Traditionally, Kiyomizu yaki (清水焼) is the name given to any pottery made in the Gojōzaka district of Kyoto city, near the Kiyomizu temple. The more generic term "Kyō-yaki" (京焼, simplified in this article as "Kyo-yaki") indicates pottery made in the Kyoto prefecture. For simplicity, both namings are used interchengeably in this article.
The name Kiyomizu yaki is also rendered as "kiyomizu-ware" (and Kyo-yaki as "kyo-ware") in English.
Although the name "Kiyomizu yaki" is an umbrella term used to address all pottery made in a geographic area, a potter is usually supposed to respect a few unwritten rules in order for his crafts to be considered kiyomizu ware. Nonetheless, once potters earn the title of "Kiyomizu potter", they are free to expand into other fields, and create objects that do not necessarily follow all rules strictly, and still be considered authentic.
The unicity of this specific pottery lie in the chromatic and reflective characteristics, more than in the shapes. Peculiar looks are obtained through the types of clay used and the kiln temperatures, as well as through the application of a specific glaze, which includes lead and gives a peculiar delicacy in colors. The silky-looking surface, smooth to the touch, is also considered an important result of proper manufacturing.
It is said that it takes 10 years for a generic potter to become a Kiyomizu yaki potter. In most cases, although a mentor will let his pupils work by themselves after the first decade, they won't reach full independence just yet. Zenshō Yamaoka, a veteran Kiyomizu yaki potter who obtained independence after 10 years, said he had to "work even at night, sacrificing sleeping time. This way, when I was 26, I could start my own kiln in Iwakura (Kyoto)."
Like in many other crafts, planning and designing often takes longer than manufacturing. In some cases, a single item is planned for months before it is made.
However, as the manufacturing process implies up to 9 stages, each with its variables (shaping, multiple firing, kiln temperature, firing times, coloring, glazing...), the result might sometimes not be as first pictured in the potter's mind, taking them back to the drawing board or causing them to change some of the variables, all of which delay the completion of a product. On top of that, errors occur. For an expert potter, even the tiniest imperfection is considered an unacceptable defect, and they will either dispose of these defected products or they wil sell them at lower prices.
The Kyo-ware style does not set limits to the creativity of potters, and it features a wide range of paintings and that may portrait people, nature, myths, stories, as well as represent abstract concepts such as harmony, purity of heart, or many Buddhist principles.
The art of shaping and decorating ceramics was introduced from China around the 5th century. It was then developed and adapted to the Japanese customs for over a thousand years, especially favored by the demand for beautiful equipment for the tea ceremony (茶道, sadō). But it was not until the 17th century that the name Kyo-yaki was first coined, when potter Nonomura Ninsei started creating ceramic objects in a peculiar style in his pottery, which was then imitated by other potters and became known as "Kyoto-style pottery".
The form now known with this definition was further developed during the Edo period and reached its peak afterwards, despite difficulties represented by the moving of the capital from Kyoto to Edo (now Tokyo) and the Meiji restoration, which caused many potters to disappear and others to start sharing kilns in order to cut costs and survive.
According to some sources, the term "Kiyomizu-yaki" should indicate the peculiar style and techniques that were born in the Gojōzaka area, and it should include any pottery made using such style, even that currently made outside Gojōzaka. However, it is more common to reserve the definition to the earthenware made in its original area, whereas pottery made in other areas of Kyoto are more likely to be called "Kyo-yaki" regardless of their similarities with Kiyomizu ware.
Sometimes, even Japanese people from outside Kyoto mistakenly believe that the typical, navy-blue-and-white design is the only authentic Kiyomizu yaki style. This is not exact, as most Kiyomizu yaki pottery is made using several kinds of colors, with bright yellow and vivid green sometimes appearing as the main colors along with orange, red, purple and, of course, blue.
Did you know?
• The term is also used to indicate an industrial area in the Yamashina district of Kyoto, called Kiyomizu-yaki Danchi. This area was once directly connected, geographically and ideally, to the main Gojōzaka area, but was declared a separate chapter in fairly recent years. Yamashina also has a separate "Kiyomizu Custom Festival", held in late October.
• Sometimes, imperfect items are made even by the most expert potters. However, it is really hard to tell where the mistake was made to the untrained eye. This leads some of them to sell the defected goods at a fraction of the original price. If you ever happen to be near the Kiyomizu temple in Kyoto, make sure to check whether your favorite boutiques have defected products: you might find stunnigly beautiful objects for your home, with their only problem being that they're just "almost perfect".
• The naming Kyo-yaki includes more specific types of pottery, such as Makuzu yaki, Asahi yaki and others. Nonetheless, expert potters and pottery lovers will make a clear distinction between styles.