Timeless pottery loved by ceramic enthusiasts for more than 400 years, Karatsu ware is among the top 3 wares for tea ( "First Raku, Second Hagi, Third Karatsu"). Also referred to as “tsuchi-mono” (earthenware), Karatsu ware is created with rough clay and it is often characterized by its simple and robust appearance. One of the most attractive features is its practicality: “80% creator, 20% user”, a saying meaning the product is only complete when a user employs it to serve their dish or drink in it.
While there are many versions of the story, Karatsu ware is regarded to have been originally created in the territory of the Hata clan, the owner of the Kishidake Castle. Thereafter, the production of Karatsu ware increased with the influx of potters from Chōsen (old Japanese for “Korea”), who were brought back to Japan after Toyotomi Hideyosi’s expedition (1592 -1598). Introduction of techniques from Korea such as noborigama kilns (climbing kilns) and pottery kickwheels allowed for increased production of high quality ceramic wares. Initially, Karatsu ware was used as tableware for daily use, but as the imperfect, impermanent and incomplete simple beauty and sense of wabi-sabi inherent in Karatsu ware became more and more popular, it gradually came to be used for tea ceremonies. The fortunes of Karatsu ware continued to rise hand in hand with the trends of the tea ceremony, and the production of Karatsu ware spread to the surrounding countryside: much ware was exported from the port of Karatsu, so much so that pottery in western Japan came to be known as “Karatsumono”.
However, from the Edo period (1603-1868) onward, the mountains were ruined because of an overabundance of kiln sites and the Saga domain started to shut them down, concentrating the kilns in Arita. The number of Karatsu ware kilns started decreasing, continuing throughout the Meiji period (1868-1912), until the craft was brought back to life by the hands of Living National Treasure Muan Nakazato (1895-1985).
The clay around Kishidake is derived from feldspathic sandstone, which allows it to vitrify at high temperatures resulting in a hard, impermeable clay which, at the same time, possesses a unique rustic texture. Brush decorations featuring simple, dynamic lines to render grasses and trees, are said to be the first example of brush decorated ware in Japan. Other decorations are carried out through ash glazes, iron glazes, and rice straw ash glazes, as well as through the use of white slip for inlay, brushing, and dipping.
Kohiki (粉引, “powdered”) White engobe (clay slip coating) and ash glaze are applied while the brown clay is still wet and semi-dry. Kohiki was one of the pottery techniques used in Korea, but it has come to be incorporated into Karatsu ware only in recent years.
E-Karatsu (絵唐津, Brush Decorated Karatsu) Realized by applying iron pigment brushworks to a relatively low iron clay body, and then glazing with a thin layer of clear ash glaze or clear feldspar glaze. Common motifs are trees, plants, flowers, and birds along with a variety of geometric patterns.
Muji Karatsu (無地唐津, Undecorated Karatsu) It is the simplest example of Karatsu ware, most commonly glazed with a simple ash or feldspar based clear or milky glaze.
Madara Karatsu (斑唐津, Mottled Karatsu) The glaze and iron in the clay body, clay texture, rice straw ash and pine ash from the kiln fuel all interact to produce a mottled surface ranging from clear to creamy white.
Chōsen Karatsu (朝鮮唐津, Korean Karatsu) A high iron ash glaze and a rice straw ash glaze are applied separately top/bottom or left/right on the ware. The contrast of the white and brown glazes creates a waterfall effect of white, blue, and yellow where the glazes melt together and flow.
Kuro Karatsu (黒唐津, Black Karatsu) Clay with a high percentage of iron is powdered and added to an ash glaze, resulting in colors ranging from brown to dark black. Other techniques to produce Black Karatsu consist in the application of a black slip to the ware, or in crushing stones of high iron content and mixing them with an ash glaze to produce a black glaze which is applied to the ware.
Mishima Karatsu (三島唐津, Stamp/slip inlay Karatsu) Patterns such as Unkaku (雲鶴, cloud and crane shape) and Inka (印花, flower shape) are printed on the clay before it completely dries and then white slip is applied. As a finishing touch, the clay is scraped off, revealing the inlay design, and covered with feldspathic and/or wood ash glazes.