Today, we’re happy to introduce you to Yoshiko san, a ceramic artist from a wonderful pottery family in Shigaraki, a local town in Shiga Prefecture, famous for its ceramic art for many centuries. Shigaraki, as one of Japan’s Six Ancient Kilns, is one of the oldest pottery producing places in Japan producing amazing works from as early as the 1300’s!
Hi Yoshiko san, thank you for your time today! Could you please introduce yourself and share a bit about your background?
Hello, I’m Yoshiko Takahashi from Shigaraki, Shiga prefecture which has the biggest lake in Japan and is located almost in the middle of Japan. I was born and raised in its unique environment, surrounded by lots of pottery, clay and kilns. I studied English in B.C., Canada as a language exchange student when I was in college and I was lucky enough to stay with a very loving family with two international roommates. After I graduated from college, I studied in two different ceramic schools in Kyoto and Shigaraki to learn the basic skills of pottery. I then took a job at the Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park which has the world renown ceramic artist-in-residency program. After I left that job, I became a full time studio potter. And now, I am on maternity leave – I will get back on the wheel soon.
Shigaraki is so famous for pottery and ceramic arts. Can you tell us more about this art form and your area? What makes Shigaraki ware special and different from other Japanese ceramic arts and areas?
I think Shigaraki is famous because it is one of the oldest kiln sites (Rokkoyo) in Japan. Shigaraki ware is said to have originated at the end of the 13th century. The talented and hardworking potters in Shigaraki adapted to the times and assessed the demands, and they made anything they could out of clay to satisfy the consumers. This is one of the reasons why Shigaraki has flourished as a ceramic town to this extent.
It is very hard to describe the charms of Shigaraki ware because it is perceived not only through eyes but also through the feeling evoked upon encountering a piece of Shigaraki pottery. They do not look gorgeous or fancy, but a viewer can feel the warmth and the strength of the clay from its modest appearance of the unglazed wood-fired pottery. I think these are the reasons why Shigaraki ware is so special.
As you know, we love Japanese food and create food tours all around Japan. One thing that is special about Japanese cuisine is the gorgeous presentation, and plateware can be a big part of that. How do you feel about Shigaraki ware and how it fits in with this idea of “eating first with our eyes?”.
Shigaraki wares themselves usually do not have a fancy appearance or decoration. But the warm, calm, yet strong appearance of the unglazed clay surface with the red flame pattern goes well with almost any food, and, of course, especially with Japanese food. The potters place great importance on them being used, and the pots become one of a kind in each users’ hands. Therefore, I think the Shigaraki wares shine the most in their moment of usage. A piece of Shigaraki ware is, in a way, completed when the maker and the presenter’s ideas collaborate in front of the customers.
There is this amazing old movie on your website (video above). Can you tell us about this? Was this your grandfather? Great grandfather? We’d love to hear about the making of this movie (though I am sure it was before you were born!).
This was filmed in the 1960s by the great American potter Richard Peeler. I heard that he was filming different kiln sites in Japan, and it’s great to be able to see how potters work with wheels and kilns in the 60s. And yes, the person in the first few minutes of the video is my great grandfather, Rakushi the 3rd.
Talking more about your family business, can you share a bit of your origin story? Who are currently the active artists in your family team?
The generations of Takahashi Rakusai have been making ceramics in Shigaraki since 1840. My grandfather was the 4th Rakusai. He succeeded the name at the age of 51 in 1976. Although the name Rakusai was passed onto my father Kozo in 2010, my grandfather is still energetically making pottery to this day at the age of 95. My father is now the leading figure as the 5th Rakusai, everyone in my family is working together as the Rakusai Pottery.
Can you give our readers a bit of a breakdown about the pottery making process and your family’s kilns. They are almost works of art themselves and full of history!
Well…if I explained the whole pottery making process, I would need a whole day. But if I make it simple, the first step is clay preparation (mixing and wedging); second is making the pots,(throwing and hand building, not like throwing a ball, but throwing on a pottery wheel); and last but not least, firing! You then get a beautiful piece of pottery.
What is the most popular type of pottery that you’re selling? What is a recent piece or style that you’re the most proud of?
I enjoy flower arrangement with seasonal flowers from the mountain so I love to make vases and tsubo (jars). I often carve and facet the surface of my work, and it has been becoming one of my signature styles.
Your Instagram account is amazing, so many beautiful photos! We heard that you’re handling it with your father. Can you please tell us more about it and why you chose to set up an Instagram account?
Thank you! My father isn’t tech savvy, so I took over his Instagram and have been sharing his works. I think Instagram is a very convenient tool to share what we do with everyone. Sometimes visitors find us on Instagram and visit our studio.
Your website is both in Japanese and English, do you have customers from overseas?
Yes. We had many visitors from overseas before the pandemic and we always enjoyed welcoming them. It’s a little too quiet without the variety of visitors. However, some customers occasionally contact us through our website. We are looking forward to welcoming visitors again.
We know it’s hard to only pick one, but because we are a culinary travel company, we need to ask you about your favorite Japanese food!
I have a sweet tooth and one of my favorite Japanese foods is anko (sweet bean paste). I especially love seasonal anko sweets because they are enjoyable even without eating them but just by looking at their designs and pretty appearance. Like you mentioned “eating first with eyes!”.
We heard you will be doing a show of your family’s work in the US in 2022. Can you tell us more?
The “Clay as Soft Power” exhibition is planned to start from November 12th, 2022 to March 7th, 2023 at the Michigan University Museum of Art. This exhibition is on Shigaraki ware, and I was very fortunate to have been selected to show in it. I think more information will be available closer to the opening date.
Is there anything else you’d like to add or a message for our readers?
Thank you so much for reading! It’s very difficult to travel right now but I hope the situation gets better soon and we can all travel safely again. We are looking forward to seeing you in Shigaraki.
Thank you for your time and we’re looking forward to visiting you again soon!
Learn more about what to do in Shiga Prefecture on our blog!