As we make our way into Tamba Sasayama, we can glimpse at the history woven into the town’s streets. Its now-paved roads remain surrounded by centuries-old kilns, workshops, architecture, and rice paddies. Amongst the working artisans populating its streets and stores, many are from potter’s families that have been producing similarly beautiful and skilled work for generations.
The name Tamba Sasayama is a recent moniker, but just like the townscape, it borrows from the past, lending the name ‘Tamba’ from the ancient province that the town was once situated in. Located between Kyoto and Osaka, in modern-day Hyogo prefecture, Tamba Sasayama was poised since those years to thrive in the ceramics market. Its location set up the locale as an ideal stop-over on the main road from Kyoto and this continues to make the place an especially attractive getaway for curious, artistically-minded travellers today. The area’s distinctive Tambaware, or Tambayaki, resulted in Tamba Sasayama being recognised as one of Japan’s six ancient kiln towns, or rokkoyo – a distinguished heritage that drew us to this traditional yet contemporary conurbation, nestled in the Taki mountains.
As we approached the kiln area of Tamba Sasayama, we had the chance to gain an insight into the multifaceted journey which pottery undergoes before its completion. The earliest stage we witnessed was moulded pottery, which was not yet fired, on display at a personal kiln. We were also able to see the later point at which ceramics had finished their firing. Many of these finished products were fired in Tamba Sasayama’s traditional climbing kiln, or noborigama, which has been used by artisan after artisan to create the region’s characteristic wares. The town is also home to the oldest kiln in Japan, known as the ‘snake kiln’, or jagama, which gives a sense of how the kilns slope their way up the hilly terrain. These communal kilns are only fired twice per year, making those periods a precious time during which the artistic community comes together as everyone fires their diverse wares in tandem to split the high expense of firing the kiln. The most striking features of these Tambaware are its red-brown colour, stemming from iron-rich silt, called akadobe and a muddy-green glaze that is created from the ash that has been vitrified during the items’ firing. Much like the town, which has reinvented itself based on its legacy, akadobe was revived by modern craftspeople who had to rediscover this Edo-era technique and were able to restore the characteristic burgundy to local ceramics. The noborigama continues to fire both traditional Tambaware and contemporary ceramics, which have a more diverse range of styles and finishes. With the majority of the town’s craftspeople still following the traditional process of moulding and firing, the area marks an intriguing location for anyone with an interest in traditional or contemporary Japanese craftsmanship.
Surrounding the kiln area, there is a network of potters’ and artisans’ studios, workshops, and stores, including the contemporary ceramics shop Taigo Kobo, where we were lucky enough to meet the owners Masahiko Ichino, one of Japan’s leading modern ceramic artists, and his wife. The couple kindly invited us into their home and studio after we spied a Wataru Hatano washi display table and struck up a conversation on contemporary Japanese craftsmanship. The space was a considered blend of modern minimalism and traditional Japanese design techniques that mimicked the understated elegance of the owners and indeed, Ichino’s highly acclaimed ceramics.
Ichino’s artworks epitomised the two styles of ceramics seen in Tamba Sasayama, combining traditional Tambaware with simple and remarkably modern aesthetics. His work featured the traditional akadobe red, post-modern finishes, and carried touches alluding to the urban world beyond the region, demonstrating Ichino’s wide-ranging experiences in the international artistic community. But again, Ichino’s ties to Tamba Sasayama remain clear. He is running his kiln in his hometown, was trained by his father, the master potter Shinsui Ichino, and continues to create his impressive ceramics from here to this day. Ichino’s beautiful home reflected the essence of his pottery– its minimalist, modern design combined with traditional elements – and showcased both young and established artists and creatives in the furniture, fittings, walls, and woodwork.
After leaving Ichino’s home, we were able to experience another delicacy of Tamba Sasayama, its fresh produce - of which the town is best known for its black soy bean, edamame, and tea. Stopping in the charming soba restaurant Isshinbo, we dined on a delightfully energising dish of cold noodles with smoked duck, citrus, and cucumber - the ideal accompaniment to the humid summer air.
Combining the old and the new, Tamba Sasayama is a location for anyone with an interest in Japanese crafts. With a rich history apparent at every corner, a strong artisan community, and a scenic mountain setting, it is an idyllic travel spot beyond the borders of Kyoto and Osaka.
Maddie Rose Baker
Rachel E T Davies