Japanese Version

Japanese Ceramics by Robert Yellin

January, 2016

Tamba Ceramist NISHIHATA Tadashi

by Robert Yellin



Of all the Six-Ancient pottery towns in Japan, none retain the tranquil country life feel and environment as Tamba. Located in Hyogo prefecture not that far from bustling metropolises Kobe and Osaka, Tamba is situated in a valley where for a millennium the potters have used the perfect slopes of the hills to build their wood-burning kilns. This is the setting where veteran ceramic artist Nishihata Tadashi works and where his family has worked for hundreds of years.


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Nishihata’s Tamba ware combines all of the great aspects of classic Tamba, such as bringing out the natural warm beauty of the local clay on his jars to the Tamba-only technique of adding red-slip to works to give them a glossy lacquer façade. He also combines various glazes on his works that are then fired and given overlapping lively natural ash-glazes in various tones that create abstract action-painting looks to the clay surfaces. Nishihata truly is a master potter and has been awarded many times for his work in Japan (winning the Tanabe Museum’s Grand Prize Modern Tea Forms 3 times!), yet the real reward is seeing the glint in his eyes when he describes his work. We hope the photos seen here from a recent Tokyo exhibition will clearly show the magic that Nishihata creates using only clay, air, water, fire…….and spirit.


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Robert Yellin is one of the world’s authorities on Japanese ceramics.  A resident of Japan for nearly 30 years, he has played a central role in the introduction of cutting-edge Japanese artists to the world as an author, lecturer and gallery owner.  His website, http://www.japanesepottery.com, serves as a primary source of information for thousands of ceramic enthusiasts, worldwide.

August, 2015

Kimura Moriyasu—A Universe in a Tea Bowl

by Robert Yellin with photos by Ron Beimel



The Japanese say that there is a universe to be found in a small hand-held chawan, a ceramic bowl used for serving whisked green tea. This metaphor for the magical space in a bowl for gazing is similar to Blake’s way to see the universe in a grain of sand. For some of Japan’s potters, the colors and textures in a chawan actually do mimic a star-filled night sky and the unfathomable universe; oil-spot tenmoku being the most obvious style for such observations. And at the age of 80, Kyoto’s Kimura Moriyasu is one of the brightest tenmoku ceramic artists in all of Japan’s long ceramic history.



Kimura is one of three famous Kimura ceramist brothers, the other two being Morikazu (b.1921) and Morinobu (b.1932). Helping his elder brothers while still in his teens, Moriyasu has not once stepped off the tenmoku path, having mastered all the classic styles, such as the aforementioned oil-spot tenmoku and another known as hare’s-fur tenmoku.



Yet what really highlights the brilliance of Kimura is his thoroughly original tenmoku. Aptly named Tenmoku Andromeda, the radiant colors evoke a deep emotional response from viewers, often with a simple, “Wow” or a long deep breath of wordless amazement.



Tenmoku was the name of a chawan first produced in China during the Song Period (960-1279) and was first mentioned in a Japanese document in 1335 by Zen abbot, Onkei Soyu.  From the 14th century, the Ashikaga Shoguns held tenmoku and jade-like celadon in the highest esteem and this reverence reached its peak during the reign of the 8th shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1369-1395). Tenmoku also refers to the form of the chawan, with a small base that flares out into a wider opening, a form that Kimura prefers as “it allows for my colors to be seen more vividly.”



And even as Kimura enters his eighth decade he is still creating new glaze recipes that are stretching and re-defining tenmoku in the 21stcentury. One such style is called Koyama (yellow mountain), seen here with a dark-rimmed lip interspersed with black wavy calligraphic lines.



Kimura fires these in a gas kiln for about 16-20 hours, never knowing until the kiln door is opened how his tenmoku will turn out. The kiln unloading still makes his heart nervously pound knowing from 1000’s of past experiences that one magic chawan might be ‘born’ or the entire stock may be duds; the iron glazes are “that hard” to control. When Kimura speaks about this his eyes twinkle like a child. And one must always keep in mind that these chawan only really come alive when they are actually held and used.  Imagine frothy whisked matcha in Kimura’s Koyama-style chawan!


Other forms that Kimura creates include eared vases with white icing-cloudy-sakura petal-like effects, as well as tall jar forms where the broader ‘clay palette’ allows his glazes to take on the impressionistic feel of, say, Monet. In fact, if Monet was able to see the Kimura vase shown here he would applaud and bow in acknowledgement of an artistic creation with which he shares a similar inspiration.


Robert Yellin is one of the world’s authorities on Japanese ceramics.  A resident of Japan for nearly 30 years, he has played a central role in the introduction of cutting-edge Japanese artists to the world as an author, lecturer and gallery owner.  His website, http://www.japanesepottery.com, serves as a primary source of information for thousands of ceramic enthusiasts, worldwide.

October, 2014

Bizen Unchained Kakurezaki

kakurezaki front up

By Robert Yellin:  Kakurezaki Ryuichi’s vision goes beyond the confines of traditional forms or standard Momoyama-inspired tea shapes that abound in Bizen’s traditional world. His vision has helped him create his own style of Bizen which I shall call Hesei Bizen.

He has given Bizen a fine-arts mentality. In the connoisseurs world of pottery collecting, pieces from the Momoyama period are most prized, for that was Japan’s Renaissance years that saw the crystalliazation of many of Japan’s artistic triumphs. In the world of Bizen, pieces from that period through the middle of the Edo-period are known as Ko-Bizen or “old Bizen” and are highly treasured. 


Kakurezaki henko

Kakurezaki has not ignored Ko-Bizen though, for to do so would be to lose perspective of what it means to be a Bizen ceramist and run the risk of cutting himself off from all the creative energy that Ko-Bizen pieces speak of. Kakurezaki has studied Ko-Bizen as well as many forms of contemporary art and has tapped into the “spirit” of Bizen without being a complacent participant. “Much of the beauty of Ko-Bizen derives from the clay that was used then. but that clay is not available now so why should I recreate classical forms with inferior materials. I might as well take a risk and create my own styles,” Kakurezaki recently told me. 

Kakurezaki Mitsukoshi 2010 b

Kakurezaki’s star began to rise around 1985 when he left his long apprenticeship with Jun Isezaki (Isezaki has been designated as an intangible cultural treasure of Okayama Prefecture), and established his own kiln that gave birth to his Heisei-Bizen. His thoroughly original designs have earned him success and a  reputation rarely seen for a ceramic artist so soon after establishing one’s own kiln. He has won numerous prestigious juried shows as well as the Japan Ceramic Society Prize.   


Kakurezaki Mitsukoshi 2010 c

Kakurezaki can be likened to an outlaw.  “I come from Nagasaki, far from Bizen, and that allowed me to express myself in more unchained ways. Looking from outside I am indeed a Bizen ceramic artist, but looking from within the tradition of Bizen, I do appear quite different.”

His flared bases, three-legged vessals, and his sharply cut ridged vases, have all become his trademark. Already other Bizen potters are imitating his creative genius and that has sparked a new crop of up-and-coming potters not content with centuries-old forms. 


Kakurezaki photo

One of Kakurezaki’s more recent exhibitions was entitled “North Images” (Kakurezaki often gives his exhibitions a topical title, past ones being ‘”Phalanx”  and “Moon Spot”) and the thirty or so pieces in the “North Images” show were fired in four different-style kilns and thus exhibit a range of Bizen surface effects which  include scarlet red “hidasuki” streaks as well as “goma” (sesame) brown-colored patches or drips where the pine wood fused and melted during the firing, and black spots where the ash turned to charcoal. Many of the pieces are open-mouthed with  Kakurezaki’s signature flared base and quite “bunny” looking ears angling off to one side. 

I recently caught up with him in Tokyo and he explained about the title of the “North Images” series. “We always think of  directions as associated with images. The image of the south being warm, sunny, friendly and the north as cold, cloudy, and  severe. I feel we need to look to the north now to find inspiration and change, both Japan itself and myself personally.” Kakurezaki has already changed the world of Bizen with his “Heisei Bizen” and through these changes he has taken Bizen into the 21st century, fresh and full of vitality.

Robert Yellin is one of the world’s authorities on Japanese ceramics.  A resident of Japan for nearly 30 years, he has played a central role in the introduction of cutting-edge Japanese artists to the world as an author, lecturer and gallery owner.  His website, http://www.japanesepottery.com, serves as a primary source of information for thousands of ceramic enthusiasts, worldwide.

March, 2011

Steve in Mishima b 1st

While riding the Shinkansen train from Tokyo on my way home to Kyoto (a few days before the earthquake), I made a special stop at Mishima, in order to visit the Robert Yellin Gallery, a must stop for contemporary Japanese ceramics enthusiasts.  Robert’s gallery is a surprisingly convenient way to see significant works by dozens of today’s top Japanese ceramic artists, all in one place.  Amongst pieces by such internationally recognized ceramic greats as Kohyama Yoshihisa, Kaneta Masanao and Kato Yasukage,  were younger artists like Kako Katsumi, whom I recently met at a group show at Takashimaya in Kyoto.

Kako Katsumi Tea Bowl REv
Tea bowl by Kako Katsumi
What is most impressive about the gallery is the wide variety of ceramic styles, from warm unglazed pieces, to soft glazed Hagi ware and stunning celadon, all displayed in a large, naturally lit room.
Robert promised to write a blog post for us about Yamada Kaku, a Mino-style artist whose studio I took Santa Fe artist Gail Rieke’s travel journal group, last November, when we were in rural Fukui Prefecture.

Robert Yellin is one of the world’s authorities on Japanese ceramics.  A resident of Japan for nearly 30 years, he has played a central role in the introduction of cutting-edge Japanese artists to the world as an author, lecturer and gallery owner.  His website, http://www.e-yakimono.net, serves as a primary source of information for thousands of ceramic enthusiasts, worldwide.


April, 2011

Ceramic Artist, Kazu Yamada

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Steve here: Robert. You introduced me last year to Kazu Yamada-san. I am delighted to have you share this very talented person with our readers.

Robert: Thank you for asking! I have been following the work of Kazu Yamada’s since I first saw a green Oribe guinomi of his in the late 1980s. As many know, Oribe is a Mino style, from an area in Gifu prefecture, not far from Nagoya. Under the Mino umbrella we find the glazed wares of Shino, Black Seto, Yellow Seto and Oribe. Yamada does them all, along with natural ash-glazed Shigaraki and Iga styles. He has also created his own glaze styles.

One that he calls “kakuyu” is a red dripping glaze over a white slip.

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Another is the fiery red, dancing enbu-Shino. Both styles are dazzling. I cannot think of any other ceramic artist in Japan who masters more glazing schemes than Yamada.


Ironically, Yamada was born in 1954 from a potting family in Tokoname, an ancient potting town that has nothing to do with these styles. Tokoname is one of the so-called ‘Six Old Kilns’ of Japan that dates back millennium. After graduating from the Osaka University of Fine Arts he set up his kiln in the snow country of Echizen, also one of the ‘Six Old Kiln’ styles. However, Yamada doesn’t fire in the Echizen style either! In the 1970’s, his father, Kenichi, joined other potters who were invited to set up their kilns in a newly developed potting village in Echizen. Though his father decided to stay behind in Tokoname, Yamada went ahead and took over the new studio. The flames had been lit.

Though Yamada makes all sorts of forms, he excels with chadogu (tea ware), and especially chawan (tea bowls.) This black Seto is perfect for the cold winter season as it invites inward reflection and provides visual warmth. Yamada has given it a sculptural feel with the faceted sides and has purposely left a patch of clay bare, a lovely contrast and an important focal point. That is because this tsuchi-aji (“flavor”) of the natural unglazed clay is paramount for any fine piece. Usually on a glazed work it can only be seen on the exposed kodai (foot) of the bowl. Yamada’s thoughtful artfulness placed it on the side for all to enjoy without having to turn the bowl over. However, when you do turn it over, you’ll find a foot unlike any other in Japan today. Carved to a creative new form, incised, stamped and perfectly balanced, the kodai on a Yamada tea bowl, regardless of the style, is always a focal point, a topic of conversation for Tea enthusiasts. It is the key place that truly shows the brilliance of Yamada’s work.


Look at the movement on the Oribe chawan (first photo at top.) It appears as a bamboo node growing out of the forest floor. The sway, ‘attitude’ and incised lines are all in perfect harmony. This took great skill to achieve. It is a delightful summer bowl.


Yamada also makes various works for flowers (3rd photo from top.) Here is a fine three-sectioned incised Iga vase, as well as tableware and, of course, vessels from which to enjoy sake.


Ceramic artists are said to be at the top of their game in their 50’s, which places Yamada at the pinnacle of his career. Many years ago the great 20th century artist, Kato Tokuro (1898-1985), saw Yamada’s works and remarked, ‘this lad is quite good.” Ain’t that the truth!



October, 2010

Yoshisuji Keiji — Buddha Potter

yoshisuji cha

Down a deep mountain road in Mori-machi, Shizuoka prefecture is a 150 year-old rustic yet dignified house that stands as the last vestige of civilization before nature takes total control.  This is where Yoshisuji Keiji is to be found.

I drove that road this autumn and found Yoshisuji–a yakishime potter–in a small room reading books on Buddhist art, his quiet, outer country ceramic life in deep conversation with his inner wondering spirit. I made the long drive to visit Yoshisuji for two reasons.  First,  I find his work to be beautiful in its intense natural ash-glazing and austere forms.  Secondly, I admire his searching for the roots of not only Japanese ceramic art, but of Japan itself, in his creations.

Let’s take a look at his sutra container. The first sutra containers were made of cast bronze and were buried for the first time in 1007. Their form is unforgettably simple and elegant.  In ceramic art dating back 2000 years to the earliest Yayoi period works , we find extraordinary simplicity in form.  Contrasted with the highly sought after complexity of most potters’ works today, the spiritually imbibed pots made long ago resonate with a simplicity that is truly majestic.  Not to imply that  simplicity is easily achieved.  On the contrary, it is reached only after years of study and repetition.  Then one must learn how to forget it all!

yoshisuji front

Yoshisuji, in making a sutra container, is looking for the beauty of form that spoke to the ancients, and thus will only deepen his own original forms.

yoshisuji vases

Yoshisuji’s sutra container is on my desk as I write this. As with any lidded vessel one is initially inclined to have a look inside. When the scalloped lid is removed a soft golden orange hue is emitted from the Shigaraki ‘clay flavor.’ Yoshisuji uses only Shigaraki clay and wishes to differentiate his works from traditional Shigaraki in a few ways.   One way is form.  The other is his multiple firings.  In fact, this piece was fired four times. This creates an amazing landscape of texture and color. On the sutra container it has a lichen feel with its crusty outer surface.  Then we see the front with its dripping flow of natural green ash glaze.  All of this creates a mysterious aura about the work as if it had been exposed to the elements for centuries. This is true of many of his works, including his sake vessels, which I find truly delightful to use.  “Use” here also means to simply gaze upon.

yoshisuji bajohai

I also like to gaze upon his flask on a pedestal (henshohei) that recalls Sueki henshohei from the 6th and 7th centuries. This one was fired only two or three of times resulting in a lighter ash covering. The inner circle is a focal point on these works and and shows again that empty space creates the entire form. The Zen allusion of the enso circle points to cycles of the seasons, of the day, of leaving the house each day and returning, of life and death. It is no wonder that Yoshisuji lives at the edge of civilization; he looks in one direction to see the mundane world of man and the other direction to relish in nature.  He places his own insights into his work with his hands, then gives it over to the universe of his anagama kiln; man and nature working together to bring about timeless beauty.

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Yoshisuji Keiji turns another page.

Robert Y.e.l.l.i.n. is one of the world’s authorities on Japanese ceramics.  A resident of Japan for nearly 30 years,
he has played a central role in the introduction of cutting-edge Japanese artists to the world as an author, lecturer and gallery owner.  His website, http://www.e-yakimono.net, serves as a primary source of information for thousands of ceramic enthusiasts, worldwide.


February, 2009

Shigaraki Ceramic Artist, Otani Shiro: A recorded interview with Robert Yellin

Otani Shiro

Shigaraki has been one of the great centers of Japanese ceramics for about 800 years. The clay of this district is light colored and contains tiny bits of feldspar that explode on the surface of the pots during firing. Whereas glazed ware may be fired in a kiln for about 30 hours, unglazed Shigaraki ware is fired for five days or more. Any apparent color on the surface of the work is entirely from the fly ash and flames within the kiln. Knowing how to manipulate that natural environment into a work of art, depends on the skill of the artist. Otani Shiro is a visionary and leader whose creativity has greatly expanded the Shigaraki tradition into the 21st century. His works are in the permanent collections of museums around the world, including the Boston M.F.A., the Freer & Sackler Galleries at the Smithsonian and the Museum of Arts and Design (formerly the American Craft Museum.) In this recorded conversation, author, lecturer, ceramics expert and gallery owner, Robert Yellin discusses six of Otani-san’s works, in the order they appear in this post.

Click on the play button to hear Robert Yellin’s commentary on the following photos.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

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otani c

otani d - Copy

otani e

otani f

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Additional Otani Shiro images



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Author: stevebeimel

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