Golden Age of Karatsu Stoneware

François Villemin became fascinated with Karatsu stoneware while living and working in Japan for twenty years. He began eagerly collecting the boldly potted sake bottles, bowls, cups and plates that were made during the last quarter of the sixteenth century into the seventeenth century on the southern island of Kyūshū. As he collected, he did extensive research, visiting the old kiln sites, examining shards, reading, and talking with archaeologists. The result is this lovely book from Schiffer, The Golden Age of Karatsu Stoneware.

“Beautiful things are often shrouded in mystery and the ceramics of Karatsu follows this rule,” he writes. He goes on to say that there is uncertainty about when the first kilns were made in the area and who made the earliest Karatsu wares. The long held theory is that Korean potters were forcefully abducted and brought to Japan. “…it is generally accepted that the Japanese expeditionary force dragged out and marched off peasants with the intention to put them to work in the Kyūshū rice fields…The Japanese also took with them traditional…craftsmen such as printers, metal founders and potters.” Vellemin speculates that the Koreans could have come of their own will, afraid to stay behind lest they be accused of collaborating.

Whatever happened, we know that the Koreans brought with them a strong ceramics tradition, the skill to build huge kilns capable of high temperatures, and spare but evocative brushwork.

Villemin looks at the earth-toned Karatsu glazes, made from rice straw ash, wood ash, feldspar and iron; the various decorating techniques; and of course the kilns and firing methods. The first kilns were the anagama, followed by the oogama and then the multi-chamber, climbing waratake kilns which could hold thousands of pots. Though overgrown with trees, the crowns fallen in, the sites of many of these kilns are known and treasured today. Villemin lists and maps the old kilns, visited many sites, and tells us whether they were used to produce “high-status dishes” or “common dishes.” This would be very useful if one were planning a trip to Japan.

The book includes diagrams, lots of photos of both intact pots and shards, and, if one reads Japanese which alas I don’t, an appealing bibliography.