July 12, 2023

From Climbing Kilns to Electric and Gas Chambers – The History and Modern Allure of Kyoto’s Ceramics

The art of pottery in Japan, particularly in the ancient capital city of Kyoto, has a long and storied history. Over the centuries, many different types of kilns have been birthed and evolved. Today, the “electric kiln,” “gas kiln,” and the “wood-fired kiln” play a crucial role in the firing of ceramics.

The characteristics of these kilns vary significantly:

Wood-Fired Kilns
These traditional kilns, including climbing kilns, snake kilns, and hole kilns, were generally used in Japan from ancient times through the Middle Ages. The process involves kindling wood and firing ceramics over several days to weeks.

Electric Kilns
These kilns use electricity to fire pottery. The most notable feature of electric kilns is the ease of temperature control, enabling a uniform firing process. This precision allows artists to create their desired works with a high degree of certainty.

Gas Kilns
These kilns use gas as fuel. While also easily adjustable in terms of temperature, gas kilns provide a unique texture to the ceramics, different from that of electric kilns. They allow for the creation of various oxidation-reduction environments inside the kiln, which results in beautifully colored and uniquely textured pieces.

In this article, we’d like to spotlight the representative of wood-fired kilns: the climbing kiln.

The Charm of the Climbing Kiln

The “climbing kiln,” as the name suggests, is a kiln built on the slope of a mountain. The flame moves up the slope, seemingly “climbing” the mountain, which gives this kiln its name.

A climbing kiln

A climbing kiln can fire a large number of ceramics at once. Unlike typical kilns, its slope-based design allows the heat from the ceramics at the top to flow down, spreading the heat from the fire evenly, and resulting in uniform finishes for each piece. Moreover, the fluctuations in flame flow and temperature within the kiln give each piece of pottery subtle and unique colorations, creating one-of-a-kind ceramics full of personality.

Contrarily, the control of climbing kilns is quite challenging compared to electric or gas kilns. Electric and gas kilns allow easy temperature adjustment and quick-firing, but climbing kilns require several days of gradual temperature increase. This process demands experience and refined skill.

In today’s Kyoto city, environmental conservation and safety regulations don’t permit the use of climbing kilns. However, some Kyoto potters overcome these constraints and use climbing kilns outside Kyoto to create their ceramics. They are drawn to the deep hues, natural texture, and incomparable uniqueness of the pottery fired in climbing kilns.

Ceramics from climbing kilns captivate onlookers with their depth and delicacy, a testament to the difficulties faced during their creation. On the other hand, pieces from electric or gas kilns charm with their consistent quality and efficient production process. Leveraging these diverse characteristics, Kyoto’s pottery artists continue to create Japanese fine craft art pieces that are a pride to the world.