Timeless Style: The Elegance of Hagi-yaki
Ichi Raku ni Hagi san Karatsu
First Raku, second Hagi, third Karatsu
This old adage which is commonly heard in tea ceremony circles shows how highly valued Hagi ware is in the world of Japanese ceramics. Devoid of unnecessary decoration or complication, Hagi-yaki’s natural warm hues, simple lines, and elegantly understated glazes make it one of Japan’s most recognisable and beloved ceramic traditions.
What is Hagi-yaki?
Hagi-yaki (萩焼), or Hagi ware, is a regional style of Japanese ceramics that comes from the area around the town of Hagi in Yamaguchi Prefecture, for which it is named. Since its development over 400 years ago, Hagi-yaki remains highly valued within the traditional aesthetics of practically all tea ceremony schools, with some of the oldest Hagi-yaki pieces declared National Treasures of Japan. While it is most well known for its production of teaware and tea ceremony utensils, Hagi potters also produce tableware and sakeware for daily use, and more recently, sculptural art.
In addition to its simple, naturalistic elegance, Hagi teaware is also said to improve with age over the course of decades and even centuries. As tea slowly stains the clay through the fine cracks in the glaze, it deepens and enriches the piece’s colour and texture in a process known as nanabake, or "the seven transformations". This ability to capture the passage of time only adds to its allure. Although, interestingly enough the exact definition of each of the "seven" transformations is disputed by many experts in the field.
History of Hagi-yaki
Hagi-yaki has a rather dark history that begins with the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592, when Korean potters were forcibly relocated to southern Japan. To understand why, we’ll need some context.
Ceramics enthusiasts might note a similarity between Hagi ware and certain styles of Korean pottery from the Joseon era, particularly from the 16th-17th centuries. This is no coincidence. During the 16th century in Japan, simple Korean bowls became incredibly popular for use in the tea ceremony, as they perfectly fit the ‘wabi’ school of restrained aesthetics, which was slowly gaining traction over the older, more elaborate and extravagant tastes for expensive Chinese pottery, such as celadon and tenmoku. Though they were made as cheap peasant bowls in Korea, they fetched a high price in Japan, not only due to their rarity and aesthetic appeal, but also because no one in Japan had the tools, technology, or know-how required to replicate their natural elegance.
This changed following Japan’s invasions of the Korean Peninsula in 1592 and again in 1597, led by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Though ultimately unsuccessful, this campaign, sometimes called the Imjin War, devastated Joseon Korea, who eventually repelled Hideyoshi’s forces with the help of Ming China. During their occupation, Japan relocated thousands of Korean scholars and craftsmen to Kyushu in Southern Japan. Many of the potters that were brought to Japan began to build new kilns, creating what are now some of Japan’s most well-known regional styles, such as Arita-yaki, Agano-yaki, and Karatsu-yaki. Among these potters were the brothers Ri Shakko and Ri Kei (likely the Japanese forms of the Korean names Yi Sukkwang and Yi Kyung respectively), who were brought to Japan by the warlord Mori Terumoto of Hagi. There they set up their first kiln with his patronage and fired the first piece of Hagi ware around 1604. At first, they and other Korean potters in the area continued to make chawan in the Korean styles they were used to, but soon they began to branch out and develop new styles.
After the Meiji Restoration and the end of Mori clan patronage, Hagi ware saw a lapse in popularity before it was revived by the work of Miwa Kyuwa and the resurging interest in traditional arts in the Taisho and early Showa Eras. Today it is one of Japan’s most popular and recognisable ceramic traditions and enjoys tremendous popularity.
Hagi-yaki is typically made from blending three types of local clay:
Primarily taken from the Daido (台道) district of Hofu City, this low iron, highly malleable greyish clay is the main clay used in Hagi ware.
Taken from Mishima Island, mishima clay is dark red in colour due to its high-iron content.
Taken from Mitate Mountain, this yellow-white clay is similar in quality to kaolin, which is used to make porcelain and celadon. Mitate clay is usually mixed with Daido.
By blending these three clays in various ratios, Hagi potters create the desired colour, texture, and properties for their pieces.
Hagi-yaki glazes are comparatively subdued, seeking to highlight and complement the inherent beauty and ‘taste’ of the clay (土味 - tsuchi aji). These glazes can be sorted into two main families:
Earth-ash Feldspar Glaze
Earth ash (土灰 - dobai) is a combination of various wood ashes, often including pine, Isu and various oaks, that typically has other impurities in it too. For Hagi-yaki, it is mixed with various feldspars yielding a translucent, warm beige glaze.
Straw Ash Glaze
Adding straw ash (藁灰 - warabai) to the earth ash solution creates a thick black slurry that transforms during firing into a fluffy pure white glaze as the carbon in the straw ash evaporates, causing the glaze to devitrify, creating a cloudy whiteness. This technique was likely brought to Japan from Korea, though it may have been developed in Fujian, China even earlier.
Styles of Hagi
Gohon(te) - 御本(手)
This distinctive style of pink or white spots against a grey or beige background is made when a piece coated with white slip and covered in a transparent glaze is fired in reduction. It gets its name from the order forms and catalogue books (御本 - gohon) that tea masters used in the Azuchi-Momoyama period to order tea bowls from potters and kilns. This style is also called kase (鹿背 - deer’s back) due to its resemblance to the spots on the back of a deer, though this term is mostly used to describe Asahi-yaki (朝日焼).
Biwa-iro - (枇杷色 - loquat coloured)
One of Hagi’s most celebrated styles, this rich yellow-ochre colour is achieved when the earth ash glaze is fired in oxidation. Typically associated with Hagi-yaki Ido chawan, it is one of the more sought after styles.
Shira Hagi - (白萩 - White Hagi)
Made using the straw ash glaze, shira Hagi has a warmth and textural depth that white porcelain does not. The thickness of the glazes leads to drips, pinholes, and glaze crawling.
Oni Hagi - (鬼萩 - Demon Hagi)
Taking shira Hagi to the next level was Miwa Jusetsu (Kyusetsu XI). The Miwa family is one of the oldest families of Hagi potters, Miwa Kyusetsu who founded the Matsumoto Kiln in 1663. Inspired by the power of the rough sea, Jusetsu crafted strong and striking forms from a coarse clay made by mixing large amounts of sand into daido clay. He first brushed these pieces with an iron rich glaze, then dipped into the shira Hagi straw ash glaze, twisting the pieces as the glaze dried so that it would drip and flow in interesting ways. After firing, the areas brushed with the iron rich glaze turn a deep black, providing a stark contrast against the bright white of the straw ash glaze. The overall impression is one of deep texture, power, and contrast. Since its creation, Oni-Hagi has become one of the region’s more popular styles, breathing new life into the ancient tradition.
Ao-Hagi - (青萩 - Blue Hagi)
Another recent development in Hagi-yaki, Ao-hagi refers to a number of blue-tinted glazes, most famously those by Yamane Seigen (山根清玩). One way to achieve this style is to glaze Mishima clay with a straw ash glaze, and fire it in a climbing kiln, where the iron in the clay and the iron in the straw ash combine to produce a beautiful vibrant blue.
Why do many Hagi-yaki pieces have a chip in the foot?
Don’t worry, it’s not broken! Called a kiri-koudai (切り高台), the triangular notch or chip cut into the foot of many Hagi-yaki cups and bowls is one of the style’s iconic features. There are many theories as to why this started, though the actual reason is unknown. One possibility is that the original Hagi potters cut these notches in order to make the pieces ‘ungiftable’ as tribute to the Mori clan, thus allowing them to sell the wares freely at markets. Whatever the reason, the chipped foot has remained a feature of Hagi ware to this day.
Caring for Hagi Ware
The same porosity of glaze and clay that results in the beautiful nanabake also means that Hagi ware often requires special care and treatment to avoid staining.
Most new Hagi pieces should be soaked in warm water for at least 2 hours to dislodge any dust in the clay’s pores. This also allows water to fill the cracks and pores, slowing the rate at which tea or sake stains the clay. Slowing the staining process allows the nanabake to progress naturally and beautifully. Exceptionally porous Hagi ware may need a quick soak before every use, however most pieces will not.
Some brand 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. If this doesn’t work, then soaking the piece in rice water can help.
Hagi-yaki’s porosity also means that it is very important not to use soap when cleaning Hagi ware, as it too can seep into the clay.
With a little bit of care and attention, Hagi ware can last many lifetimes, elegantly aging over time, as evidenced by the centuries old Hagi chawan still in use today.
To learn more about other regional Japanese ceramics styles and traditions, you can read our guide to the main Japanese pottery production areas.