Japanese teaware comes in a huge variety of shapes, colours, glazes, and decorations. These styles are often closely tied to the various local pottery traditions that create these beautiful pieces of functional art. As the country with the oldest known pottery tradition, Japan is home to hundreds of ceramic production areas scattered across the archipelago, each with its own distinct clays, glazes, and decoration styles.
Below, you will find a brief overview of some of the more well-known pottery production areas in Japan and examples of the teaware they produce.
But first, what is a “yaki”?
You might notice that each of the styles below ends with the word “yaki” (焼). Generally speaking, this word means ‘cooked’ or ‘grilled’ (such as in ‘teriyaki’ or ‘okonomiyaki’) but can also mean ‘cooked’ in the ceramics sense: fired in a kiln. In fact, one of the many words for ceramic in Japanese is ‘yakimono’ (焼物) or ‘fired things’. When used to denote various styles of pottery however, it is best translated as ‘ware’, as in Hagi-ware or Tokoname-ware.
Agano-yaki (上野焼) comes from Fukuchi in Fukuoka Prefecture, Japan. Praised for its elegance and light weight, Agano ware began being produced in the 17th century. Agano ware is famous for its use of enamels over the glaze. The most well-known of these enamels produces a vibrant blue-green/turquoise dripping effect caused by copper oxide.
Akahada-yaki (赤膚焼) comes from the area around Nara city and has supposedly been producing tea utensils since the 16th century. It is known for its soft and warm milky white glazes that are often decorated with a style of painting associated with Nara.
Arita-yaki (有田焼) comes from the area around the town of Arita on the island of Kyushu, Japan. Since the discovery of the raw materials for porcelain near Arita in the 16th century, Arita has been one of the major centers of Japanese porcelain production.
Banko-yaki (萬古焼) comes from Yokkaichi in Mie Prefecture, Japan and is known for producing excellent unglazed kyusu. The characteristic purple hue of many Banko pieces comes from the mixture of red oxidised iron and blue high-temperature baked iron in the clay.
Bizen-yaki (備前焼) comes from Bizen province, now part of Okayama prefecture, Japan. The site of one of Japan’s Six Ancient Kilns, pottery has been made in Bizen since at least the 14th century. Fired at high temperature for a long time (as long as 14 days) in wood-burning kilns, Bizen ware is known for its earthen colours and lack of traditional glaze. Because of the clay’s high rate of shrinkage, it is unsuitable for glazing. Instead, the designs found on Bizen ware come from kiln effects and include traces of molten ash resembling glaze and markings resulting from wood-burning kiln firing.
Hagi-yaki (萩焼) comes from the town of Hagi in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Japan and dates back over 400 years. Some of the oldest Hagi-yaki pieces have been declared National Treasures of Japan. The natural warm hues of its clay, along with the simple lines of its forms are highly valued within the traditional aesthetics of many tea ceremony schools. Hagi ware is said to improve with age as the tannins in the tea slowly stain the fine cracks in the glaze (called crazing or kan-nyuu), creating a rich texture known as "nanabake", or "the 7 transformations". Because of this slightly porous nature, some people like to dedicate their Hagi ware to one type of tea, such as sencha, to avoid having other aromas seep into the clay.
Hagi-yaki’s porosity means it requires special care. New Hagi pieces should be soaked in warm water for 2-3 hours to dislodge any dust in the clay’s pores. Some new Hagi pieces can be so porous that water leaks or soaks through the clay. Don’t be alarmed, this is perfectly normal and will fix itself with regular use as the tea fills in the pores of the clay. It is very important not to use soap when cleaning Hagi ware as it too can seep into the clay.
Karatsu-yaki (唐津焼) comes from Karatsu, Saga Prefecture, Japan. This area has been a centre of pottery production since the 16th century. Karatsu ware is known for its sturdiness and simplicity and is one of the favourites of tea ceremony practitioners, along with Raku ware and Hagi ware. Karatsu ware is produced in a variety of styles such as E-Karatsu (絵唐津) in which dark iron-based underglaze is used to paint plants, animals, and other images.
Kiyomizu-yaki (清水焼) (also called Shimizu-yaki) comes from Gojōzaka district near Kiyomizu Temple, in Kyoto, Japan. A subset of Kyo-yaki (see below) which refers to all pottery made in the Kyoto area, Kiyomizu ware has been produced since the 16th century
Koishiwara-yaki (小石原焼) from Koishiwara, Fukuoka Prefecture. The pottery tradition here dates back to the 17th century.
Kutani-yaki (九谷焼) is a style of Japanese porcelain from Kutani, now a part of Kaga, Ishikawa, in the former Kaga Province, Japan. Porcelain wares made here became popular in the 17th century and after production in Kutani was revived in the 19th century, it is known for its intricate designs, called aka-e kinran-de (赤絵 金襴手) Kutani.
Kyo-yaki (京焼) refers to any potter produced in and around Kyoto, in Kyoto Prefecture, one of Japan's former capital city and a centre for Japanese tea culture The pottery traditions of Kyoto date back to the 5th century and are incredibly varied in their styles.
Mino-yaki (美濃焼) is produced in Mino Province in Gifu Prefecture, Japan. Since the introduction of mass production in the Meiji period (1868–1912), Mino ware accounts for around 50% of Japanese pottery produced today.
Obori Soma-yaki (大堀相馬焼) is a type of Japanese porcelain produced in the town of Namie in Fukushima Prefecture, and dates back to the early Edo period. The most distinctive features of Obori-soma ware are its celadon glazes which feature large crazing patterns, hand-painted horse motifs, and double-walled construction. This double-walled technique provides insulation, keeping liquids hot and your hands cool, and is unique to Obori Soma-yaki.
Oribe-yaki (織部焼) is known for its free flowing glazes and asymmetrical, hand-formed shape. Dating from the 16th century, Oribe ware exists in many styles. One of the most famous is Ao-Oribe or Green Oribe, which is often decorated with geometric patterns painted with an iron glaze and then partially covered in a vibrant green copper-sulfate glaze which contrasts against the white background.
Shibukusa-yaki (渋草焼) comes from Takayama in Gifu Prefecture, and dates back to the late Edo period. It is known for its hand-painted pottery and porcelain, often done in either the classic blue and white ware styles, or in red and green.
Shigaraki-yaki (信楽焼) comes from the area around Shigaraki town in Shiga Prefecture, Japan. The site of one of Japan’s Six Ancient Kilns, pottery has been made in Shigaraki since at least the 12th century, with some saying it started as early as 742 AD. Made from clay taken from around Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest lake, Shigaraki ware is known for its warm colours, natural aesthetic, and glassy glazes.
Takatori-yaki (高取焼) comes from Fukuoka Prefecture, Japan. The original Takatori workshops were founded by Korean potters following the Japanese invasion of Korea in the 16th Century. In the nineteenth century, Takatori-yaki became one of the Seven Famous Kilns of Enshū, preferred by tea ceremony master Kobori Enshū.
Tokoname-yaki (常滑焼) comes from Tokoname in Aichi Prefecture, Japan. The site of one of Japan’s Six Ancient Kilns, pottery has been made in Tokoname since the 12th century. Today, Tokoname ware is known for its iconic brick-red clay called shudei. Famously used unglazed in teaware and bonsai pots, this clay’s vibrant colour comes from its rich iron content. Tea steeped in unglazed Tokoname teapots is said to have a mellower taste.