Musing on the introduction of ceramics from ancient Korea

The castle ruins on a hill overlooking the sea are the site of Nagoya Castle, which was built in 1591 as a base from which to dispatch troops during Toyotomi Hideyoshi's invasions of Korea (1592-1598). The seascape visible from here is of the islands of Iki and Tsushima islands from the Genkai Sea, and beyond that is the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula. Potters from Korea came to Japan via this sea route, and many of the most advanced climbing kilns of the time were built in the area. This is a mysterious site where two viewpoints intersect: that of Japanese looking over to the Korean Peninsula and that of these Korean potters.

Korean pottery was introduced to this area during the two Japanese invasions of Korea (1592-94 and 1597-1598) during the Momoyama period. The tea ceremony culture was flourishing, and the warring feudal lords, while fighting in horrific battles, were devoted to their opposite in the tea ceremony, and indulged in the beauty of the tea utensils. The potters who were brought to Japan as prisoners of war were protected by these feudal lords and wielded their skills in various places. Around Karatsu where Nagoya Castle was located, countless kilns were erected by these potters, and the area was thriving with ceramic production.

If you’re interested in pottery, you must visit Karatsu. You can sense more than 400 years of pottery culture from the ruins of the kilns and pottery stone quarries of the past, and you can fully enjoy the vibrant pulse of the kilns that still run today. There are young artists who try to recreate the beauty of old Karatsu ware while studying pottery shards in the kiln ruins, and there are artists who are like hermits who enjoy playing around with the beauty of ceramics in an uninhibited way. And then there are potters who strive to preserve prestigious Karatsu-style ceramic traditions that have managed to continue for generations in the struggle between creation and destruction.

I visited Karatsu three times for research. One of my visits coincided with the firing of the Nakazato Taroemon kiln, and I was able to cover the event. Early in the morning, Nakazato Taroemon XIV, heir of a long line of master potters in the Nakazato family, started the fire in the prepared climbing kiln, which was fired continuously for 24 hours. The top temperature was said to be 1,320 degrees Celsius. The lid of the kiln was opened and wood was put in, and then the kiln was closed and monitored for combustion. This endless repetition gradually increases the temperature inside the kiln. Eternal beauty emerges from passing through the fire. This is the root of the charm of pottery.

Karatsu made from the Momoyama period through the beginning of the Edo period (1603-1868) is called Ko Karatsu (old Karatsu), and enjoys high popularity in the world of antique art for its simplicity and air of austere elegance. At the same time, artists today also pursue the style. Of course, Karatsu ware by modern artists also has great depth. In the city of Karatsu, there are a number of restaurants where you can enjoy Karatsu ware along with food and sake. There are also beautiful pine forests along the coast, reminiscent of the pine trees depicted in Egaratsu (brush-decorated Karatsu ware).

In Karatsu, there is a long-established inn called Yoyokaku. The proprietress of the inn told me that after the war, when an American soldier came to stay at the inn, she was advised to keep the inn in its original state. Indeed, the imposing entrance, corridors and the garden with a forest of pine trees have a terrific atmosphere. You can feel the pride of the management everywhere. The inn also has a substantial gallery of Karatsu ware artists including Takashi Nakazato, and Karatsu ware made by these artists is featured at mealtime as well.



Nakazato Tarouemon

3-6-29 Machida, Karatsu-shi, Saga, 847-0821


2-4-40 Higashi karatsu, Karatsu-shi, Saga, 847-0017