Nankei is a unique pottery located in Yokkaichi, Mie Prefecture. Initially founded as a producer and seller of clay approximately 80 years ago, Nankei dug and refined a special white clay for the local Taisho-yaki pottery and also a deep red clay. This iron-rich clay has become the basis for the iconic black Nankei teapots that are now a staple in their collection.
The company is now managed by Teruhiko Araki, the fourth generation owner of this family run business.
Japan’s Banko-yaki was born approximately 300 years ago. During the Edo-period a merchant called Rozan Nunami’s interest in tea grew and he decided to found a kiln in the town of Asahi in Kuwana, a city next to Yokkaichi.
With the will to create “Remarkable items that will live forever”, Rozan placed a seal on the earthenware with the words bankofueki, or “banko” which then later became banko-yaki. The slightly unusual items for the time were characterised by their foreign style and innovative patterns and shapes, which went by the name Kobanko (Old Banko-Yaki).
However, this particular style quickly declined and disappeared out of sight. 100 years later in 1832, the kiln opened once more in Asahi timing well with introduction of Sencha (Japanese green tea).
Thanks to the expansion of harbours and railways during the industrial age there were more commercial opportunities. Taisho-yaki used British pottery as a model, making business flourish. However, 20 years later sales declined due to the Great Depression.
The concept of American “industrial design” swept through Japan after the war and overlapped with the Western idea of the so called “Japanese lifestyle”.
While the number of potteries has now decreased, the word banko-yaki, which previously was not that well known as a pottery production area, is becoming more and more visible. Banko-yaki continues to be produced as a local industry in Yokkaichi and is looking to modernise with each year that passes by. Nankei pottery is part of this revival.
Since the 1980s, many kilns have shut down due to reduced production and thus in 2000 Nankei Pottery took over the baton as the fourth generation of leading pottery makers. For almost 20 years they have continuously produced original items, using traditional techniques linked with modern design ideas.
Industrial production is usually made by CAD (Drafting Software), but at Nankei Pottery all shapes are drawn by hand. Since CAD cannot embody the same particular atmosphere than that can be produced by a craftsman, especially those at Nankei who have mastered this material, the work involved requires much more skill and time.
The small, unique details make the items feel warm, almost as if they are organic living things. Such tools mature over time as the user grows familiar using them every day.
When you peek beneath the lid of a Nankei teapot you will find the tea strainer with numerous small holes. The clay is rolled thinly and rounded with a handmade tool. They are then pierced gently creating approximately 400 holes. “Although smaller holes are more aesthetically pleasing, it can sometimes make the tea dull in taste. The size of the tea strainers are compatible with the body, so we prepare several strainers with holes that differ by several millimetres and fit them well accordingly” says the craftsman Okai.
When the form of the teapot is finished, it is smoothed over with a wet sponge and then biscuit fired. After 8 hours at 800 degrees, dirt on the surface is removed with the help of high pressure. After the main firing is finished, it is repeated for a second time for approximately 8–10 hours.
As a side note, for every teapot, there is a destined body and lid. As it is finished the parts will fit each other perfectly. After gently grinding the parts together using water and a grinding stone, there is only one step left. The tightness between the parts is very essential and helps bring out the delicious taste of the tea leaves. After a final check for cracks and any scratches, it is enclosed with the slip written “May our lives be blessed with delicious tea” and then finally shipped.