Photo by Connie Sceaphierde

A Brief Introduction to Hagi Yaki

Japan. 10,000 BCE. The Jōmon era. A time almost forgotten, except for the evidence of civilizations that have survived through traces of human existence. The pottery of the Jōmon era exists as the earliest known form of pottery in the world.

Leaping forward a few thousand years in time, and we find ourselves stumbling upon the feudal era of Japan. It is true, Japan’s history has been a bloody one, with an incredible amount of loss of life and great tragedies, but it has not been without beauty.

The late 16th century saw Japan invade the Korean Peninsula, wreaking havoc upon Asia and causing seven years of war. During the invasion, Japan took many hostages, some 7,500 of which were returned following the conflict. There were, however, a certain number of artisans that Japan kept, providing the country with a means to further develop their own culture and technology.

Following the war, one such art that further evolved was Japanese pottery. Terumoto Mōri, Lord of the Mōri clan, which had previously been removed from power some 100 years earlier, had been involved in the Korean invasion and had brought back with him to his domain in northern Yamaguchi, a couple of Korean craftsmen specialising in the art of pottery.

Mōri, the local feudal lord of the Chōshu domain, designated the craftsmen in his castle town of Matsumoto and present-day Hagi City. The lord had the potter's craft bowls and teaware for his own personal tea ceremonies, which, under the influence of the Korean potters, developed into the famous Hagi Yaki or Hagi Ware.

Base of Nosaka Hagi Yaki with a signature stamp. | Photo by Connie Sceaphierde

Growing popular in Japanese tea ceremony and as gifts, the craftsmen saw an increase in demand, therefore, more and more kilns began to appear across the region. Following the Meiji restoration in 1868, the Shōgunate of Japan came to an end, and all daimyo’s were required to return their domains to the emperor. In doing so, the potters of Hagi were released from under the Mōri clan and continued to make Hagi Yaki at their own independent businesses.

The two potters that Mōri brought with him to Hagi were Li Jak Kwang and Li Kyung. Following his settling down in Hagi, the Japanese name of Koraizaemon Saka was bestowed to Li Kyung in 1625 when he was appointed as the head potter. A student of Saka, Kyusetsu Miwa went on to further develop the ceramics and developed the beautiful White Hagiyaki for the Mōri family.

Pottery in Japan has been craftsmanship which has been passed down generation to generation over history, and today the names Saka and Miwa are renowned all over the country, with the Miwa family still in the business. The current Hagi Yaki master in Hagi is the 12th generation of the Miwa Family; Kyusetsu Miwa XII who assumed his title in 2003.

Aside from the Miwa kiln still churning out pottery, there are a few others dotted around the Hagi area that continue to produce some of the best teaware and bowls of the area. In the southwesternmost area of Hagi city, you can find the Nosaka pottery kiln (野坂江月堂), and in the east, just a little further up the road than Tōkōjiji Temple the Saka Reizaemon Kiln (坂高麗左衛門窯) of the original Saka family keeps its fires burning.

A notable potter of Hagi Yaki, Bertil Persson, is a Swedish artisan, who moved to Hagi in 1970 and became an apprentice of a Hagi kiln after the master reluctantly agreed to teach him the tradition. Persson now has his own kiln; Nanmyōjigama (南明寺窯) in the south of Hagi city, and continues to make both traditional and experimental Hagi Yaki.

Rikuto Hanafusa making Hagi Yaki at Nosaka Pottery Kiln. | Photo by Connie Sceaphierde

Typical Features of Hagi Yaki

Typical Hagi Yaki is often extinguished by its simplicity. The ceramic is often of earthy colour, with little to no decoration, and makes a good contrast against the bright green colour of matcha. To the untrained eye, the pottery can seem dull or bland, however, what many don’t realise is that the ceramics are produced with the intention of being used rather than displayed and that over time the glaze will change colour as it reacts to tea residue and matures.

A famous quote in Japan “Raku first, Hagi second and Karatsu third” indicates the preferred ranking of ceramics used in tea ceremonies. When you look individually at the three types of teaware in the quote, you will notice that the preferred style of ceramic had a more earthy style rather than decorative.

White Hagi Yaki was developed by the Miwa family and has evolved over the generations. To make White Hagi Yaki, the potter uses two different glazes, one white and the other black. The vessel is first immersed into the black glaze before it is lowered into the white glaze. The outer white glaze is in actual fact initially a thick black colour, which turns to its stereotypical rich white colour following firing. After dipping the ceramic into the thick glaze, the pottery is then moved slowly to allow the glaze to drip in the chosen direction.

By - Connie Sceaphierde.