What is Shokeizan-yaki?
The founding of Shokeizan-yaki, or Shokeizan Ware, is said to date back to the late 1800s.
Shokeizan-yaki refers to ceramic ware produced by generations of potters at Shokeizan Pottery, using their 14-chamber climbing kiln set up at the end of a mountain path in the town of Yunotsu, Shimane Prefecture. Shokeizan Pottery is recognized as one of the oldest potteries in the surrounding Iwami region.
According to Yunotsu Town’s chronicle, the pottery was first opened by Toyota Takezaburo in 1865. Later, the pottery took up a shop name of “Ishidaya” and was succeeded by Takezaburo’s son, Matsunosuke.
At some point, Matsunosuke was adopted into the Yamamoto family in the neighboring city of Gotsu and inherited the family estate, but he continued to produce daily use ceramic items in Shokeizan Pottery in Yunotsu.
Matsunosuke’s son, Umeo succeeded the family business, having learned to make traditional large water pots from his father.
This area once prospered from its high-quality clay, which was shipped out to the Hokkaido, Hokuriku, and Kyushu regions from the port of Yunotsu.
Umeo’s wife recounts how Umeo would dedicate all his energy into pottery, doing everything from digging up clay to making glazes with his own hands - his body covered in sweat in the summer and hands chapped in the winter. Later in his career, he also created tea bowls and utensils, vases, tableware, and other various ceramic ware, using his own blends of clay and glazes.
Yamamoto Umeo, the last maker of Shokeizan-yaki
The late Yamamoto Umeo was born in January 1931. He studied pottery-making under his father Matsunosuke. Later, he learned how to make ceramic vessels used in tea ceremony while he associated with Takatori Seizan, a renowned tea vessel maker in Fukuoka. Umeo had ties with other potters, including Kawai Kanjiro and Hamada Shoji who were central figures to the Mingei Movement.
A technique Umeo liked to use was “yohen” which realizes unpredictable color effects on pottery during firing. He would fire the same vessel repeatedly, often putting them back in the kiln any number of times, until he achieved the very red he desired.
When he was not happy with what came out of the kiln, he would throw the products onto the dirt floor and smash them, and then start the entire process from the beginning again and again.
“There were some nights Umeo would drink away his frustration for the day’s unsuccessful attempts. And then there were other nights he would be happily asleep at 7p.m. after dinner, surrounded by his own works,” his wife tells.
As of 2022, Umeo is the last of the Shokeizan Ware makers.
Folk culture and religion
Embedded in the production of Shokeizan Ware was a veneration for the “Sanshin [three deities]” who preside over fire, clay, and water. These three deities are Kagutsuchi, Haniyasu, and Mizuhanome. According to Kojiki, an ancient chronicle of Japanese myths and oral traditions, Haniyasu and Mizuhanome were born from the feces and urine of the creator goddess Izanami when she died giving birth to Kagutsuchi who burned his mother as he came out of her womb.
In the Shokeizan Pottery tradition, when starting fire in the climbing kiln, the potter pours sake on the inside and out of the main fire hole as an offering to the deities and cleanse all other fire holes with salt before clapping his hands to give a prayer.
Every year, during the week of November 28th, the day on which the Pottery held a ritual worshipping the three deities, the whole family would abstain from eating beef and pork to keep their bodies clean.
The religious nature of Shokeizan Pottery’s production is closely related to the folk culture of Shimane Prefecture. The Iwami region in the western part of Shimane maintains a performance art tradition called “Iwami Kagura”: repertoires of dance and music based on Japanese folklore and mythology.
Originating from Omoto Kagura, a ritualistic dance performed by Shito priests, Iwami Kagura today is a form of noh dance with theatrical elements performed by over a hundred local groups across the region. It has become a popular cultural activity for those who get together to practice this traditional art every Saturday night.
*Otmoto Kagura was designated an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property of Japan in 1979; Iwami Kagura was designated a Japan Heritage in 2019.
Omoto Kagura derives from “Omoto Shinko”, a religious faith which has long been widely believed and practiced in Western Shimane. This faith is considered to have arisen organically from common practices of expressing gratitude and reverence towards nature governing deities for their blessings. Particularly in mountainous agricultural areas where people’s lives were deeply connected with nature, these deities have been dearly revered.
The Japanese people’s idea of deities has been considered to reflect their awe of nature which brings both blessings and disasters. For instance, while deities bless people with plenty of water to fill rice fields, they also use the same water to cause heavy rains and floods. Such awe generated a culture in which people always see divine in nature and pay respect to deities through rituals. This tradition has been passed down from generation to generation and is still present today.
Likewise, the Shokeizan Pottery tradition has always associated fire, clay, and water - the three essential elements of pottery – with the three deities, as they continued making ceramic ware across three generations.
- “Yunotsu Town Chronicle Vol. 1”, Yunotsu Town
- “Potteries in the San’in Region”, Tachibana Shoin
- “Iwami Potteries”, Yunotsu Town
- Research Journal Vol. 17: Studies on Early Modern and Modern Iwami-yaki, the Center for Studies of the Ancient Culture, Shimane Prefecture
- Futures News June 2003 Issue, Japan Commodity Futures Industry Association