Object of the Week: A Japanese potters' kiln inspired by 6th century Koreans and set up in an Oxford wood

By Ben Miller | 12 August 2015

This week we bring you a huge kiln in the shape of a fire-breathing dragon which has just been fired up in Oxford

A photo of a large Japanese kiln being fired in the forest of Wytham Woods, near Oxford
Japanese and Korean communities spent generations sitting around the kiln© Robin Wilson
This Japanese potters’ kiln, styled on the design of the anagama kiln, meaning ‘cave’ kiln, has been set up in Wytham Woods, near Oxford, by Oxford University.

The wood-fuelled type was used all over Japan and Korea for hundreds of years. The art lies in baking the pots inside at around 1150 degrees Celsius and holding that constant heat around the clock for about five days.

A photo of a large Japanese kiln being fired in the forest of Wytham Woods, near Oxford
Around 200 pots of all sizes were stacked onto an interior shelf in the middle of the kiln before it was fired in July© Robin Wilson
Once lit, the 11-metre-long, roofed-tunnel kiln promises to look like a large fiery dragon as flames and smoke billow from holes running along both sides. Members of the public helped stoke the fires for a few hours each as part of a rota.

Such kilns were first used in Koreans in the 6th century and later adopted by the Japanese. They largely disappeared during the 17th century, apart from in the province of Bizen, where Japan’s oldest pottery-making technique still carries on today.

A photo of a large Japanese kiln being fired in the forest of Wytham Woods, near Oxford
The interaction of the flames, ash and minerals in the clay ensures each finished piece is unique© Robin Wilson
A team from Bizen visited the wood to see the kiln, designed rather like a chimney on a hill-side with the hot exhaust drawn out of the far end and nothing to separate the stoking space from the stoneware baking inside.

It is fashioned from a woven willow mould covered in hessian and clay before being left to dry out for a full month.  It was fuelled by around eight tonnes of sustainably-acquired hard and softwood.

A photo of a large Japanese kiln in Shigaraki
A kiln in Shigaraki - an area of Japan famous for its pottery© Wikipedia
The patron of the project is 80-year-old Isezaki Jun, who is designated the Living National Treasure of Bizen by the Japanese Government and is highly venerated in Japan. His former apprentice, Kazuya Ishida, had the job of crawling through the very small kiln entrance to stack up the pots before the fires were lit.

A larger kiln made of bricks is also being constructed alongside the historic willow anagama kiln by a professional kiln-building team who have been sent from Bizen by Jun. The project will involve the Pitt Rivers Museum, the Ashmolean Museum and various international research teams.


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