which means ‘the old Kutani(-yaki)’. Kokutani is typical of Japanese colored porcelain, and its outstanding beauty and powerfulness of coloring are highly regarded. About 100 years after the discontinuing, Kutani ceramicists asked Mokubei Aoki for a help to revive Kutani-yaki. Mokubei Aoki is a famous Kyo-yaki potter, and he visited Kutani region from Kyoto and made an effort to reopen kilns. After him, other ceramicists established their own styles in Kutani-yaki. Each of their styles has unique features, and they are discussed in the next section.
The Styles of Kutani-yaki
The style of Kutani-yaki is roughly divided into six. Two of them were already mentioned in the last paragraph. The first is Kokutani (the old Kutani-yaki), which is the oldest style of Kutani-yaki. The second is called Mokubei, which is named after Mokubei Aoki. Other four styles are called Yoshidaya, Iidaya, Shouza, and Eiraku. In this section, we take a close look at each of styles.
The beauty of Kokutani is in its bold composition. Kokutani was developed under the guidance of Kusumi Morikage, a skilled painter from Kano-ha (the Kano school). Incidentally, Kano-ha is one of the most famous and biggest schools of Japanese painting, and it was very active for about 400 years from the middle of Muromachi Period (the 15th century) to the end of Edo Period (the 19th century). The style of Kokutani is very dynamic and usually drawn with green, yellow, red, purple, and ultramarine. Lines are drawn in a free and easy style, and they make the paintings have more draining impressions. Furthermore, the composition of Kokutani is free from ordinary designs of pottery.
Mokubei was started around 80 years later after kilns of Kokutani got closed down. As mentioned earlier, Mokubei was developed by Mokubei Aoki, a skilled Kyo-yaki potter from Kyoto. The feature of Mokubei is that the majority part of porcelain is colored with bright red. Its main motif is people, and it is painted with five colors (green, yellow, red, purple, and ultramarine) like Kokutani is. This style of painting reminds you of the one of Chinese porcelain.
The third style of Kutani-yaki is Yoshidaya, and it is a revival of Kokutani. Kokutani also has a variety of styles and designs, and Yoshidaya focuses on Aode Kokutani, which means ‘blue old Kutani’. Interestingly, the actual color of Aode Kokutani is deep green. In the Nara Period and the Heian Period (ca. 700-1100), only a few adjectives to describe colors existed in Japan. There were only white, red, blue and black. Since Japanese only had limited words for colors, each adjective covered a great variety of colors. For example, in the case of blue, it described green, purple and even gray. Since the custom describing green as blue remains, deep green color Kokutani is still called as Aode (blue) Kokutani. Since Yoshidaya has inherited the features from Aode Kokutani, it is colored only with deep green, yellow, purple and deep blue. Red is never used in Yoshidaya. It has a lot of beautiful designs and very fine woven patterns. The entire surface of porcelain is covered by painting, and it makes us feel its solidity and elegance.
In striking contrast to Yoshidaya, Iidaya is famous for the beautiful red painting. Sometimes gold is added as decorations, but the main color of Iidaya is always only red. The beauty of Iidaya is in incredibly fine lines and the shades of red created by the delicate lines. Skilled porcelain painters are able to draw three lines in just one-millimeter space. Porcelain painters of Kutani-yaki vied with one another to show their skills by drawing thinner and better lines than the others can do. Painters draw thin lines in different intervals to make shades of red. It is incredible that painters create the beautiful drawing only with one color.
Shouza started about 125 years ago. This style incorporates Kokutani, Yoshidaya, Aka-e (red drawing; a technique to color porcelain mainly with red but sometimes also with green, yellow and deep blue) and Kinrande (gold painting; a technique to paint and decorate with gold or gold foil). Since the Meiji Period (ca. 1870-), Shouza has been the mainstream of Kutani-yaki industry.
The last style is called Eiraku. It started around 110 years ago, and this technique was introduced by Wazen Eiraku, a Kyo-yaki potter who was very active in the 19th century. The name of this style is named after him. The entire surface is firstly coated with red, and painters add decorations only with gold. It looks very stunning and gorgeous, and its elegance reminds you of Kyo-yaki.
Each style has unique features and outstanding beauty in it. Even though they use different designs or techniques, the basic steps to paint are almost the same. Firstly, painters draw an outline of patterns with black ink called Gosu. This step is called Hone-gaki, which means drawing a skeletal frame (framework) of an image. Secondly, they shade the image with the same black ink. After the ink dries completely, the third and the main part of drawing comes. In this step, painters use only the point of a blush to add colors because this step needs to be done with a gentle touch not to scratch the outline. Besides that, painters are able to add a moderate amount of ink (about a one-millimeter thick layer) on the surface evenly by using the tip of a blush. This layer becomes lustrous glass after baking, and its colors come out very well. If the layer is too thin, it fails to become glassy and turns to be rough and dry.
How to Use
Since Kutani-yaki has breathtaking vivid colors and gorgeous designs, it will light up mealtime and give us luxurious atmosphere. To use Kutani-yaki for a long time, there are some points to be careful when you use them.
Before you use pottery, please boil it first. By soaking the pottery in hot water first, a part of pottery that still has water absorbency gets coated and becomes difficult to get stains and smells. It is considered that adding a handful of rice to water enhances the quality of the coating. When you use plates for raw fish dishes, such as Sashimi, it is recommended to soak the plates in icy water before you use them. This process prevents the plates from soaking the smell of fishes.
After you use pottery, please wash it as soon as possible to avoid stains and smells staying on it. The best way to clean it is using a soft sponge or cloth with neutral detergent which is diluted with water. It is also acceptable to use dishwashers to clean them, but some parts of decorations are likely to be damaged, for example, gold and silver decorations come loose and fall or the color of painting fades. After you wash the pottery, do not forget to dry them completely. It is recommended to just place a soft cloth on painting parts and let the cloth soak the water. Please do not wipe or rub hard on the surface.
If pottery has gold or silver decorations, please do not microwave it because the gold and silver decorations spark and damage themselves very badly.