A family-run Bizen yaki kiln in Okayama, crafting fashionable goods in a thousand-year old unique style.
A Bizen yaki kiln
Sennengama, meaning "thousand-year kiln", is the name of a family-run Bizen yaki kiln in Okayama. Established in 1983, it is now curated by the daughter of the founder, Hitoe Katakami (née Hitoe Fukushima).
The kiln produces pottery made using exclusively Bizen clay, obtained from a specific type of soil only available in a geographic area once called Bizen, located in the Okayama prefecture.
Their lineup of products includes traditional pottery, such as flower vases and sake cups and vessels, and expands to contemporary international goods, such as champagne coolers and plates for Western dining.
The potters of the Sennengama kiln make use of both wood and electric kilns depending on what the type of pottery they plan to make, and the number of pieces they need to manufacture to keep up with demand.
"The type of kiln used is a secondary factor for us", Katakami says. In fact, the family focuses on the clay they use, going as far as picking the soil themselves instead of relying on soil retailers, stating that "90% of our time is spent on the making of clay".
To be categorized as Bizen yaki, a kiln needs to use soil from the Bizen area, and specialize in the characteristic firing method that makes Bizen yaki a unique style.
But the Sennengama family goes the extra mile – quite literally.
The soil used by Sennengama can only be found below rice fields, unaccessible to larger soil retailers, so the potters go and collect it personally. When back to the kiln, they will manually clean the soil from impurities such as rocks and roots, to obtain clay that is as pure as possible. Sennengama's strict process is made even more complicated by the fact that they will further separate the soil according to the peculiarities of each part with criteria that are unknown to outsiders, and they will use each separate lot for different ware.
The extreme care in the selection and cleaning process makes it possible to create pottery that feels smoother to the touch, although being unglazed and preserving the earth-like looks of Bizen yaki ware.
Contrary to what may seem, the characteristic stripes that can be found on all Sennengama Bizen ware are obtained by placing straw inside and around each piece. The straw, burning, will leave marks, creating patterns that are unpredictable, even to the most experienced potter. The pieces thus obtained are unique in the strictest sense of the word.
A family-run kiln
The kiln was started by Kazuo Fukushima in 1983. His daughter, Hitoe Katakami took over in recent years. Katakami got acquainted to Western cultures by living in France, and later deepened her knowledge of Japanese culture by becoming a maiko in the Gion district in Kyoto.
Katakami then decided to put her experience at use at the father's kiln, learning the art of forming and firing clay to manufacture items that express her roots in Japanese tradition, while also paying tribute to Western design. "When I made my first dining plate, I designed it imagining French food served on it", Katakami says.
Katakami is also responsible for the addition of hybrid products in the Sennengama lineup, such as champagne coolers, which evolved from the traditional water vessels used to collect water from a well.