Bowl ambition

A centuries-old Japanese porcelain- making craft is experiencing a renaissance of sorts.

Almost 400 years ago, the first piece of Arita porcelain was made in its eponymous town in Saga Prefecture, located on Kyushu island in southern Japan.

It was characterised by its pristine white base and deep blue ink, though many kilns developed their own colourful styles and porcelain- making techniques later on.

Names such as Nabeshima- and Fukagawa-made porcelain grew in prominence and were in demand around Japan, used by and gifted to nobility. The porcelain even sparked a following in Europe during different times in the various centuries, including the Meiji era, which started in 1868.

Over the years, the industry, dominated by family-run companies, had its ups and downs - in particular when other regions such as Mino and Seto became popular for their porcelain; and other Japanese crafts took centre stage.

Arita porcelain earned 25 billion yen for the Saga Prefecture in 1991, but fell to just 4.2 billion yen (S$49 million) in sales last year.

And the number of kilns, now estimated at about 150, gets smaller every year, says Mr Washizaki Kazunori, deputy director of the Arita Ceramics 400th Celebration Group.

The group is hoping to revive interest in the craft as it turns 400 years old next year. A government body from Saga spearheading the efforts, it has lined up events and collaboration works in Japan and around the world.

Just last week, eight of Arita's best known porcelain companies, which were showcased under the Arita 400project label, shared prime spots with other international trend-setting labels at the furniture and lifestyle fair Maison&Objet Paris. The biannual fair, which takes place in January and September, ended on Tuesday.

There, they showed off handcrafted and handpainted wares from bowls to plates for the second time at the September edition of the industry fair. These Arita companies first took part in the fair last year.

The eight on show were the 221-year-old Arita Porcelain Lab, Fukagawa-Seiji, Gen-emon, Hataman, Kamachi-toho, Kihara, Riso Ceramics and 224porcelain.

Next year, celebrities such as famed architect Kengo Kuma and comedian Takeshi Kitano will make porcelain works for Maison&Objet's January edition of Arita 400project.

The participation of Arita porcelain companies at the fair is significant, says exhibition producer Ken Okuyama, a Japanese industrial designer better known for his work designing Ferraris and eyewear.

The 56-year-old says: "The fabrication of Arita porcelain uses a traditional technique that only Arita has managed to acquire. This project, which enables us to present our products to the world, is also an opportunity to refresh our tradition.

"For Arita, the year 2016 may be its 400th anniversary, but it is also the year of its new start."

History starts with a kidnap

Arita porcelain's storied history dates back to The Pottery Wars in 1592, when military general Toyotomi Hideyoshi failed to invade Korea. As the military left, it was said that Japanese samurais kidnapped and brought Korean potters to Japan.

A gem among them was skilled Korean potter Yi Sam-pyeong, who was taken to the city of Arita in Saga prefecture.

Yi, who is known as Ri Sampei to the Japanese, discovered a superior porcelain clay, known as kaolinite, in Mount Izumi. It was an earthy rock that gives the porcelain its stark, pristine white appearance after it is fired up in kilns. He used this to make the first porcelain piece in 1616.

The discovery heralded a golden era for Japanese porcelain.

Early pieces, called Sometsuke, were distinct for their creamy white background and cobalt oxide paint called gosu - modelled after designs of Keitokuching, the oldest porcelain production area in China.

Later, different kilns developed their own styles.

The revered Kakiemon kiln became known for its thin outline of red or black, with red, green and yellow patterns on a milky white background. Its founder Sakaida Kakiemon was also the first craftsman in Japan to discover the technique of enamel decoration on porcelain, known as "akae".

Meanwhile, Nabeshima porcelain, with its blue-on-white underglaze, or multi-coloured overglaze enamel, was so stunning that it was gifted to the ruling shogun family and feudal lords during the Edo period.

Arita porcelain became one of Japan's early exports that turned the world's attention to the country's offerings.

Works from the town and those around it, such as Takeo and Ureshino, became known as Arita ware or Arita-yaki, although the name is interchangeable with Imari-yaki too - named after the port north of Arita, where most of the porcelain was exported from.

The Dutch East India Company in the 1650s began exporting Arita porcelain to Europe, with millions of pieces being shipped over.

But the shine of Arita's porcelain industry wore off as more contemporary porcelain styles and other handicrafts emerged.

The Saga-based Kazunori, 46, laments that porcelain has given way to more practical material such as plastic.

"Many Japanese owned and used porcelain every day. They would look at the underside of cups and plates to see which porcelain house made them and they would know if it's a good company.

"We don't want the porcelain to be seen only as art now. It's also our cultural heritage. We are afraid the tradition will be lost in time."

Interest revived

The good news is that even without the official push from the Saga government, Arita porcelain has already been capturing the international design world's attention in the last couple of years.

Arita-yaki has become a medium for contemporary designers outside of Japan looking to experiment with the ageing craft.

In 2012, Dutch designers Scholten & Baijings put out Colour Porcelain, a tableware set that married their oft-colourful European design philosophy with the traditional methods of 1616/Arita Japan, a home-grown label that manages potters and craftsmen.

A year later, the annual Elle Deco International Design Awards named it the winner in the Tableware category. Since then, a similar collaboration, 2016/Arita, was mooted, where 16 international designers team up with craftsmen from Arita to make contemporary porcelain objects.

Japanese design guru Oki Sato, under his celebrated label nendo, created the 2013 Ume-play collection of plates and bowls with Gen-emon, one of the most renowned Arita-yaki porcelain kilns.

He reinterpreted the kiln's famous plum flower motif and used a new charcoal-based resist method called sumi hajiki, instead of filling in outlines the traditional way.

Mr Fuji Hirofumi, 55, chief of sales department at the 262-year- old Gen-emon kiln, says: "Working with nendo was the first time we had a collaboration with someone outside of Gen-emon.

"It's something different from our usual style, but Gen-emon always tries to do something innovative. We have to because people always want different things."

Singapore has also been bitten by the Arita-yaki bug.

Local lifestyle store Supermama first worked with Kihara, a ceramics company which has a 400-year-old history, on the Singapore Icons Studio Project two years ago.

The tableware series, which featured familiar motifs such as HDB flats, was a runaway hit. More designs were added and thousands of orders were chalked up.

Making porcelain is back- breaking work, which explains why young faces are hard to spot among the mostly silver-haired teams at the porcelain ateliers today.

Craftsmen train for years, starting by learning the basic techniques of making ceramics. Later, they specialise in a particular skill such as forming the shapes of vessels or glazing. It can take them up to 30 years to become master craftsmen.

Fortunately, the craft does draw young craftsmen and kilns are modernising the art form too.

Fourth-generation craftsman Shuuji Hataishi at the Hataman Toen kiln is experimenting with styles the 89-year-old maison in Imari is new to.

At Maison&Objet last year, he put out a stylish ombre-charcoal vessel, which took centre spot at the exhibition. Hataman also showed delicately painted, perfume bottles - a feat with ceramics, which are less malleable than glass - to much praise.

On the new wave of porcelain Hataman is experimenting with, Mr Hataishi, 29, who studied at the Arita College of Ceramics, says: "There are traditional skills that should be passed down through generations, but it's equally important the products make profit for the industry. So I paired the traditional pottery wheel with my knowledge of contemporary art and didn't lose the noble technique."

Other young craftsmen want to take Arita porcelain to the masses.

In a small, two-storey store in Ureshino, Mr Tsuji Satoshi, 35, runs a seven-month-old hip outfit with his girlfriend Yoko Shigyo, 40.

On the ground floor is 224saryo, a cafe by day and a shisha bar at night - the first in the Saga prefecture. Upstairs, 224porcelain is a store selling homeware and lifestyle accessories.

Mr Satoshi works with two Tokyo- based designers and makes the porcelain himself at the Yozan kiln, which his father owns. He weaves into his pieces a modern aesthetic and quirky concepts.

The style is simple, unlike more traditional wares which have more painted patterns and colours on them. For example, a cute, triangular onigiri-shaped dish, a chopsticks' rest modelled after a house and a diamond-patterned sake cup are popular pieces.

Already, 224porcelain is going places. While it has an online store, its products will be brought in by lifestyle store Foundry at Raffles Hotel next month.

Mr Satoshi, who grew up around pottery, says: "I dream of selling it around the world. I chose to make my porcelain a different way, but it's a new way to keep the tradition alive."

The writer's trip was sponsored by Japan External Trade Organisation (Jetro) Singapore.

This article was first published on September 12, 2015.
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