The History of Naraoka-yaki
Naraoka-yaki is pottery from Daisen City, Akita Prefecture, and it has about 140 years of history. Naraoka-yaki is famous for its stunning deep blue glaze. It is considered that Naraoka-yaki originated in 1863. This is the year that Seiji Komatsu, a member of a local old family, learned techniques from potters of Arima-yaki and started to bake Naraoka-yaki. Daisen region has clay for pottery, but the clay is far from perfect and ideal clay for pottery. Due to the nature of the clay, pottery gets cracks easily when it get dry, and pottery also changes its shape during a firing process. There were more kilns before, but many of them needed to close down because they run out of their funds throughout repeated trial and error. Furthermore, it was difficult to survive even for the kilns that completed perfect pottery, because mass-produced pottery appeared on the market. With the development of transportation networks, the cheap pottery was spread over many regions. It hit many kilns very hard, and only one kiln survived. This is the kiln which still bake Naraoka-yaki today. Naraoka-yaki had more variety in big jars before, but it shifted to have more variety in smaller dishes to suit the contemporary lifestyle. Besides that, potters have focused on making it easy to handle, giving it a warm feeling, and expressing beauty in pottery without too much decoration. Naraoka-yaki has been changed to fit the taste of the times.
The Feature of Naraoka-yaki: Clay
As mentioned earlier, Naraoka-yaki is made of the clay that is difficult to handle. It is understandable that potters used the clay in the early stages of Naraoka-yaki because there were not any other options – no other clay was available in the region. These days, however, it is fairly possible and even easy to import better clay from all over Japan or even the world. Is inheriting the tradition the reason why potters stick to the non-ideal clay? Yes, this is one of the reasons, but the main reason is because the clay gives pottery unique tastes. Roughness or imperfectness that Akita-region clay has is the features other pottery clay does not have. Since clay is the crucial material to create the quality of pottery or ceramics, potters generally prefer better or ideal clay to use. It is also simply because of a thought that better clay makes more beautiful pottery or ceramics. In other words, the beauty of pottery is found in the perfectness. On the other hand, the beauty of Naraoka-yaki is opposite – it is found in imperfectness. People see the simple yet rough nature of the clay throughout pottery and find the beauty in its strong touch. One embodies refined beauty, and the other embodies natural beauty.
The Feature of Naraoka-yaki: Glaze
The most outstanding feature of Naraoka-yaki is the breathtaking blue glaze. During glazing, the color of glaze becomes turbid and the surface makes ripples and spots. Since its look resembles with sea cucumber, the beautiful blue glaze is called Namako-yu, which means ‘sea cucumber glaze’ in Japanese. Namako-yu is made of three materials. The main ingredient is weathered volcanic ash called Haku-do (white clay). This is the point that the glaze of Naraoka-yaki is unique since potters in many other regions use feldspar as a main ingredient of glaze. Potters of Naraoka-yaki mix the white clay with Japanese oak ash and straw ash. Japanese oak ash makes the glaze easy to melt, and straw ash makes the glaze have beautiful gloss and gives it transparency as if glass. Only when these two types of ash are mixed with perfect balance, the glaze gets stunning blue color. However, the ash is alkalinity, which is one of the greatest enemies of pottery. Strictly speaking, soluble alkalinity is the problem for pottery, so that potters elutriate the ash before they mix it with other materials. The processes are simple yet taking a lot of time. Firstly add ash and a lot of water in a big container, and leave it for a day. Secondly, throw away the upper part of the water on the next day, refill the container with water, and mix them well. Potters repeat this process about ten times. Before preparing the glaze, potters dry all materials first and measure them carefully. Mostly potters make Namako-yu, but it is also possible to create a white glaze by changing the ratio of white clay and ash.
The Processes of Naraoka-yaki Producing
In this paragraph, we take a close look at some processes of Naraoka-yaki producing. The first process after shaping is drying. Since pottery is still very soft after shaping and difficult to get the finishing, the pottery needs to get dry and harden to some extent to become easy to be handled. Potters leave the pottery for one or two days to make it half-dry and then curve or reshape for the finishing. As weather and humidity affect the condition of pottery, this process needs a lot of experiences. After the pottery hardens enough to be held and worked on, potters cut out the corner of pottery, smooth the surface, or attach a handle to a mug. After this process, the pottery needs to be completely dry, but it also needs to be careful that the speed of drying is not too quick. If it gets dry too quick, the pottery is easy to get cracked or become deformed. After the pottery completely dries, it is fired with about 800 degrees centigrade (°C). This time is without a glaze, and it is for letting the water out of the pottery. After this process, the pottery hardens very much and gets not easy to be broken by getting wet. The next process is adding an outstanding feature on the pottery – glazing. There is a point that potters put a lot of attentions on – the thickness of glazing. Glazing is seemingly easy, compared to other processes, but this is one of the parts requiring a lot of skills and experiences. If the glazing is not thick enough, the color of glaze does not come out very well. On the other hand, if the glazing is too thick, the glaze flows until unnecessary parts, such as the bottom of pottery. Needless to say, the glaze needs to be done evenly on the surface. In the case of Namako-yu, it is only glazed on the upper part of the pottery. On the lower part, an amber color glaze is added to prevent the pottery absorbing water. After the glazing, it comes to the last process – Hon-yaki (main baking process). Naraoka-yaki is usually baked with from 1250 to 1280 degrees centigrade (°C). In some kilns, potters bake it with 1200 or 1300 degrees centigrade. All pottery that does not meet the standards of Naraoka-yaki is broken into pieces, and only the pottery approved by potters appears on the market.