A few days ago, I was able to take a trip to Yokkaichi in Mie Prfecture, the cradle of Banko-yaki 萬古焼 ceramics.
When you talk about kyûsus in Japan, the first name that springs to mind is Tokoname-yaki, but then the second is most probably Banko-yaki.
The origins of this traditional craft seem to date back to the mid-eighteenth century, when a tea-loving merchant from Kuwana City established a kiln in Obuke, in today’s town of Asahi, so that he could make his own tea equipment.
However, at the time the accessories were glazed and decorated, and it was only at the end of the nineteenth century that the purple, unglazed clays typical of Banko appeared.
Today, Banko-yaki is used less for teapots than for “donabe” (土鍋), kinds of earthenware woks, which account for the greatest proportion of this style of ceramic.
Banko-yaki works are easy to recognize by their purple clay (shidei 紫泥), which is very high in iron and is in fact yellow before firing. The firing process is long (over 24 hours), and is done in reduction in gas kilns at 1200°C (2192°F) to produce the characteristic colours. Of course, there is a wide variety of purples and browns, and no potter can always be sure of obtaining the same colour since differences in air humidity and atmospheric pressure influence the results of the firing.
I had the good luck to be able to meet three artists: Tachi Masaki 舘正規, Itô Jitsuzan 伊藤実山, and Yamamoto Taisen 山本太仙, and also to be able to visit a factory where ceramics are produced using moulds, namely Mr. Watanabe’s factory, the Jôryû Kiln.
Masaki is a warm, very very talkative man, with a strong Kansai accent. His home/workshop is very full, with hundreds of kyûsus piled up in his shed and displayed very tightly in his living room. Masaki’s works are very robust, full of strength and warmth, much like the artist himself, I think. He has a few cups of various sizes, but teapots account for the great majority of his work.
Masaki sometimes uses other types of clay (especially Shigaraki, which is a blend of various clays), and he took the opportunity to break an open secret concerning Banko clay, namely that it does not come from Yokkaichi, but from more distant mountains or even… Tokoname. The reason for this is simple. Yokkaichi, unlike Tokoname or Bizen, for example, is a highly urbanized area, with very large industrial complexes, and thus all earth (land and therefore also clay) is very expensive. Coming back to Masaki’s work, he also makes objects using yôhen 窯変 techniques, which produce colour and texture variations in the clay, and involve covering them with ashes or burying them in rice chaff, for example.
Jitsuzan is more serious, calm. He is not short of words, but does not seek to draw too much attention to his work. In addition to a very large number of teapots, I noticed many small pots, incense burners, and even little Chinese-style teapots. Jitsuzan has practiced sencha-dô, and has made his own accessories, even ryôros and bufuras (liitle clay kettles and braziers, but he no longer makes them today). One of his specialities is teapots with little balls on the lids.
I especially like the gracefulness of his objects and the colour of the clay.
Very quickly, his wife hastens to show me his skill in a traditional Yokkaichi technique known as kata-banko型萬古 for making teapots using kinds of wooden moulds/puzzles. Clay is applied to the moulds, and then flattened using paper, giving the objects incredibly smooth sides.
Yamamoto Taisen has yet another style. Rather than in a craftman’s workshop, I find myself in an artist’s lair. The man also seems less chatty, perhaps more shy. Taisen has studied porcelain and glazes for making tea ceremony and sencha equipment, and believes he can apply the knowledge he has gained to the creation of teapots. Thus, we find a very heteroclite collection of styles in his little workshop, in the midst of pigments for the motifs he himself paints on his glazes and porcelain. The purple clay typical of Banko is of course represented, but there are also many different clays, as well as yôhen effects produced by smoke and by the interplay of different sources of heat. Some of his clays are very light, and also seem very soft. They are warm to the touch, and the colour variations, from black to orange, are fantastic.
Finally, I was able to visit the “Jôryô Kiln,” Mr. Watanabe’s factory. Here, things are made in large quantities, even though the volume is not what it once was. Mass production using moulds does not mean automated work in which human hands play no role.
On one hand, using a mould requires know-how, and, on the other hand, the five parts that make up a teapot (body, handle, lid, spout and filter) are still put together by hand. Moreover, there are moulds and moulds, and a high-quality moulded teapot is often better than an unsuccessful hand-thrown teapot.
However, some factories in Yokkaichi are not limited to this technique. They employ a rotating mould (dendô ikomi 電動鋳込) into which clay is inserted, and then shaped using a kind of arm mounted on a lever. The piece is thus partly turned, and the operator needs to have expertise. Another special feature of this technique is that, unlike classical moulds into which clay is injected in nearly liquid form, with a rotating mould the clay used is in a state very close to that of clay for hand-turning.
On ToJ there are seven new teapots by Banko-yaki potters. There will be more later, before or after shincha season.