The story of Tsuboya Yaki should best begin with a glance at its history. An area in Naha called Tsuboya is home to Okinawa’s pottery culture. Tsuboya Yaki, or pottery, is the best known style of Ryukyu pottery. It was first introduced from China in 1100s-1400s at the height of the so-called Gukusu Period. Gusuku is a Ryukyuan term for “castle” or “fortress” erected all over the island amid a conflict in the 14th century when the island was divided into three kingdoms.
Besides dishes, vessels, roof tiles, etc., Tsuboya is known for funeral urns, and the lion-shaped “guadians” called Shisa placed on rooftops and gates to guard home entrances and ward off evil spirits.
Down in the 17th century, the court decreed to centralize pottery in southern Makishi, latter-day Tsuboya, whereby other local ceramic production centers in Wakuta, Chibana and Takaraguchi were relocated there to form a major center of pottery production and a distinct style called Tsuboya Yaki.
The Ryukyu missions to Yedo, capital of Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate, are known to have brought along Awamori , Ryukyu’s local brew, in Tsuboya jars; an excavation at Shiodome unearthed fragments of a Tsuboya sake bottle. A document “Shutei Mankou” printed in the eve of the Meiji Restoration refers to Tsuboya Arayaki Awamori bottles then circulating in Yedo, Kyoto and Osaka. Likewise, elsewhere in Japan Tsuboya pottery is unearthed in fragments, which in some instances are exhibited in local museums confused as products from the Bizen or Nanban kilns.
In the Meiji era onwards, Tsuboya declined both in popularity and utility with the coming of Arita and such less costly rivals. It would have faded into obscurity if it had not been for a timely and powerful impetus by the hands of a man and his folk art movement known as Mingei Undo: Soetsu Yanagi.
Yanagi professed that folk art must be made by anonymous craftsmen, by hand, inexpensive, enough to go around for use by the masses, functional in everyday life and lastly representative of the locations of production. He visited Okinawa for the first time in 1938 with potters Shoji Hamada and others and revisited four times by 1940. Yanagi kept in close touch with such local potters as Jiro Kinjo and Eizaburo Niigaki and initiated a rigorous drive to promote Tsuboya to Tokyo and Osaka.
Tsuboya Yaki owes much of its accomplishment to Soetsu Yanagi and his Mingei Undo. His concept of “utility beauty” cast light on daily tools from the angles of utility and artistry; Tsuboya attracted attention with its brilliant coloring the like of which could not be found in mainland Japan.
The last war affected little the home of Tsuboya Yaki and currently about 100 kilns in Tsuboya and other localities. Tsuboya was designated a national traditional handicraft in 1976.
Tsuboya led Okinawa’s pottery industry throughout the 1960s. Environmental issues threatening the business, some potters vacated Tsuboya to move to such areas as Yomitan, Onnason and Ogimison, where they opened new kilns in the traditional style. Ikutouen in Yomitan is the case in point. The kilns in Tsuboya are still productive and some preserved cultural/historical sites.
Let us now take a closer look at Tsuboya Yaki and its features.
Tsuboya is classified roughly in two types: Arayaki and Jouyaki. Arayaki, or locally Arayachi, hailed from Vietnam in the 14th -16th centuries.
Arayaki is unglazed and fired tight at 1000 degrees in centigrade to bring out a rough, iron-rich texture. Formerly for storing water and liquors, Arayaki is popular for everyday cups and bowls. The evil-driving Shisa is a Tsuboya.
Jouyaki, or locally Jouyachi, came in the 17th century and thereafter from Korea where potters covered raw clay with white clay, decorated, glazed and fired tight. Jouyaki wares were mainly used for portable sake pots, bowls, cups, plates, Awamori containers, such as dachi-bin (hip flask), karakara (Awamori flagan) and vases. More decorative than Arayaki wares as they are, Joukakis were used not only by the upper classes but the commoners as well. The overwhelming beauty of Jouyaki wares took those Mingei Undo people by surprise.
As earlier mentioned, some 300 years ago local pottery production sites were decreed to relocate to one place in Tsuboya – what is today called Tsuboya Yachimun Dori. If you chance to visit Okinawa, be sure to set aside a day for a stroll in the area. Along the limestone-paved road are little pottery shops, cafes, and workshops with skilled artisans at work, etc. Time permiting, you can drop by one of those DIY workshops to create your own version of Shisa for 3000 yen or so. The shops offer a variety of Okinawa pottery, everything from household dishes to decorative art pieces and, of course, ubiquitous Shisa statues of your choice.
Place to visit
The first spot you must visit is Naha Municipal Tsuboya Pottery Museum. This is by far the best place to study Okinawa pottery in general and specifically Tsuboya Yaki and its background which has played a significant role in the development of Okinawa pottery. It exhibits a broad range of Okinawa pottery while introducing technical details and production processes. The first floor has a theater showing films that recount the state of Tsuboya. It’s well worth your time just touring in the museum.
Now, how much would those Tsuboya Yaki cost? Prices do vary by the level of craftsmanship. A 16-inch fish plate by the late living national treasure Jiro Kinjo asks for 1.380 million yen; a karakara, Awamori flagan, by his son Toshio Kinjo is priced at 12,900 yen. On the whole, Tsuboya Yaki of some artistic quality cost in the vicinity of a few hundred thousand yen.
Common household dishes and casual artistic pieces, however, are well within the reach of every pottery fan.
Since time immemorial, human beings have created pottery with their bare hands, using fire and natural materials. The skills transcended over ages to this day. Rich in natural resources, Okinawa nurtured pottery culture through its active interaction with neighboring countries. Take a pick of any Tsuboya Yaki, and you will feel a rusty and yet warm texture of a genuine pottery. (Nathan Shiga)