Together with Shigaraki, Tanba, Echizen, Seto and Tokoname, Bizen ware is one of Japan's Six Ancient Kilns, the foundation of the domestic ceramics industry. With its characteristic rustic appearance, ironlike hardness, reddish-brown color and absence of glaze, each Bizen ware piece displays a balance of natural beauty, originality and harmony, reflecting the Japanese artistic sensibilities.
Bizen ware takes its name from its original production place: Imbe village in Bizen province, the current southeastern part of Okayama Prefecture.
Bizen ware was produced throughout the Heian period (794-1185) and used mainly in religious ceremonies and by the aristocratic society. During the Muromachi period (1336-1573), it started to use hiyose clay, the brown-colored clay distinctive of Bizen, dug up from underground rice fields in Imbe. In the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573-1600), it won the hearts of the most popular Japanese warlord, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and the famous tea master Sen no Rikyu. Bizen ware was particularly suited for tea ceremonies, as its distinctive simplicity complemented the spirit of wabi-sabi.
During the Meiji Period (1868-1912), two factors contributed to the decline of Bizen ware: the abolition of feudal domains (whose lords had largely supported Bizen ware production); Japan opening its doors to the West, with a consequent loss of interest in Japanese traditional arts. It was Kaneshige Toyo in 1956 who restored Bizen Ware to its original splendor, which earned him his nomination as a Living National Treasure. Since then, other ceramists have been selected for their work in the same field, including Fujiwara Kei and Yamamoto Toshu.
The distinctive feature of Bizen ware is that the wood-burning firing process, which uses only wood from Japanese red pines, brings out the natural colors and tones of the clay without applying any glazes. This means that the final result is entirely dependent on the “yōhen” (窯変), or "kiln effects." Pine ash produces “goma” (胡麻), or "sesame seed" glaze spotting. Rice straw wrapped around the pieces creates red and brown scorch marks.
Bizen wares are fired only once or twice a year, over a long period of time: the wood fire keeps burning for 10-14 days.
Ao Bizen (青備前, Blue Bizen): icy or slate blue, the rarest color due to the intense heat necessary for its production;
Hidasuki (火襷, Fire Stripe) with reddish mottles and stringlike marks, produced by wrapping the dried wares in rice straw rope before firing.
Sangiri (桟切): gunmetal gray, blue and white. These colors occur most frequently in pieces on the floor buried in ash where flame and air do not pass through.
Goma (胡麻, Sesame Seeds): when red pine ash adheres and melts on the ware, it acts as a natural ash glaze, giving the pieces a brownish color which resembles sesame seeds.
Botamochi (牡丹餅): a pattern that is said to resemble a sticky rice ball covered with sweet red bean paste, called “Botamochi”.
Fuseyaki (伏せ焼): produced when pieces are intentionally stacked on the top of each other or sideways in order to vary the ash’s coverage.
Kurobizen (黒備前, Black Bizen): the soil containing a large amount of iron is applied to the surface, the soil on the surface dissolves quickly acting like a glaze and giving the ware a black color.