Facing the Sea of Japan in the western part of Shimane Prefecture, the Iwami region is a land of beautiful coastlines, densely forested mountains and idyllic rural landscapes. The Iwami ceramic tradition as known today goes back to at least the 17th and 18th centuries, developing through influences from the Korean peninsula and other ceramic traditions of western Japan.
With access to exceptionally high-quality pottery clay and using high-temperature firing technique (at 1300 degrees Celsius), the Iwami-yaki tradition became renowned for producing wares of amazing durability and resistance to water, acid and salt. As a result, Iwami-yaki became especially famous for producing large water-storage and pickling jars, as well as a range of smaller everyday items. Being resistant extreme cold, heat and cracking, rooftiles (known as Sekishū rooftiles) also became a mainstay of the Iwami tradition. By the mid-19th century, Iwami ceramics were traded all over Japan from Kyūshū northward to Hokkaidō, being carried by the ‘Kitamae-bune’ trading ships that plied the waters along the Japanese west coast. Rooftiles from Iwami During the late 19th to early 20th centuries, the Iwami region boasted over 100 ceramic producers. However, with the modernisation of Japanese lifestyle, demand for Iwami ceramics declined from the mid-20th century onward, and most potteries disappeared.
Today, Iwami ceramics are mostly produced by a handful of workshops in the regional centres of Hamada and Gōtsu, and . Onoue-gama, tucked away in the quiet outskirts of Hamada, is one such ceramic studio. The current head of the workshop, Masami Horayama, is a passionate advocate of the Iwami-yaki tradition, welcoming all those who are interested in ceramics and taking time out of his busy daily schedule to share the ‘ins and outs’ of the tradition—including holding classes. Mr Horayama and his mother produce wares with a unique style that fuses age-old traditions with modern designs and new techniques. Many of the works are inspired by the natural environment of Iwami—whether it be the leaves of a persimmon tree or miscanthus grass that grow by the roadside, or the colours adorning the hillsides in autumn. It is clear that creativity runs in the family and Mr Horayama often experiments with materials such as textiles to achieve special effects in his works. Mr Horayama’s modest, yet profound personality seems to be reflected in the subdued tones of his works, which have a curious effect that is calming and mesmerising at the same time.
As seen at Onoue-gama, innovation has been key to survival of the Iwami-yaki tradition, producing stylish items for the modern lifestyle while taking advantage of the hard-wearing and practical nature of the ceramics. The Sekishū rooftiles also continue to maintain their popularity in parts of western Honshū, where they are a distinct feature of the landscape with their warm red colour. With more people moving away from the ‘throw-away’ consumerist lifestyle, Iwami-yaki is now being ‘rediscovered’ for its durability. With Iwami region being one of the most aging-affected areas of Japan, however, the tradition desperately needs new ‘blood’ to keep it alive into the future.
Deeply Regional Japan’s online shop offers a selection of Iwami-yaki ceramics from Onoue-gama. Please visit https://www.deeplyregionaljapan.com/shop for details.