Mon, Feb 10, 2020

Arita ware: Refined art of Saga retaining the spirit of early porcelain making

Japan’s beauty in the eyes of CIRs

Representative shapes and designs of Arita ware
By Vincent Heuser / CIR for Arita, Saga Pref.

In the northern Kyushu town of Arita in Saga Prefecture, the roots of a more-than-400-years-old Japanese tradition can be found. Arita is considered to be the birthplace of porcelain in Japan with its ceramic industry still being the town’s major branch of economy.

It all started when the Korean potter Risanpei discovered kaolin, the main resource needed for porcelain production in the Izumiyama mountains in Arita. Being much harder and more stable than earthenware, which until then was the main resource for soft-paste porcelain already produced in Japan at that time, the stone from Izumiyama could be fired at higher temperatures and was therefore considered a priceless treasure.

Current state of Izumiyama quarry, where the material for porcelain making was discovered more than 400 years ago

Over the centuries, a great variety of different styles and designs was developed, all representing different episodes in the history of the town. During the first years of Arita ware production, the so-called sometsuke style focusing on underglaze decorations in blue color was the most widely-known characteristic of Arita ware, still being one of the main features even nowadays.

Underglaze-painting process

However, in the middle of the 17th century, potters in Arita developed the technology of over-glaze firing, making Arita ware suitable for a whole new range of patterns and styles. With the milky-white shining nigoshide as the new base color, kilns such as the Kakiemon kiln began to apply more colors such as red, yellow and green, even reaching to purple and gold designs. This made Arita ware appear even more gorgeous and sophisticated.

Overglaze-painting process

Newly developed methods of firing the kilns contributed to a higher limit in temperatures, leading to the new approach of firing porcelain in at least two different stages. Therefore the processes of keisei (shaping) and etsuke (painting) became two separated steps, improving the quality of each stage of production. While the temperatures that were necessary to fire the vessels including the white underglaze usually did not exceed 1,000 degrees, temperatures in the process of firing the objects after the application of patterns and pictures often ranged between 1,300 and 1,400 degrees. Flashier and at the same time more detailed pictures (iroe) using all available colors became a new characteristic of Arita ware.

A kiln used for firing
Tonbaibei walls made out of stones from former firing kilns

As a result of the extended range of possibilities regarding the use of colors and techniques, the so-called kinrande style became the most popular design during the Genroku period. The contrast of red and golden elements on a pure white surface underlined Arita ware’s unique qualities, boosting its popularity in many different parts of the world.

With the beginning of the 19th century, Arita was confronted with several difficulties regarding the production of porcelain. In 1828, a huge fire broke out, destroying large parts of the facilities that were crucial for the industry. Furthermore, as porcelain production increased in Gifu and Aichi prefectures, Arita was losing its edge in the domestic market. Those developments lead potters to focus on calm colors such as indigo blue instead of flashy designs. However, this drift helped Arita resurrect its reputation as a the leader of porcelain development since the combination of popular traditional designs reminiscent of the early stages of porcelain manufacturing with new technologies was widely recognized as another significant level of progress.

A sitting pair of Arita porcelain Hina dolls made by Shingama Kiln in Arita

Since the Meiji period, the scope of products labeled Arita ware has widened little by little, helping the production of other objects besides porcelain to rise. Nevertheless, regardless of shape, material and utility, the spirit of the early years of porcelain making is still clearly recognizable in all present expressions of Arita ware, mainly due to the application of its advanced technologies with its different influences from several centuries. Painting techniques and styles that are particular to Arita ware were applied especially to glass, underlining the presence of Arita ware also in different industries.

(Photos courtesy of Arita Town Division for Commerce Industry and Tourism)

(Cooperation: Council of Local Authorities for International Relations)


Vincent Heuser

Vincent was born and raised in Berlin, Germany, and developed interest in Japan in his teenage years. He decided to do an exchange to Nichinan in Miyazaki Prefecture when he was 15 years old. He later moved to Hamburg to study Japanese. During those four years, he spent one year at Fukui University, a partner university of Hamburg University. He graduated in 2018 and came to the small town of Arita in Saga Prefecture. Here, he works as the Coordinator for International Relations (CIR). His main tasks include translation and interpretation, teaching English and German classes, managing the exchange with our German sister city of Meissen, and writing for the town newspaper.



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