Kato Takahiko: Shigaraki Ceramic Artist 加藤隆彦の陶芸〜信楽焼の世界

Shigaraki, like many styles of Japanese pottery, is also the name of the town in which it originated. Located not far from Kyoto, it could have been the capital of Japan if, in 745, Emperor Shomu’s consul hadn’t persuaded him to move from Shigaraki to Nara. Nonetheless, pottery took root there and the flames have continued to burn in anagama (wood-burning tunnel kilns) ever since. With such a long and celebrated history one would expect to find dozens of potters today carrying the torch of tradition, but unfortunately this isn’t the case. There are only a handful of truly outstanding Shigaraki ceramic artists these days and one of the best, most innovative and original surely has to be Kato Takahiko (b.1952).

Born and raised in Shigaraki, Kato deeply respects and looks for inspiration in the ancient masterpieces, those being made mostly in the 15th through 16th centuries. As he told me, “I’ve studied and copied all the forms that Shigaraki is known for— the large farmer’s jars (tsubo), small squat jars (uzukumaru), and huge open-mouthed vats (kame) from centuries ago— yet I’m alive today and want to add my own forms and voice to the Shigaraki.” When visiting Shigaraki one does see many utsushi—or copies—of the masterpieces of ages past (as well the ubiquitous tanuki statues). That’s all fine, but Kato has ventured into new creation.

Kato brings out the characteristics that Shigaraki is world-renowned for in his three-day 24/7 firings; those being tsuji-aji (‘clay flavor’), bidoro (vitrified glassy rivulets that streak across works, often forming emerald-toned beads), hi-iro (fire colored tones) and shizen-yu (natural ash-glazes that can be smooth or very crusty).

Take a look at the ribbed, wavy or winged vessels here. They have an abundance of energy that don’t take away from Shigaraki’s defining characteristics. Some are even spooky, as if they have come from an ancient dinosaur realm or some dungeon. He also does classical forms with an added twist, as can be seen in the chawan (tea bowl) where he’s added a stone-like texture over the Koetsu-inspired form. The warm orange glow emitting from the chawan is soothing, and compliments the hues of whipped emerald green tea.

Shigaraki has never had a Living National Treasure before, unlike say Bizen where they’re now on number five. I would like to nominate Kato as the first Shigaraki Living National Treasure for his mastery of the old and creation of the new. Regardless of whether Kato is some day designated, for me he already is a Shigaraki treasure unlike no other.






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