Tokoname is a medium sized city located in the Aichi Prefecture, Japan. It is one of the six famous old kilns of Japan, producing tea pots, sewer pipes and... Bonsai pots.

Though Tokoname was famous for its clay (Tokoname literally means "Always smooth"), much of that has ran out and what remains are highly skilled craftsman, with a reputation for quality Bonsai containers, both glazed and unglazed.

Not too long ago the Tokoname region had dozens of Bonsai potteries, but with the bust of the Japanese economy and declining interest in Bonsai in Japan, the potters too experienced difficult times. Right now about a dozen kilns remain, with fourth and fifth generation artists creating the pots.

Invited by the Tokoname association, we shot a documentary on the true craftsmanship of the Tokoname potters. Focusing on the process of creating a Bonsai pot, we filmed six artists in their ateliers.

 

Mini documentary: The Clay Masters of Tokoname

 

Process of creating Bonsai pots

Here's an overview of the steps involved in creating a Bonsai pot.

 

Step 1: Preparing the clay

Tokoname pots, Japan

At the Atelier of Tokoname clay they import, mix, purify and distribute all the clay for the all potters in Tokoname. For different types of pottery, there are different types of clay and the potters can customize their own mixture for the best characteristics.

 

Tokoname pots, Japan

Once the clay is at the potter, it will be kneaded by both hand and machine to enable the potter to work with it. Normally a potter uses a machine to make the clay more soft and then knead it in the right shape.

Next, there are three different ways to shape a pot. We'll explain the shaping with a mould first and after that describe how the wheel and manual methods work.

 

Step 2a: Shaping with a mould

Tokoname pots, Japan

The slab of clay is created by kneading the clay thoroughly and then creating thin layers by running a thin steel wire across the clay.

 

Tokoname pots, Japan

The slab is then rolled onto a pipe to transport it to the mould.

 

Tokoname pots, Japan

Finally, the slab is then pushed and shaped into the mould using a sand bag. Excess clay on the inside is now removed using a spatula, to make sure the thickness of the clay is uniform. The moulded pot then needs to dry for a day, before the mould can be removed. Usually this is the moment to add the stamp on the bottom of the pot, as well as creating holes for drainage. Finally, with some moulds the rim also needs to be added manually.

 

Step 2b: Shaping with a wheel

Tokoname pots, Japan

Using the wheel is probably the method that we always think of when talking about pottery. The potters show incredible craftsmanship when creating the perfect shape for the bonsai pot.

 

Tokoname pots, Japan

While the feet of the pot are automatically created when using a mould, the potter that uses the wheel as a shaping method, needs to create this separately (usually after one day of drying first).

 

Step 2c: Shaping with clay slabs

Tokoname pots, Japan

Not all pots can be made using moulds or wheels. As not all can be similar in shape and not all are round. Some potters rather form the bonsai pots themselves using slabs that they cut out themselves. This enables them to make one of a kind pots that are exactly designed to their customer’s wishes. Usually the body of the pot is designed first and after a few hours drying the rim is added, and again a few hours later the feet can be created.

 

Step 3: Finishing and drying

Tokoname pots, Japan

Water finishing. To smoothen the surface and edges of the pot, the craftsmen use all kinds of cloths and cards that they dip in water.

 

Tokoname pots, Japan

Drying. Drying makes sure that the pots stay in the right shape when being fired later. Drying can take between 1-3 days time depending on the size of the pot. On this photo several glazed pots are drying, almost ready to be fired.

 

Step 4: Glazing

Tokoname pots, Japan

Some pots are glazed, mostly to suit Deciduous or broadleaf evergreen trees. The pot is dipped into a basin of glaze, after which it is left to dry for about a day before being fired. Sometimes a second glazing is added and the pot would be fired again.

 

Step 5: Finishing and firing

Tokoname pots, Japan

Both the surface and the edges are polished and smoothened during the drying process, right before the firing.

 

Tokoname pots, Japan

After one day of drying the potter can add their own brand mark by either scribbling or pressing their name on the bottom of the pot.

 

Tokoname pots, Japan

The kiln is then packed with pots and over the course of about 30 hours heated to 1180 degrees Celsius, and cooled down again.

 

The Bonsai potters we interviewed

Reiho (Katsushi Kataoka)

黎鳳 - Reiho (Katsushi Kataoka)
Seizan Toen
4th generation

 

Shuuhou (Hidemi Kataoka)

秀峰 - Shuuhou (Hidemi Kataoka)
Yoshimura toen
5th generation

 

Ikko (Kazuhiro Watanabe)

壹興 - Ikko (Kazuhiro Watanabe)
Kanesho Seitosho
2nd generation

 

Kakuzan (Kakuyuki Watanabe)

角山 - Kakuzan (Kakuyuki Watanabe)
Kakuzan toen
4th generation

 

Hiroaki Inoue

山秋 - Yamaaki (Hiroaki Inoue)
Yamaaki
Inherited the kiln of his uncle named Yamaaki. They produced pots on a very large scale and were the only bonsai kiln that employed over 20 craftsmen.

 

Yamahusa Koie seitosyo

山房 - Yamafusa (Takehiko Koie)
Yamafusa Koie seitosho
4th generation

 

Shibakatsu (Katsuichi Shibata)

Shibakatsu (Katsuichi Shibata)
Shibakatsu en
1st generation

 

Mr. Tatsuhiro Tanaka

田中辰弘 - Mr. Tatsuhiro Tanaka
Atelier of Tokoname clay
The director of the Tokoname Clay Atelier. In Tokoname they collect clay from the Tokoname region and further away. They mix several different types of clay to guarantee consistent characteristics.

 

More information can be found on the Tokoname Bonsai pots website.