Meet the maker behind Tsugaru Ujoyaki

 Rikei Imai, founder of pottery studio Tsugaru Ujoyaki and creator of the worlds longest climbing kiln

Today's man of the hour is Rikei Imai, potter master and founder of pottery studio Tsugaru Ujoyaki!

About Rikei Imai⁠

Imai-san has always been mesmerized by pottery from the Heian (794-1185) and the Kamakura period (1185-1333). He has accumulated quite the collection over the years which can be admired in his Tsugaru Tea Ceremony Museum. He remembers each piece vividly, his eyes sparkling as he recounts where he acquired them, when they were made, and what makes them special. Although the vessels that were brought to life a thousand years ago have long outlived the names of their creators, they continue to move and inspire people like Imai-san to this very day. In fact, these very pieces are what ignited his single-minded desire to create his own vessels that could surpass those from these periods, and that can be passed on to future generations as well. Imai-san is determined to become a potter who can continue to impress people with his works a thousand years from now, just like the nameless potters who burned with passion in the Heian period. 

Master potter Imai-san holding his non-chemical natural ash glaze chawan Japanese bowl used in the Japanese Tea Ceremony

Creator of the World's Longest Climbing Kiln

Imai-san works exclusively with an ancient type of pottery kiln known as anagama ("cave kiln") and climbing kilns he makes himself. The first climbing he built was in Ashikaga City, Tochigi Prefecture and was 70-meters-high. Later, he created a 100-meter-high climbing kiln in Kashiwazaki City, Niigata Prefecture and fired his works in there. Since then, he has been working on a personal project of building the worlds longest climbing kiln, which he has just recently accomplished in 2019. Measuring 103 meters long and consisting of 52 chambers, it can hold up to 6000 pieces of ceramic at a time. It has even earned a spot in the GUINNESS WORLD RECORDS™ as the worlds longest climbing kiln. In this kiln, his goal is to create vessels that the world has never seen before. 

The worlds longest climbing kiln over 100 meters long made by Rikei Imai, founder of Tsugaru Ujoyaki

An Ancient Technique

The climbing kilns are not the only tool Imai-san has created for his craft. He uses a technique that is believed to have existed since before the birth of Christ, known as “tataki”. Instead of relying on molds, the potter beats the inside and outside of the clay with a paddle-and-anvil, which also happens to be handmade by the potter himself. By moving away from molds and using more traditional techniques in his craft, Imai-san is able to create rustic-looking vessels with a captivating beautifully imperfect design.  

A Unique Natural Glaze

More captivating still is his Natural Ash Glaze, which is free from glaze chemicals. As the name suggests, this glaze is achieved naturally by the gradual accumulation of red pine wood ash onto the pottery. As the heat rises in the kiln, these layers of ash melt and the vessels take on a glass-like appearance with dazzling vibrant colors. Ujoyaki’s handmade natural ash glaze crafts are all incredibly unique and no two items are fired under the same conditions twice. This is due to the nature of the kiln, the artistic liberties of the potter as well as the nature of the red pine wood, such as the age of the tree, the meteorological conditions it lived in and the time of year it was cut down. This is all part of what makes this craft endearing in the first place. As Imai-san says himself: “You never know what you’ll get when you open the kiln. That’s what’s fun about it!”

Japanese pottery natural ash glaze guinomi sake cup by Tsugaru Ujoyaki wabisabi