Kagoshima: Stories in Craft from South Japan

Kagoshima: Stories in Craft from South Japan

At wagumi now we have a collection of items from Kagoshima in south Japan.

This is entitled Kagoshima: Stories in Craft from South Japan.

The collection page can be seen here, as we upload to it.

Kagoshima was created from the old Satsuma and Ōsumi domains in the late 19th century, and possesses a very distinct history.

It is centred on a city in a bay facing a volcano, and has been a place of periodic eruptions, historical adventures and distinctive identities in foods and crafts.

At one time Satsuma connected Japan to a wider world, at another it was central to the transformation of the modern state.  Its many episodes, travails, ideas and initiatives are stories that can be told through objects and practices that continue today.

Here we will introduce some of the items within the collection, and some of the stories to be told about Kagoshima.




Kagoshima Story 1: Lows and Highs in Anglo-Satsuma relations

On 14 September 1862, British merchant Charles Lennox Richardson was travelling the Tokaido road that connected Tokyo to its west. By some accounts a known hot head, Richardson was about to encounter one of the proudest samurai retinues in Japan. What occurred that afternoon, ended in the death of the Englishman, and was a turning point in the history of Satsuma’s relationships inside and outside of Japan. British demands for compensation for the actions of the guards of Hisamitsu Shimazu, escalated to a coastal bombardment known in Japan as the Anglo-Satsuma war. The subsequent settlement however, established a new friendship and connection between Britain and Satsuma, that accelerated into the creation of modern Japan.

The history of Kagoshima is full of such stories that burn with their passionate protagonists, and their significance in Japan’s wider narrative. With its volcano in the bay, island chains, green tea plantations and mountainsides - it has a richly evocative landscape and geography formed with its human inhabitants.

The so-called Namamugi Incident of 1862 marked a temporary low point in Anglo-Satsuma relations. What occurred near the village of Namamugi on the Tokkaido road from Tokyo (Edo at the time), was essentially an extreme version of the cultural faux-pas that many subsequent visitors to Japan have experienced. The great error of Mr Richardson was to fail to dismount from his horse when he encountered the party of the Shimazu lord of Satsuma. That Shimazu was on the road however, also tells a story.

For 250 years, since the establishment of the Tokugawa dynasty to the Japanese Shogunate, the lords of Japan’s domains had been required to make periodic visits to the capital. The expense and difficulty of these processions hampered the independent development of the regions, and to an extent: kept the peace. However, the Satsuma lords had a somewhat unique status, furthest from the centre. While they had not supported the Tokugawa in the earliest days, the Shimazu family retained much of their status and through the subjugation of the Ryukyu kingdom (present day Okinawa) to the south, had a route to the outside world.

A curiosity to the world beyond was shown again following their conflict with the British in the 1860s. The period of negotiations following Richardson’s death, eventually built ties with London, that were developed by the sending of a party of young samurai to Britain (the so-called Satsuma Students). This mirrored the British journey of the Choshu Five, a group of famous samurai from the region allied to Satsuma in the Meiji Restoration of 1868, that in tumultuous events established the modern Japanese state. These were events in which Satsuma played a central role.


Folk toys and folk crafts

Certain things have been made in Kagoshima as long as anyone can remember. Objects which are signifiers of identity, and histories in belief and practice in the region. One of them is diminutive monk like figures most frequently kept in the kitchen. These Oh no Konbo are part of Japan’s rich heritage in folk toys. Items of belief more than they are of play, the forms created from washi paper have long kept friendly vigil to their owners as they cook. The precise history is somewhat obscure, but one concept is that they stem from the tradition of honouring the Daikokuten deity, with the miniature monks placed in close attendance. The small figures are bottom heavy, and right themselves when pushed (The Oh no Konbo name is a Kagoshima dialect rendering of ‘okiagari kobushi’ meaning small monks that stand up). We asked Tamaru Kamizuru of the Kagoshima Chamber of Commerce Federation to explain how the figures are used: “By stationing the Oh no Konbo to a number one higher than the members of a family each new year, it was hoped that all would be healthy and safe, and that happiness to the degree of the one extra figure would be visited on the household” he said. “Today the wishes have been updated somewhat, and tend to express, success in exams, safety in travel, good luck in love and other hopes.”

While the history of Oh no Konbo has evolved, their continued presence owes much to the Sameshima Craft micro-company. Kanehira Sameshima knew the figures from his youth and rebuilt the tradition in making them at his husband and wife micro-business in Kagoshima City. The gentle expressions, and apparent discourse between the little figures as they rise and fall, are all the product of Sameshima’s brushwork.

History within objects is also a feature of the Kagoshima Shrine, which has a central location in the prefecture. Adjacent to the shrine is a small workshop: Kobo Miyaji, at which a number of folk items are made.

There are three main items: wheeled wooden fish, which in legend once ate the magic hook of Yamasachi-hiko (the mythical grandfather of the Emperor Jinmu). These are known as Tai-guruma.


Kōbako boxes as were once the property of Jinmu’s grandmother Toyotama-hime, who herself was the daughter of Watatsumi, the deity of the sea. Made with wood cut using nata style knives, the bright yellow and red pattern work evokes southern Japan.

Finally, made for the horse festival early each year, there are small portable drums known colloquially as ponpachi. While the correct name is hatsutsuzumi, the sound of beans tied by thread on the drum surface gives them their common moniker.


In Japanese religion, gods can be everywhere, and both a benevolent and malevolent presence. And so it is as well to play with them. This is one origin for the enduring tradition of handmade folk toys. Their bright designs and forms, say something too about the communities in which they were made.

Beyond the human structures, in Kagoshima’s warm climate, the bamboo forests grow fast and straight.  Green, musty, moody spaces they have been a source of mystery and folk stories such as Princess Kaguya, a deity from the moon discovered in a bamboo shoot.  They have also been a backdrop and a resource for life since the earliest human settlement.   While much has been outsourced and lost, Kagoshima retains a connection to its history in bamboo craft through small firms such as Yagitake Industry.  In operation since 1925, they collect material from among the plentiful large stems, and split and shape their material into whisks, trays and other practical objects for life.



Kagoshima Story 2: The Return to Kuro-mon

The history of Kagoshima ceramics shares the tumult of their region. They are supported by their land, which holds rich clay deposits. But principally it has been through the innovation of people in craft, both from Kagoshima and brought to it.

A vital era in the story was the Azuchi-Momoyama period of the late 16th century. In aesthetic terms, this was a time when many foundations were laid. Tea masters active in the period often found beauty in wares that had travelled to Japan from other parts of Asia, including Buncheong stoneware from Korea. The many feudal lords of Japan created a solid demand for tea ceremony and other ceramics - and one outcome of the failed invasions of Korea in the 1590s, was the importation of ceramic technicians.

This was the story too in the domains of the Shimazu corresponding to modern Kagoshima, with several ceramic regions established under Korean guidance. This was most striking in the Naeshirogawa village (in present day Hioki), where the community was compelled to eschew the integration seen in other cases, and in effect to live in an ancestral Korean style. They made an essential contribution to the advancement of Satsuma-ware ceramics, but this legacy became increasingly confused.

Ceramics had developed into two strains, ‘white’ satsuma-ware, which was pale and characterised by exquisite decoration. These wares were often transferred to the domain authorities. There was also ‘black’ satsuma-ware, a functional stoneware for use in kitchens and homes. ‘Kuro-mon’ in Japanese, it expressed the identity of the people who used it.

The transformations of the 19th century affected these ceramic legacies, with the export opportunities for white ceramics causing its creation to escalate into low quality mass production. While ‘white Satsuma’ remained exquisite in some cases (especially among the descendants of the Naeshirogawa potters), Satsuma-ware itself became synonymous with low-quality ubiquity.

Following this blow-out, craft potters were left to pick up the pieces. In particular, the human, breathing beauty of Kuro-mon. When Soetsu (Muneyoshi) Yanagi, the intellectual leader of Japan’s arts and crafts movement encountered the remaining makers of these ceramics in the 1930s, he was deeply struck. In contrast to the white ware fired by ‘knowledge’ in the black pots he found pieces of ‘instinct’. Left in the rain, used in the home, these works narrated the lives of the communities that made them, and a cultural essence that might be lost to industrial modernity.

The patronage of Yanagi and others helped retain a place for Kuro-mon, but it has not always been easy. The potters of the Ryumonji-ware tradition, near the settlement of Aira, reformed as a cooperative in the post-war era to save their practice. Founded by a Korean ceramist in the 18th century, Ryumonji today stands for patterns such as ‘sansai-nagashi’, with green and caramel lines across an egg yolk coloured background.

The Ryumonji cooperative retain a deep commitment to sourcing ceramic ingredients from environs, and fire in wood powered hillside kilns. They are leading makers of items such as ‘choka’, squat pouring vessels for the enjoyment of the local shochu spirit.

A modern explorer in Kuro-mon is Kaori Sasaki at her Nohara-ya kiln. Raised in Kagoshima, Sasaki trained in Okinawa, and brings parts of the vibrant contemporary Okinawan folk craft scene to her work, together with a material and aesthetic appreciation of satsuma-ware. She can both replicate the Kuro-mon forms, and expand upon them. And in so doing create a work with a deep humanity.


Ceramic lineages

For the Ryumonji potters, most ceramics begin
 in the nearby mountains. It is here that they know where to find the clay that they fire, and the ingredients for the glazes that are unique to their part of Kagoshima. The history of Ryumonji ceramics has contained obstacles, but these mountainsides have remained dependable throughout, so much so that each year they visit them for prayer.

In common with the other ceramic lineages in Kagoshima, Ryumonji’s history is founded on an original sin. This was the forced importation of Korean ceramicists in the 1590s, after Japan’s invasions of this period. Descending from the old Chosa-ware that was one of the ceramic areas made to serve the Satsuma domain rulers, in 1688 a Korean ceramicist established the current Ryumonji-ware location near Aira. It was from this time that the forms passed through generations began to be made.

Industrialisation was almost fatal however, and in the early postwar era the amalgamation to a Ryumonji pottery collective was necessary to rescue the ceramics from extinction. This was built around the Kawahara family who are today the leading exponents of Ryumonji-ware.

Potters such as Ryuhei Kawahara, and his renowned father Shiro, shape the Ryumonji forms with quick precision on the wheel. These include karakara pourers and squat kurochoka used to serve the local shochu spirit. Also shallow sobagaki bowls, and the ‘coro’ cups and bowls that are a more modern addition to the canon, based on Shiro Kawahara’s time spent learning ceramics in the Kansai region. The recurring patterns are ‘sansai-nagashi’ (‘three colour trailing’) and ‘kuroao-nagashi’ (blue on black trailing), and these are achieved with quick instinctive movements. The firings are limited to a few occasions annually, and last several days in wood-fired climbing kills.

Twenty miles or so to the north west, Kaori Sasaki’s ceramics are a more personal affair. They reflect her training on the southern island of Okinawa and the ceramic traditions and materials of her home region.

Brought up in Kagoshima, Sasaki arrived in Okinawa at an important moment. The Kita-gama kiln in Yomitan, now legendary for its training of craft potters, was in an early stage of its growth. For Sasaki, who visited seeking a little work experience, it was to become a central influence on her life. She ultimately stayed 10 years, and left able to form pots in moments to the precise and soulful specifications of her mentor Yoneshi Matsuda. She also took two aspects with her: the quest for Okinawan identity that the Kita-gama potters place in their ceramics, and a dedication to local materials, ‘the treasure beneath your feet’.

Returned to Kagoshima, Sasaki built her Nohara-ya kiln and applied both the skills and lessons of her training. She did so to acquire a modern Kagoshima identity in ceramics, based on its materials, and informed by the experience of life. To the south-west of Nohara-ya is the old centre of Kuro-mon, so-called ‘black’ ceramics, at Naeshirogawa. To the south-east are the Ryumonji potters. In the hillsides and rivers are ceramic clay deposits of the type that Satsuma ceramicists sought for centuries. Sasaki accesses this geological catalogue of possibilities, and travels to the Sakura-jima volcano to collect ash for glazes. She also refers to the forms of Kuro-mon, which developed as expressions of life in Kagoshima’s homes and settlements.

But her’s is a modern Satsuma-ware, informed equally by the ethos of Okinawa’s folk craft revival. Pleasant, and unassuming, Sasaki is serious about her ceramics. With each firing she approaches her ideal. And in her work is a hinterland of skill, craft and experience. By fusing beauty to utility, Sasaki’s pots have received recognition from the judges at the annual exhibition of the folk craft museum in Tokyo (the Mingeikan), the quintessential arbiters of taste in the field. They have also received recognition from those who drink and eat from them in their homes, as giving, heart-full items, that reflect the personality of a place.





Tea leaves and coffee beans 

The drink that defines Kagoshima is its distilled spirit: shochu. This belies perhaps its association with tea. Kagoshima's warm climate supports not just the first crop of the year, but one of the largest. The acreage covered by tea fields allows for a variety of producers and approaches, and we have selected one each from the growing regions of Chiran, Satsuma and Kirishima.

Chiran is on the southern tip of the Osumi peninsula, and attracts winds from the sea. The Hamada tea firm takes an approach of selecting the best leaves from the wide growing area. Led by Shuhei Hamada, a trained tea master to the sixth grade, they apply their palettes and their noses to the task of creating the best possible blends of Chiran leaves.

To the north of Chiran in Kagoshima’s interior is the town of Satsuma. Merged from many smaller settlements, Satsuma is a rich land of agriculture. The warm currents support tea growing, and the leaves grow thick and green. Here Yamaguchi-en have farmed since 1978 as a family firm. The birth of a new generation into the family led to a new approach, and a switch to organic farming in the early 1990s that entailed many challenges. But they persisted, and the result is a range of sustainable, full-flavour teas. They were included in our selection based on a recommendation from the ceramicist Kaori Sasaki, who brews Yamaguchi-en tea while working in her nearby ceramic studio.


Kirishima to the south of Satsuma, sits at the foot of the Takachiho no Mine volcano range. Here the altitude leads to a colder climate, and another Kagoshiman terroir for tea. When brewed, Kirishima teas often offer a quite thin green colour, that deceives to the level of taste. The brews are in fact fresh, sophisticated and satisfying. The Sueshige family business has been farming teas in the region since 1932 and understands all of its characteristics. The recipient of awards in the world of tea, they daily explore the potential of Kirishima tea making.

Japan as a whole has a rich cafe culture. There are numerous sub-genres including jazz, comic books and cats. One within them is mingei (folk craft) cafes, which can sometimes be found with dark wood hand made furniture, and the walls dotted with plates and textiles. Kagoshima’s Coffee-Kan has been a feature in its cafe scene for more than 35 years. It is a space maintained and created by Koichiro Nagata, otherwise known as the Kan-cho (Cafe Chief). Nagata takes a craft inspired approach to the beans that he sorts and roasts personally using vintage equipment in a corner of the establishment. He drips water onto the ground beans held in flannel filters, and presents each cup in specially fired works by leading contemporaries in the craft scene. The logo of Coffee-Kan is also bespoke, made by legendary stencil dye artist Samiro Yunoki. 

Moments spent in the Coffee-Kan offer a sense of peace in the passage of time. Something too that is roasted and imbued into beans selected and bagged by the Kan-cho himself.



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