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Traditional Pottery Town Evolves with Changing Times

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Kyusu teapots made by Genji Shimizu

TOKONAME, Aichi — Pottery artist Genji Shimizu, 78, creates each part of kyusu teapots one by one in a fluid motion that wastes no energy. The accumulation of his skills over the past 60 years shows from the way he throws clay on his pottery wheel and how he forms the parts — the body, handle, spout and lid.

Shimizu lives and works in Tokoname, Aichi Prefecture, devoting himself to making kyusu that are comfortable to use. “I can thinly shape kyusu parts using sticky clay, which makes it light and easy to hold,” he said. “I also try to make sure you can finish pouring from the teapot without a single drop dribbling down.”

Occasionally, Shimizu makes a kyusu lid to replace one that had broken for customers who want to continue using the kyusu they already have. The tea utensils have become a part of their everyday life.

“I am happy to find that they use kyusu I made many years ago and are glad to have new lids for them, because usually you can never know who is using my kyusu,” Shimizu said.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Shimizu shapes a lid of a kyusu teapot with a spatula.

Tokoname is a city of history and innovation. It is known as one of so-called “six ancient kilns,” referring to six major centers that have been producing ceramics for many centuries — Seto, Tokoname, Echizen, Shigaraki, Tamba and Bizen.

Taking advantage of its clay suitable for pottery and location facing Ise Bay, the city flourished as a major production center of kame jugs in ancient times. In modern times, the city has produced earthen pipes, toilets and tiles, among other products, in response to changes in the industrial structure.

The production of kyusu is a 200-year-old tradition dating back to the end of the Edo period (1603-1867), and it became particularly prosperous after World War II.

Shimizu’s grandfather used to make kame during the agricultural off-season. At first, his father made suribachi mortars but later turned to creating kyusu. Shimizu himself began making kyusu after studying ceramics during high school.

An important point in his career came when he was around 30, Shimizu said. He met a senior craftsperson who taught him about trying a variety of clays without sticking to the one that makes red-brown shudei kyusu, for which Tokoname is famous for. The craftsperson also taught him some pottery techniques, including yakishime, in which products are not glazed.

Shimizu also worked on making various items, including tableware, keeping in mind that 10% of his creations should be something other than kyusu.

The enterprising nature of Tokoname has kept it vibrant with new innovations. The diversification of Tokoname ware has been promoted thanks to artists who produce kyusu for coffee or a well-designed tea burner that allows people to enjoy the aroma of tea.

The city where black smoke always used to hang in the air has become a tourist destination in recent years with the development of many promenades. Last fiscal year, the city saw 3.5 million visitors.

The city does not treat its history as a relic of the past. One can visit Dokanzaka, a slope lined with walls made from earthen pipes and shochu bottles, or an old traditional Japanese-style house converted into a cafe. Tokoname is changing while retaining the memories of the area.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Dokanzaka, a slope lined with walls made of earthen pipes and shochu bottles in Tokoname, Aichi Prefecture.

“I think I was born in a good place,” Shimizu said earnestly, showing me an old pottery piece he found in the mountains when he was in high school.

In Tokoname, materials for learning left behind by ancestors are found everywhere.