Mizuya, fine Japanese tableware

Iga ware
Rugged, heavy, startlingly strong and breathtakingly beautiful, Iga ware has a special place in my heart. For many, it is the epitome of Japanese ceramics. From the combination of the the potters' hands and the clay itself — at its best, Iga appears to be born rather than made. With Iga ware, nothing is hidden. You sense, see the and feel the clay; from the motion and actions of the potter to the random and somewhat accidental build up of transparent ash glazes from multiple firings.

Iga ware is made in the town of Iga, in Mie prefecture, south of Nagoya. It is one of the oldest kiln sites, with pieces dating back to Nara era. Iga ware reached its pinnacle of appreciation during the Momoyama era (1573-1600) with the rise of Sen-no-rikyu's Wabi tea aesthetics. Furuta Oribe's embrace of the Mino kilns also included Iga ware and helped to open the appreciation of native ceramics for tea ceremony. Later tea master and artist Kobori Enshu took an especially active role by visiting Iga and executing his vision in Iga ware.

After the early 17th century, however, the local authorities in Iga fell out of favor with the ruling Tokugawa clan and high taxation kept the kilns quiet. When the kilns started up in late Edo, they tended to produce more utilitarian wares that took advantage of the Iga clay's great fire resistance. In the late 19th Century, there was a revival of interest in the rugged beauty of Iga ware, causing a rediscovery and resurrection of firing techniques lost during the Edo era. With many skilled artists now working in the difficult tradition, contemporary Iga pottery is vibrant and maintains the combination of accidental and the sublime that is as craved today as it was 500 years ago.

Momoyama era mizusashi, courtesy of Mizuya.com
Above: This Iga Momoyama-era mizusashi looks startlingly modern. Left: Iga bowl from the Meiji era shows the natural beauty of the clay.
Above: Making an Iga donabe at Nagatani-en. Below: Takenoko gohan (rice with bamboo shoots) made in a donabe. Photos courtesy of Nagatani-en.
takenoko gohan


Iga bowl from the Meiji era on Mizuya.com

Iga-yaki in the Kitchen
Besides its' beauty, Iga is one of the most useful types of ceramic ware for a the Japanese kitchen. Iga-yaki’s most famous quality is its amazing ability to withstand massive amounts of heat and its ability to weather rapid changes in temperature without cracking. This makes it ideal for cookware such as nabe, for making soup and hotpot dishes, and donabe, for making different kinds of steamed rice. The strength of Iga ware is due to the special kind of clay that is available only in Iga. The town used to lie on the bed of Lake Biwa, and is rich with natural organic material from years of aquatic life. When the clay is fired, this burns away to form natural pockets of air which let the clay breath and also retain heat. We regularly use a small black-glazed Iga donabe for rice. Recently, Western cooking techniques have also made an appearance in Iga cookware, including frying pans, smokers and even Moroccan-inspired tagines. Iga-mono and Nagatani-en, whose donabe are imported by Toiro Kitchen (see their ad to the right) make most of these.

Serving rice made in an Iga donabe, (c)2010 Kirk Vuillemot

However, our favorite example of Iga-yaki — one which we covet but is far too heavy to bring back home — is the traditional Kyoto-style donabe. At a recent meal at the Michelin-starred Kamigamo Akiyama, we enjoyed rice made in this ancient vessel, which is glazed in black, makes enough rice for 10 and has a wide and shallow profile. To enhance and increase the rice’s okoge (crispy) coating, the chef hit the entire surface of the donabe with a blow torch. The resulting okoge — perfectly brown, crispy and fragrant — was then served with sea salt; a crunchy, flavorful snack that left us wanting more.

We have a limited quantity of Iga ware at our Japanese tableware gallery, Mizuya.