Kutani-yaki is one of Japan's traditional styles of porcelain known for its vivid colors and elegant patterns. Kutani-yaki ware originated around 360 years ago in Ishikawa prefecture, on the Sea of Japan coast. The art has continued to innovate, yet it retains its original charm and is highly appreciated in Japan and increasingly across the globe.
In recent years, Kutani-yaki ware has found new applications, such as products featuring popular animation characters.
We will take a closer look at Kutani-yaki ceramics, including its history and the production process. Read on for advice on how to choose a piece of Kutani-yaki ware you will treasure for years to come.
（ artist: ：Kosaka Iso-uemon, title: Trio bowl set with landscape and tower pattern 色絵楼閣山水図三組鉢）
Colorful exuberance -- a distinctive feature of Kutaniyaki ware
Kutani-yaki porcelain is named after the place where it was first produced. The village of Kutani is nestled beyond the Yamanaka Onsen hot springs in Kagawa city, Ishikawa, which is along the Sea of Japan coast. Kutani-yaki ware is distinguished for its over-glaze painting using Kutani-gosai, or the "five Kutani colors" of green, yellow, red, purple and dark blue.
Kutaniyaki ware - versatile tableware
Uwa-e-tsuke: over-glaze painting
Uwa-e-tsuke is the unique painting technique applied after glazing. Pigments are used to draw patterns over a glaze, before the clay is fired again.
The same technique is applied to other Japanese tableware, such as the Arita ceramics of Saga, in southwestern Japan.
The over-glaze painting of Kutani-yaki porcelain is characterized by patterns drawn with the five vivid Kutani colors.
Overglaze painting workshop
Overglaze painting techniques
Let's quickly go through the three major styles of overglaze decoration.
① Iroe・Gosaite (色絵・五彩手)
The first method called "iroe" or "gosaite" makes full use of the Kutani five colors of yellow, green, dark blue, purple and red. The patterns are outlined in an indigo paint invented by the legendary potter-painter Kutani Shoza.
Iroe・Gosaite style bowl（artist ：Kosaka Iso-uemon、title: Trio bowl set with landscape and tower pattern 色絵楼閣山水図三組鉢）
Pattern depicting landscaep and people （artist ：Kosaka Iso-uemon、title: Trio bowl set with landscape and tower pattern 色絵楼閣山水図三組鉢）
Intricate patterns（artist: Kosaka Iso-uemon、title: Colored trio bowl set with landscape and tower pattern 色絵楼閣山水図三組鉢）
Aote is a blue-based overglaze enamel decoration, that covers the entire surface with bold shades of green, yellow, dark blue and purple, creating an elegant look.
Aote plate（creator：Ono Kiln 、title: Plate with landscape design 色絵山水図平鉢 ）
Pattern covering the entire surface（creator：Ono Kiln 、title: Plate with landscape design 色絵山水図平鉢 ）
Pattern on Aote-style bowl（creator: Ono Kiln、title: Plate with landscape design 色絵山水図平鉢 ）
Kutani ware eventually adopted overglaze enamels featuring red and gold. This technique called "aka-e kin-ran-de" was introduced from China during the Edo period.
Incense burner gorgeously decorated in red and gold （creator: Kutani Kitayama-do Miyaso Ichitoh、title：Red and gold large incense burner with human figure 赤絵金彩人物図大香炉 ）
Pattern drawn on Incense burner （creator: Kutani Kitayama-do Miyaso Ichitoh、title：Red and gold large incense burner with human figure 赤絵金彩人物図大香炉 ）
Gorgeous design (creator: Kutani Kitayama-do Miyaso Ichitoh、title：Red and gold large incense burner with human figure 赤絵金彩人物図大香炉 ）
Each of these overglaze painting techniques gives Kutani-yaki ware its appeal. Familiarize yourself with the different styles of painting to truly appreciate this classical Japanese art.
The history of Kutaniyaki ware
The first Kutani-yaki porcelain is said to date back to 1655, when a kiln opened in Kutani village under the orders of the local feudal lord Maeda Toshiharu. This was shortly after porcelain stone was discovered from a local mine, and Goto Sai-jiro, a member of the Maeda clan, was sent to Arita in southwestern Japan to study its advanced methods of ceramic making.
Kanazawa castle the former residence of Kaga domain ruler, Maeda Toshiharu
The Kutani kiln suddenly closed less than a century later, for reasons that remain unknown. The ko-Kutani, or old Kutani pieces, created during this time are extremely rare and highly valued. They are known for their bold and dynamic outlines decorated with thick overglazing by the classical five "gosai" colors.
About a century after the closure of the Kutani kiln, the Kaga clan launched efforts to revive the lost art, and opened the Kasugayama kiln in the castle town of Kanazawa. Other kilns soon opened across the region, letting rise to new decorative styles of Kutani-yaki ware.
The Miyamoto kiln used very fine red lines, while the Eiraku kiln featured gold. The Yoshidaya kiln focused on reviving old Kutani ware. Porcelain produced during this time is called Saiko Kutani, or "the revival of Kutani"
In the late 19th century, painter Kutani Shouza developed a painting style that combined gold with various Kutani coloring techniques. Shouza's style is recognized abroad as "Japan Kutani." His pieces were exported to Europe after being showcased at the 1873 Expo in Vienna.
Adorable Kutaniyaki figurine
In recent years, Kutani-yaki porcelain has been used as gifts by the Imperial Family, and was presented to Prince Charles as a wedding gift.
Kutaniyaki tableware has also introduced a new wave of designs and products suitable for everyday use. Some of these items feature popular animation characters.
Even those with the most untraditional patterns seem to have an unmistakably Japanese feel with warm hues similar to classic Kutani-yaki ware. This is because the overglaze enamels add depth to the vivid colors, while softening the overall tone.
The production process
Now, let's take a quick look at how Kutani-yaki ware is produced.
The pottery stone or pottery clay is mined and dried before grounded into powder. It is then sifted and mixed with water, then strained to remove impurities. The clay is kneaded and rested before shaping.
Various methods are applied to shape the clay, including the use of a potter's wheel (rokuro-seikei) or molds (ikomi).
The shaped clay is sun-dried before firing at 800 degrees Celsius.
Shaping clay with a potter’s wheel
The next process is one of the most crucial of Kutani production. The drawing is outlined with a cobalt pigment called gosu. Once the outlines are done, the bisque is coated with a glaze called hakuyu. The glaze turns glassy, making the surface stronger. The ware is then fired again for more than 10 hours at 1300 degrees Celsius.
④Overglaze painting・firing after gold decorations
The pottery is decorated with the five Kutani gosai colors, under a process known as uwa-etsuke.The piece is then fired for 4 to 10 hours at temperatures around 800 degrees Celsius.
After this, gold and silver decorations are applied. The piece is complete after a final round of firing.
Pigments used for decorating
How to find your favorite Kutani-yaki ware
Kutani-yaki ceramics are available in a wide range of shapes and sizes, ranging from luxury to daily use. Not sure what to get as your first Kutani piece? We suggest daily tableware, before expanding your collection. Kutani tableware can elevate a mundane meal into a special occasion, so have fun finding a piece that compliments your cooking. It is also worth noting that Kutani dinnerware pairs well with western food.
Stylish Kutani-yaki incense burner
How to choose the perfect Kutani piece
There are two types of Kutani-yaki ware -- ceramics made from clay, and porcelain made from pottery stone. The ceramics are thick and bulky and have a warm feel, while the porcelains are thin, light, durable and elegantly shaped.
Kutani-yaki tea cup
Kutani-yaki sake bottle and cup
How to take care of Kutani-yaki ware
Follow these easy steps to maintain your precious Kutani ware so they will last for years to come.
Before your first use, soak the Kutani ware in hot water and let it boil. Let it cool, and then rinse with water. Dry completely. This process prevents water seepage and stains.
Beautiful intricate drawings（creator：Aoya Gen-emon、title: Mountain-water landscape on fan shaped plate 色絵山水図扇面形皿）
After washing, always let it dry completely. This prevents mold and odor.
Extra care is also required for tableware decorated with gold or silver. Never use them in the microwave or the paint will come off, or turn dark. Also, never stack ceramics and porcelain on top each other, otherwise the legs of the porcelain will damage the ceramics' surface.
Kutani-yaki: a captivating Japanese art
Kutani-yaki ware is considered to be the pinnacle of Japanese colored porcelain. Kutani-yaki's essential characteristics are its intricate patterns. As the saying goes, Kutani is nothing without its decorations.
The colorful overglaze decorations are dynamic, yet elegant, and are almost art pieces in themselves.
Have fun exploring the different styles of painting that have developed over the centuries.
If you plan to visit Ishikawa Prefecture, take time to visit the locations below to learn more about one of Japan's finest examples of artisanal craft.
Ornamental hina dolls