Asahiyaki is a pottery style form Uji, Kyoto. The story has it that it started about 400 years ago and to has developed in close connection to tea ceremony schools, many of which are housed in Kyoto to the present day. Today Asahiyaki kiln is ran by two Matsubayashi brothers, who are 17th generation in their family.
The signature of Asahiyaki kiln is dotted grey clay with pinkish and orangish tones. It is also known for glazed mono-colour Asahiyaki teaware. Unglazed teaware, on the other hand, is rare at Asahiyaki kiln, as other kilns seem to have longer and stronger traditions in this regard.
The clay for Asahiyaki used to be mined from the near-by Asahi mountain, hence the name. As the clay source in Asahi mountain diminished, clay mining started in other surrounding areas. It is interesting to note that it takes about 50 years for the clay to mature, before it is ready for making pottery. Once the clay is mined it is left in the air to ferment through the works of the natural bacteria. What that does to the clay? It makes it softer to handle and easier to mold. And even if through years the clay dries out, by adding some water it is still possible to remodel it, as long as it is not fired. So the clay used today was prepared decades or centuries ago, and the clay being mined now will be for the future generations.
According to Toshiyuki Matsubayashi, the current wood-burning kill – noborigama, was built by his grandfather about 50 years ago. As kilns are used for firing at high temperature, they naturally decay through time, and need to be rebuilt every half a century or so.
The Asahiyaki wood-burning kiln is normally fired about 3 times a year. About 4t of red pine wood are used for one firing and the aim is to reach about 1300C temperature – when the glaze melts. Nowadays sensors are attached to the kiln and you can observe in real time the temperature inside the kiln on a computer screen!
All together the firing process takes about 5 days. First day is to start the fire, second – to heat up the kiln, third – to reach the desired temperature, forth – to cool down, fifth to take out the fired pieces. During the visit at the at Asahiyaki kiln Toshiyuki Matsubayashi explained, that they have a family tradition on the first day of firing to climb the near-by Aso mountain and pray to the fire gods at the temple on top of the mountain for a successful firing.
And the prayers are necessary – usually only about 10% of the pottery items crafted by head of Asahiyaki kiln – Housai Matsubayashi as well as other Asahiyaki artists will fire successfully. Even if the success rate is low, according to Toshiyuki Matsubayashi, truly artistic pieces can only be created in a wood-burning kiln. While they do have gas furnace as well (with success rate of about 80%) and use than more for mass produced items, the fire of the gas furnace is too controlled to create interesting and unique pieces.
The Asahiyaki kiln has a pottery shop and gallery on the banks of Uji river, where pottery lovers can find some beautiful Asahiyaki teaware. Curious minds can also try their hand in pottery making at Asahiyaki kiln, with instructions available in both Japanese and English. Little known, but worth a visit – Asahiyaki kiln.