Tobe ware Tobe yaki
Fine, delicate patterns
handmade using traditional techniques
What is Tobe ware ?
Tobe ware (called Tobe yaki in Japanese) is a form of ceramic ware produced around the town of Tobe in Iyo district of Ehime prefecture. Production begun in the middle of the Edo period (1603-1868) and it was registered as a traditional handcraft by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry in 1976. The town of Tobe is known for being the leading ceramic ware producing area in the Shikoku region, being located in the pottery material abundant Japanese Median Tectonic Line*. As high quality porcelain stone started being mined in mountainous regions, ceramic culture spread and many kilns remain in operation today.
What makes Tobe ware unique is its beautiful white ceramic texture, which appears to let light pass through.
Compared to Arita ware (made on a neighboring island), the white ceramic texture of Tobe ware has a slight touch of gray. Because coloring of the ceramic ware changes depending on the amount of iron in the porcelain stone, Tobe ware artisans have come up with solutions like improving the glaze or having design artisans hand draw a pattern. Tobe ware continues to be loved by people as it is a handmade ceramic ware that is easy to use in the home.
*Also known as the Median Tectonic Line, it is Japan's longest fault systems.
Tobe ware was established in 1777, when the Ozu domain in what is today Iyo district independently began to study ceramic ware. Originally, a whetstone called iyoto was the local specialty but as the resource was rare and not much could be made, Tobe ware was developed with the scraps of Iyo sharpening stones.
During the Edo period (1603-1868), Tobe ware was produced independently since there was limited information from other domains. After the abolition of feudal domains and the establishment of prefectures in 1871 during the Meiji period (1868-1912), it became possible to import technology from famous production areas such as Karatsu and Seto which led Tobe ware to expand rapidly. As technology started to make mass production possible, Tobe ware expanded its market into Southeast Asia.
Then during the Taisho period (1912-1926) and Showa period (1926-1988), porcelain producing areas such as Seto increased their production volume by adopting modern technology like mechanical potter's wheels, leading the handicraft Tobe ware to stagnate. However, Muneyoshi YANAGI (1889-1961), a philosopher known for his folk art movement (Mingei) which was dedicated to rescuing lowly pots used by commoners, valued its high quality handicraft technique. Even today, the fascination with Tobe ware has not faded.
General Production Process
- 1. Clay production
The first step is extracting clay from a quarry. In the area around Tobe, porcelain stones containing high iron content are mined often, and trachyandesite (a type of rock dominated by feldspar) from the Uebi mountain ridge is converted into porcelain stone and used as raw material. Once the porcelain stone has been quarried, the next step is sorting through the stone by removing low quality pieces through crushing them into tiny pieces.
Then a process called elutriation is done to purify the porcelain stone. By putting the porcelain stone into water, it is possible to do gravity separation, remove moisture, and add clay. At this time, it is also crucial to remove iron from the porcelain stone with a magnet. The porcelain stone is pulverized for over 25 to 45 hours with a magnet called a "ball mill". Once it is ground to a fine powder, the porcelain stone is put into a filter press and impurities are removed over a period of approximately two hours and then pure potter's clay is achieved.
- 2. Clay production and kneading
A clay kneading machine is used to knead the potter's clay into a uniform hardness.
This work is carried out thoroughly to remove air bubbles from the soil and prevent holes from forming during baking.
Before the mechanization, clay was kneaded by hand. It is said that it took at least three years for an apprentice to learn this technique.
- 3. Potter's wheel casting
Potter's wheel casting is often used as a method of casting. Since potter's clay from Tobe is hard and not softened by adding water, making a mold requires strength. The way to use a potter's wheel is by placing clay onto the potter's wheel and then striking it by hand so that the clay stays central. The next step is a process called pugging which involves kneading while the potter's wheel is rotating and moving the clay up and down.
Next, in a process known as clay removal, unnecessary clay is cut off so that the clay is constricted as much as possible. A gauntlet or spatula is used as a tool for casting and a surface gauge is used to adjust the size. A piece of tanned leather is used for finishing and a potter's wire is often used for removing pieces from the base of the piece. Finally, the whole surface of the pottery gets shaved with a kanna or Japanese plane. Other types of casting that are done include hand molding, mold casting where clay is poured into a plaster cast, string casting, and slab casting.
Once casting has been done and the piece is half dried, it gets decorations of engraving. In order to prevent cracks on the vessel, it is important that the pieces dry thoroughly before moving on to the bisque process.
- 4. Bisque
After checking that there are no cracks, the pots are lined up inside the kiln.
When the temperature reaches 950℃ (about 1742℉) after 18 hours, the pottery is fired for around two hours and the remainder is baked while reducing the temperature.
- 5. Undercoating
Undercoating is the process of hand drawing patterns on the item.
After the glaze firing, the parts where a branch has been inked in with a special pigment called gosu turn indigo.
- 6. Glazing
Undercoated vessels are then glazed.
- 7. Glaze firing The final process is glaze firing. Pots are fired for 15 to 24 hours at 1300℃ (about 2372℉) and are completed pieces after an adequate cooling and being removed from the kiln.
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