Shigaraki, a small town in Shiga Prefecture, is synonymous in Japan with two things: Shigaraki ware (信楽焼) and ceramic tanuki figurines.  The clay used to make Shigaraki ware comes from Lake Biwa, and at least one friend of mine has suggested that because of the overpopularity of tanuki figurines, authentic Shigaraki-style clay is starting to become scarce.  I have no idea whether this is true or not, but if it is, it’s a tragedy.  While I have perhaps more room in my heart than most for the comic grotesqueness of tanuki figurines, the beautiful clay of Shigaraki should surely be reserved for those forms of ceramic art that highlight the natural attributes of the clay, rather than for figures of fat, drunken animals coated with a painted glaze that’s usually as thick as pancake makeup.

Since I’m an entirely unreliable source of information on Shigaraki ware, it’s entirely possible that there’s actually an endless supply of the necessary clay and that my friend’s concerns are dramatically misinformed.  In which case, may the Shigaraki region long continue to produce these jolly symbols of noble excess.

Shigaraki ware is defined as much by the kilns that are used to produce it as it is by the clay itself.  Here’s the description that Wikipedia gives of the relationship between kiln and clay that produces the qualities associated with Shigaraki ware:

The local sandy clay from the bed of Lake Biwa has a warm orange color, and makes very durable pottery. This clay characterizes Shigaraki ware. The ceramics have irregular contours and an archaic flavor. Firing technique shifted from reduction to oxidation firing, which allows free admission of air during the firing rather than limited air admission into the kiln. This allows iron oxides to be used as part of the coloring process. The allowance of free air is due to the type of ancient kiln, called an anagama kiln, which is used to fire Shigaraki ware. The term anagama is a Japanese term meaning “cave kiln”, as these kilns were usually constructed into the side of hills. They are single chambered structures with a sloping tunnel shape. The wood fuel must be constantly supplied in order to achieve temperatures high enough to fire the clay. Using this type of kiln also achieves the mineral glaze surface so popular with Shigaraki wares.

You can see several different types of anagama (穴窯) in Shigaraki.  There are the jagama (蛇釜, or ‘snake-style’ kilns), which are tube shaped and have chambers divided by stacked pottery.  I believe that the kiln pictured at the top of the page is this type of kiln.  The kiln oven that you see directly below it is part of a noborigama (登り窯, or ‘climbing kiln’), a type of multi-chambered kiln that is arranged along the rise of a slope.  The largest working noborigama in Japan is located in Shigaraki, though I’m not sure if the photo above is of that particular noborigama or not.  The third photo in this series of kiln photos shows a beautiful set of geometric clay rods that form a kind of wall.  I’m not sure whether these are just decorative elements or whether they’re actually used to help regulate heat during the production process.  In either case they’re stunningly beautiful, like a concrete honeycomb.

I explored Shigaraki with my friends Akita and Ai.  Ai is a professional ceramicist and was working in Shigaraki at the time for a ceramics studio that has been established for several hundred years.  Needless to say, they aren’t in the business of producing tanuki figurines.

The signs of Shigaraki’s main business are everywhere in the town, and even in residential backstreets you’ll stumble across unexpected deposits of ceramic living.  Down one street we found an ancient lath and plaster storehouse stuffed with what look like either raw ceramic blanks, or the outer layer of some kind of mold.  On another side street the entire back wall of some sort of storehouse was lined with dark brown urns, all of which seemed to be empty.  In the middle of town we ran into a cart loaded with black ceramic daikon radishes for sale, perfectly modeled in every respect except for the dark black color of the glaze.

But no matter how hard you try, there’s no escaping the tanuki in Shigaraki.  There are restaurants shaped like tanuki, and giant ten-meter high tanuki standing in front of tourist shops that are selling armies of ceramic taunuki figurines.  There are tanuki cut-outs so you can have your picture taken as a cute, fat tanuki.  And on this particular day, a festival day, there was even a real life tanuki cruising around the town, ready to take you for a ride in a hand cart for the very low fee of 300 yen or so.  Even the local shrine, Shingu-jinja (新宮神社) was featuring a display of ceramic tanuki — a whole horde of them arranged in front of the shrine, waiting to dip their toes in a giant ceramic hot tub set at the foot of the shrine steps.

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