Firing Japanese Ceramics | Traditional Climbing Kilns

Firing Japanese Ceramics | Traditional Climbing Kilns

Throughout Japan’s long history with ceramics, the climbing kiln, or Noborigama, has played an instrumental role in the country’s ceramic craftsmanship. While visiting our ceramic makers in Hagi, we had the pleasure of discovering both new and centuries-old climbing kilns.

Origins in China

The Noborigama climbing kiln draws its roots from the profound relationship between Japanese and Chinese ceramic techniques. With a design reminiscent of the Chinese dragon kilns, the Noborigama evolved into a distinctive structure that mirrored the undulating hillsides of Japan. Its name, Noborigama, translates to "ascending kiln," describing the kiln's characteristic multi-chambered, terraced structure.

The first chamber of a Noborigama is used to fuel the kiln. It is where the majority of the firewood is loaded and the fire is lit. Our makers recycle timber from old, torn down Japanese houses as the main fuel source. They will then constantly feed the fire with kindling throughout the firing process. The second chamber is often referred to as the “ash kiln” due to the amount of wood ash it is exposed to. This is a delicate chamber as it can produce the most intriguing results but can run the risk of pieces being ruined by too much ash. Subsequent chambers are filled with more vessels, with bisque ware often packed into the furthest chambers from the fire. 

Fire and Ash

Woodfire kiln flames hitting ceramic bowls

Inside Senryuzan's climbing kiln during a firing 

The Noborigama's architectural allure lies in its ability to fire a substantial quantity of ceramics in a single firing, thanks to its tiered construction. The kiln ascends in stages, with each chamber playing a unique role in the firing process. As flames dance through the chambers, the clay vessels undergo a transformative journey, absorbing the essence of both the direct flames and wood ash. This unique process results in Japanese ceramics with a distinctive character, marked by variations in glaze and texture. Pieces altered by direct contact with the woodfire are referred to as Yohen, meaning “kiln impacted”. Beautiful examples of the Yohen process can be seen in Makino-san’s collection

Noborigama Today

Makino-san's newly built climbing kiln

Makino-san's completed climbing kiln in 20218

While the Noborigama's origins may be steeped in history, its relevance endures in contemporary ceramic studios. Modern potters, both in Japan and around the world, pay homage to tradition by firing their creations in climbing kilns. The allure lies not just in the practicality of batch firing but in the effects that can only be created in this woodfire kiln. The Noborigama remains a bridge connecting the aspirations of contemporary artists with the enduring legacy of ancient firing traditions. Upon our recent visit, Makino-san gave us a tour of his climbing kiln only a short walk from his studio. His kiln was built in 2018 and is said that it may be the last to be built in Hagi.

Craftsmanship and Community

Masanori Makino adding wood to his woodfire kiln in Hagi, Japan

Makino-san and his team feeding the kiln during a firing

Beyond its functional prowess, the Noborigama embodies the spirit of community and collaboration. Firing a climbing kiln is a collective endeavour that requires coordination and teamwork. Potters and kiln staff labour together as they load the kiln with firewood and their creations. The firing process is often a communal effort as the fire is continuously fed for over 24 hours. Many do not sleep during this time, ensuring the perfect temperature is maintained throughout the entire firing process. Given the huge sizes of their climbing kilns, our makers will only fire once or twice a year. With close to a year’s worth of work in each firing, it is not a process they can afford to have go wrong. After the firing process is complete, pieces are often left to cool for up to a week before removing them from the kiln. 

Feel the impact of a traditional Noborigama

At OKAERI, a large portion of our Japanese ceramics collection has been fired in a traditional Japanese climbing kiln. Works by Makino-san and the Senryuzan Kiln include beautiful examples of Hagi yaki fired using traditional methods.

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