Kanayama Kiln, Part 1 – Rebuilding a 16th Century Kiln

Kanayama (46).dsKanayama (47).ds

In 2002, the old ruins of a ‘Kanayama’ wood-burning kiln were discovered in Shigaraki, Shiga prefecture, Japan.  Information gathered from the ruins was used to rebuild the ancient kiln at the Shigaraki Ceramics Cultural Park (SCCP). In this post I have documented the journey of the re-making of the Kanayama kiln through a series of images following the brief introduction below.

The Kanayama kiln is an anagama-type tunnel kiln built for firing ceramics and contains a long central wall inside the kiln that divides the interior space into two separate tunnels. It is notably unique because it has two tunnels inside instead of the usual single tunnel of most anagama.  This type of kiln was used until the end of the Muromachi period (mid 16th Century) in the Shigaraki area.

The ancient kiln ruins were excavated by the educational section of Shiga Prefecture Government and the Kanayama kiln is named after the place where the ruins were found, near the entrance to the expressway in the northern part of Shigaraki.   This was an exciting discovery, but the local community had known about the kiln for many years.

Following one year of careful planning and six months of materials preparation, the rebuilding of the kiln started in October 2004 and took two months to complete. The project was carried out by a team of ceramics professionals working in Shigaraki and led by ceramic specialists at SCCP. The kiln was rebuilt to closely follow the original design.  It was important to the people of Shigaraki to recreate the Kanayama kiln in order to find the roots of Shigaraki-yaki (Shigaraki ceramics) and to understand more about its historical development.  

Kanayama (1).bc.dsFirst stage – Drawings contained in Shiga Prefecture Government’s report of the kiln were used to develop 3D models of the kiln.Kanayama (2).bc.ds

The models provided valuable information for planning the kiln building process. They helped determine the internal and external dimensions including the number of blocks required and enabled visualisation of the various parts of the kiln at the correct gradients. The initial planning was the most lengthy process of the project. After locating a suitable space in the grounds of SCCP, the site was cleared and levelled to the correct gradient and dimensions.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA       In the image below, Sugiyama San discusses the structure and framework of the kiln with the team using the research developed from the 3D models.  The ground was measured, then markings were made to map out the kiln foundations and the scaffolding was set up.Kanayama (3).bc.ds

Kanayama (4).bc.dsThe contours of the exterior walls are marked and tied into place with rope and the central dividing wall and fire box area is clearly indicated with red paint.

A roof was erected to cover the site and protect the kiln from unpredictable weather.



The white bags in the above image are full of sand.  The sandbags were used when building the kiln walls to prevent expansion.

When the digging of the foundations of the firebox began, ground water was released from below, which, needed to be drained away by a pipe in the ground. The floor of the firebox is being layed in the picture below.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Kanayama (9).dsBending bamboo to form the tunnel arches. The bamboo was curved to precise dimensions.

Many of the bricks used to build the kiln were hand-made. Some ready-made firebricks were used too. It took about 6 months to make the bricks and prepare other materials for the kiln.

Kanayama (10).ds                                                                   Beginning to build the interior and exterior walls with bricks.Kanayama (11).dsA range of different sized bricks to fit the kiln were hand-made by a team of people led by Ishiyama San, Tsumori San and Sugimoto San. The brick making involved a lot of physical labour.  The surfaces of the bricks were scratched before they were fired, to create a rough texture for the cement to grip firmly into.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe bricks were made from a high-refractory clay for strength and to reduce distortion under the high temperatures and fierce conditions in the kiln. A high fireable cement was used to hold the bricks securely in place, which worked very well. Here’s a view from the back of the kiln. The draught box and chimney entrance is marked out with wood.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe heat and atmosphere is extremely intense in the firebox at the front of the kiln, so this area requires extra strength and support.  During firing, the kiln bricks could easily distort so large stones were used at the front of the kiln to help retain the kiln shape.

The ancient Kanayama kiln builders of the 16th Century and before, didn’t use bricks to build kilns. The original Kanayama kiln was dug like a tunnel directly into the mountain and had no chimney. The old kiln masters only started using hand-made bricks for kiln building after the introduction of the noborigama climbing kiln. (See my post ‘Hot Flames’, to learn about noborigama).

Kanayama (15).ds

The original dimensions, materials, form and structure of the ancient kiln are preserved, but it has been brought into the 21st Century through the application of contemporary processes and techniques in its construction.  The main framework was created with bamboo and  supported by sturdy wooden blocks for extra support. The bamboo and wood were tied together to secure the structure in the correct places.Kanayama (16).ds. Building up the walls and the roof framework of the right tunnel.Kanayama (17).ds     The structure of the firebox area is now strong enough to support the weight of people.Kanayama (18).dsMore and more bamboo is added to create the structure of the right tunnel. This looks like an incredible piece of artwork in the form of a bamboo skeleton!Kanayama (19).ds

Kanayama (20).dsThe right tunnel is almost complete and the structural support remains inside until the bricks have been placed and set.

The left tunnel has yet to be started, but the interior support structure is already in place.

Forming the curved roof structure of the left tunnel – the curves are not easy shapes to create.  Building the kiln involved a lot of great teamwork and communication.Kanayama (21).ds

Here are some images of the kiln sides being bricked up.

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The roof was then bricked up.

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Now the kiln is almost finished and covered in a plastic sheet to protect it from the rain.

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Here’s the chimney.

Below are some views of the almost-complete kiln. Machinery is being used to return the earth to the kiln area and up around the walls of the kiln.

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The kiln starts to look like it has been dug into the mountain. Large stones are visible around the firebox area at the front of the kiln. Kanayama (46).ds

A first few glimpses into the interior of the kiln.

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The interior wooden framework structures are removed.Kanayama (49).dsKanayama (50).ds Ito San checks the left tunnel wall.

The building of the kiln was completed on 4th December 2004 after two months of hard work. An outer covered area was constructed to protect the kiln front and firing materials from rain and snow.Kanayama (52).ds                  The kiln was dried out thoroughly before the first official firing. These images show the flames during the initial heating of the kiln. The first official firing was planned to take place in Spring 2005, but this was moved back to the summer of 2005.

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In the next blog post I will share my experience of firing this kiln in 2005 – during the kiln’s first firing.  Thank you to Sugiyama San, Matsunami San, Ishiyama San and Kojima San for kindly answering my questions and providing me with some great images.          Visit Shigaraki Ceramics Cultural Park here: http://www.sccp.jp/e/


About Jo Woffinden

Designer-maker based in London
This entry was posted in Ceramics, Design, Japan, Kiln sites, Materials, Process, Site-specific works. Bookmark the permalink.

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