Reunion with KATO Juunidai [KATO Hiroshige] in Seto

Today we meet KATO Juunidai [KATO Hiroshige] and are greeted with a big hug. Today, our journey leads us to the ceramics town Seto, renowned for many centuries, which came into bloom under the protection of the Tokugawa Shogun. On the way to KATO’s atelier, the ceramist tells us that he made several pieces of new Matcha bowls [chawan] and tea bowls [yunomi] to show us.

Historic Chawan by KATO Juudai and old photos of KATO Juudai

Inside the atelier, we first look at some old works by KATO Juudai, the 10th generation of the ceramist family. His grandfather taught today’s ceramist KATO Juunidai [the 12th generation] about the manufacturing of the traditional ceramics. KATO Juunidai was still in his young years, when his grandfather had already gained fame for his works, and created ever more complex and extravagant works through the years.

KATO Juudai [KATO Senzaemon]
For our visit today, KATO’s mother had looked through some remote rooms of the old atelier and the residence to choose some outstanding pieces from the few remaining old works of the grandfather. The question is brought up whether we would purchase a few more of the old works to present them in exhibitions in Europa, or offer them to collectors there. We take photos of some of the old Matcha bowls [chawan] to think about it carefully, and we will tell KATO Juunidai how we decided within the next days.

Historic Chawan by KATO Juudai

With this Chawan, KATO shows us the different effects of oxidation and reduction firing on clay and glaze. In the case of oxidation firing, the temperature is not so high, so the clay shrinks less, while the glaze develops a distrinct craquelure. The bowls are ageing beautifully, with tea entering the fine cracks in the glaze, when using the bowl, and creating impressive structures. This effect can also be achieved with putting the ceramics in an extract made of acorn-shells. In comparison, reduction firing is done with a higher temperature. The clay shrinks much more and the structure is much more closed after firing. Also, less or no craquelure develops. With oxidation firing, the light-coloured clay from Seto appears a little bit darker and more aged, while with reduction firing it stays very evenly light-coloured.

Left: Reduction firing. Right: Oxidation firing with the same clay and the same glaze.

Several months have passed already, since KATO Juuniday visited Europe for his ceramics exhibitions. On the journey with him several ideas for new works evolved. While the several centuries long ceramics tradition of his family plays an important role for the ceramist, as well as the tradition of his home town Seto, new ideas are just as welcome. It is not about making something completely new but combining certain traditional elements with new aspects. This time his challenge consists in connecting a tea bowl with a traditional function, namely a Matcha bowl, with a traditional glaze, namely Nezumi Shino, with a special world of shapes.

Rittai-shugi no chawan with Nezumi Shino glaze

While these kind of Matcha bowls [chawan] are rare to find, there is a certain tradition of Japanese ceramists to take up specific elements, which were used by European artists in the 20th century, amongst others. Interestingly, these are especially artists which in turn were strongly inspired by older Japanese art. During the exhibition of KATO Juunidai [KATO Hiroshige] in Paris, in Montmartre, Pablo Picasso’s former atelier was mentioned, which is located only a few minutes of walking from the venue of the KATO exhibition. Furthermore, Montmartre was the birth place of cubism. The approach of treating ceramic works, such as tea bowls, with cuts, is well known in the Japanese art world. Sometimes, there are only one or two smaller cuts, which do not alter the shape fundamentally. But sometimes, there are vertically placed, rather broad cuts, all around the whole Matcha bowl [chawan], which change the whole, originally round shape into a edgy shape. In KATO Juunidais new works, however it is about Matcha bowls, which are almost completely shaped by strongly accentuated cuts, both vertically and horizontally, as well as diagonally. Thus it happens that the shapes, in a way, remind us of certain cubist paintings which dissect things into more simple, geometrical forms. While the new works of KATO Juunidai certainly do no belong to the cubist style, they are still inspired by a cubist interpretation of the surroundings, in our talks with KATO, we started to use the working title “Rittai-shugi no chawan“ [Cubism-style Matcha bowl]. We expect the first works of this generation to reach us in early summer 2019, and then be available from the respective retailers.

KATO Juunidai with the Rittai-shugi no chawan

After we talked about everything in his atelier, we go out to KATO’s garden. There, he shows us a work of his grandfather: a monument with two Komainu [lion-dogs who protect buddhist temples or shinto shrines from evil spirits]. Next to it, there is a work from even earlier times, which one of his ancestors made for the Tokugawa family. Today, we are about to learn even more about the history of his family, and their strong roots within the history of Seto and in the Tokugawa Shogun’s patronage at that time.

Komainu (lion-dogs who protect buddhist temples or shinto shrines from evil spirits) made by KATO Juudai

Two types of metal are the oldest ones to be used for the colouring of glazes: iron and copper. Depending on the firing technique, they create different colours. While iron in reduction firing causes a black colour of the glaze, adding iron in oxidation firing causes a reddish-brownish shade. Adding copper to the glaze results in a rose-colour with reduction firing, and a green colour with oxidation firing. Seto is very famous for the copper-containing Oribe glaze. Oribe describes both this green type of glaze, and a style of painting and assymetrical aspects in the design, because Oribe was not only a tea master but also a designer. Besides Matcha bowls [chawan] and other accessories for the tea ceremony, he also designed Kimono patterns.

Lotus vessel by KATO Juudai in the garden of Unkouji

At the temple “Unkouji” KATO shows us a lotus-flower-shaped vessel in front of a big monument. This vessel was created by his grandfather KATO Juudai 47 years ago, in memory of a famous ceramist in Seto.

In Seto, to this day, one can see the various stages in the development of ceramic firing. In the beginning, open fire was used for firing. As open fire was not hot enough, and furthermore, it was difficult to control the temperature, the next stage was a kiln-type called “Anagama”. At a hill with clay ressources, clay is used directly on-site to create vessels. At the same time, the opening in the ground creates the kiln. So, when clay was found, ceramics were manufactured and then fired directly at this place. This firing technique also developed because it was difficult to extract the clay and transport it across long distances. However, in this firing method, it turned out as disadvantage that at the upper part of the Anagama the temperature was too low. It was not possible to re-heat there. The upper part was only warmed up by the fire in the lower part. For this reason, ceramics in the upper part were often not heated strongly enough and often could not be used.

Noborigama in Seto

The next development, which we look at today, is the Noborigama. Here, there is a chamber for the fire in the lower-most part, and above this, there are several firing chambers for the ceramics. These chambers can be heated additionally from the side, so that the ceramics can be heated more evenly, and higher temperatures can also be reached in the upper chambers. We visit a friend of KATO, who still uses such a kiln. It is fired once a year. To use all firing chambers, the kiln has to be fired with wood continuously for five days. In the Seto style, ashes on the glaze are not desired, so the ceramics are kept in clay vessels during the firing, which are made especially for covering the ceramics. The ashes which arise from the burning wood, thus do not accumulate on the surface of the ceramic works but on the outer clay vessel. The ceramic pieces themselves get their colour only from the applied glaze. It is a matter of style whether ashes on the ceramics are desirable or not.

Covering vessels for ash-free firing in the Noborigama

In old days, the ceramist family KATO used a Noborigama for firing, later a charcoal-fired kiln, and nowadays mainly gas-fired kilns.