Elena Renker

During Momoyama period in the later half of the 16th century Japanese potters developed Japan’s first white glaze called shino with a very unusual surface structure and colour response. Combined with loosely thrown pots and spontaneous deccorations this kind of ware perfectly suited the wabi-sabi aesthetics of the ruling Zen Buddhist tea masters of that era. Outstanding ceramic works were produced making it the golden age of pottery in Japan. Shino disappeared in the early 17th century. Its rediscovery during the 1930th led to a revival of the Momoyama period and had a profound impact on Eastern and Western pottery in the 20th century.

It is not sure where the name shino originated. One theory is that it comes from the word shiro, which means white. The other possibility is that the glaze was named after the tea master Shino Soshin (1444-1523) who owned a white Korean bowl that he admired very much. The story is, that the shino glaze was developed in an attempt to replicate the glaze on this bowl.

Shino is a milky white opaque glaze with an extremely high feldspar content resulting in an imperfect surface. As a glaze, it is in a class of its own, drawing on a totally different aesthetic then other glaze groups. Its most desirable features, such as crazing, crawling and pin holing, are considered to be faults in other glazes.

I really discovered Shino glazes by chance. I was looking for a glaze that suited a particular loosely thrown type of bowl that I had been making, and shino seemed perfect for it. But the more I studied and experimented with it, the more fascinated I became. There are so many surface effects that can be achieved! In her article The Taste of Shino Helen Stephens compares the glaze to paint on canvas, it can be thin and translucent or thick and opaque. It can be white, pink, orange or brown, it can crawl, pinhole, craze or be smooth. The most intriguing part is the unpredictability of this glaze, it never seems to look as expected. Opening the kiln can be a moment of delight as well as disappointment. I guess that is why the Japanese liken themselves to midwifes in the process of producing pottery. The potter just guides the work, but the clay and the fire are doing the real work.

This bowl, named Hagoromo, which means feather cloak, is thought to be from the Ogaya Mutabora kiln, made in the 16th century. Its loose shape and pin holed glaze are typical for a shino tea bowl of that time.

Shino was developed by the potters of the Mino district during the Momoyama (1568-1600)period, probably around 1570. The Momoyama period was a time of civil wars and unrest until Toyotomi Hideyoshi managed to subdue all the warring parties and declare himself ruler in 1582.

Hideyoshi was a great supporter of the tea ceremony. During his reign the arts, and ceramics in particular, flourished, making this the golden age of ceramics in Japan and leading to a burst of creativity not seen before. The tea ceremonial ware was extremely lavish during the start of his rule, consisting mainly of costly items imported from China. It was soon modified by the Zen monk Sen no Rikyu who introduced the philosophy of wabi-sabi which finds beauty in the very simple at court. He created a new tea ceremony with set rituals in simple surroundings using ordinary rustic utensils made in rural Japan.

Wabi-sabi directly translated means ‘sad beauty’, but it is better described with the words imperfect, impermanent and incomplete, meaning that everything is in a constant state of flux.

Richard R. Powell summarises by saying:

     It (wabi-sabi) nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect. (1)

Shino ware became the spirit of the tea ceremony. It was highly prized by the tea masters of that era because of the purity of its soft white surface.

The white of shino can be compared to that of the first snow of the season, or to the last traces of the winter snow. Shino’s white surface is soft like the mother’s breast, it brings back memories of childhood. (2)

Unlike any other glaze, shino has a very lively surface, the glaze often crawling and pin holing into what is called an orange-peel effect. This would normally be treated as a glaze defect, but in a Shino glaze it is an effect that is highly prized. The glaze seems to take on a life of its own which, together with the fire, can produce unusual and unexpected results. As well as its innocent white colour I think that it was also the close resemblance to natural surfaces that attracted the tea masters. As Michael Paul writes in his book Living Zen:

     Nature and human creativity are synonymous... nature lives in us and we live in nature (3)

Most of the potters in Mino originated from Seto, a nearby town with a large number of potteries. The Seto potters migrated to Mino in the late 15th century to escape the Onin civil wars and the subsequent fighting. Here in mountains of Mino they came across the ingredients necessary for the creation of the shino glaze.

Shino was made from a local feldspar, mixed with various amounts of rice straw ash from the kitchen stove, fired in an Oogama kiln. As the kilns were very damp and inefficient, the firings took many days, which influenced the final melt and colour of the glaze The result was this glaze with its very particular character. It was the first white glaze ever produced in Japan. Previously potters had relied on the fly ash from the firing to glaze the pots. The first shino bowl was in a tenmoku shape which is an open bowl with a wide rim, which was a copy of a Korean bowl owned by the tea master Shino Sushin. But soon the potters produced new softly thrown tea cup shapes as well as other items for the tea ceremony like water jars, tea jars, flower vases, plates and bowls as well.

The Mino potters of that time were also the first to use oxide brush work decorations. Up until then, all decorations had been etched into the pots. Simple shapes and patterns from their surrounding environment were painted on the pots prior to glazing using a slip made from a mix of iron and manganese oxide found naturally in the area. The designs used on these pots were done in a ‘shonen sozuku’ state of mind which, according to Zen Buddhist principles, means basically ‘no-mind’. It is a state devoid of thoughts and ideas that distract the mind. This allows the lines to be filled with vitality and the shapes are fresh and original. The thick white glaze partly covers the brushwork allowing only a veiled glimpse of what might be behind the mist. This kind of work was called picture shino.

Other kinds of shino were crimson shino made with a red clay decoration, red shino which is applied thin to allow the colour of the clay to show. Grey shino is achieved by painting a pot with a manganese slip with an incised pattern before glazing. For marbled shino two different coloured clays are used to form the pot.

After the death of Sen no Rikyu in 1591 Futura Oribe (1544-1615) became the leading tea master. Oribe favoured a dark green copper glaze named after him. Parts of the pots are covered in white slip, decorated with iron brushwork and glazed in a clear glaze, the rest of the pot is covered in this green oribe glaze. This glaze was made possible by the invention of the Noborigama kiln. Because the two glazes were produced by the same kilns, some people say that shino should be called white oribe even though it is a very different glaze.

Looking at this oribe dish I find it hard to see any similarities to the shino tea bowls. The shapes of oribe pots are often very geometric and the brushwork is more patterned compared with the simple drawings on the shino wares. And of course the glaze, while it is quite fluid, has non of the unusual surface effects of the shino.

This oribe dish is hardly comparable to the peasant bowl originally used for the tea ceremony. But the new type of ware is in accord with the changes in the ceremony. Futura Oribe, a general and not a monk had added the pleasures of companionable eating and drinking to the previously more austere ceremony of Rikyu. Consequently new items such as serving dishes, covered bowls and eating utensils had to be added to the range of tea wares.

At the beginning of the 16th century Tokugawa Yoshinago, the lord of the Owari province called the pottery families back to Seto which meant that the Mino kilns produced only ordinary domestic ware. The use of shino glaze had basically vanished by 1610. The Seto kilns however continued producing Oribe ware until they were replaced by the just discovered porcelain in 1624.

Because shino was produced by the Seto potters, it was attributed only to the Seto kilns. Of course, no trace of it was ever found there. But in 1930 Arakawa Toyozo saw a shino work and deducted from the colour of the clay that the bowl had been made in Mino. He started to excavate the area around the Mino kilns and discovered many shards of shino glazed pots. Using these shards as clues he managed to analyse the clay and the feldspar used, tracking through the mountains to find the sources. He even build an anagama kiln to recreate the firing conditions. At first he imitated the pottery of that time, but he soon started to make his own pots using the shino glaze. Arakawa Toyozo’s discovery let to a revival of the arts and ceramics of theMomoyama period.

In 1639 Japan closed its borders to the outside world in order to curb foreign trade and the influx of Christianity until the American navy under Commander Matthew C. Perry forced them to end the seclusion in 1854. Not only did that mean that the country was able to develop its art in total isolation for over 200 years, but also, that the rest of the world was almost completely unaware of its evolvement. So the first glimpse the Western world had of Japanese art and ceramics was at the trade fair in Paris in 1867, but it was not until 1878 that the first tea wares were exhibited. Especially chosen by the tea masters for their expression of vigour and freedom they were often warped or slumped, their emphasis on gesture rather then finish. While the first consensus was that one of the exhibited the water holder looked remarkably like an old drainpipe, there was soon appreciation for a pottery that:

     was not ashamed of its earthy origins or the human fingers that fashioned it. (4)

The West has always been fascinated by the mysteries of the East. It allowed an escape from the narrow confines and constrictions of our civilisation and provided inspiration for the arts. Chinese art had been very popular with the European aristocracy until the French revolution. But in the late 19th century it was fashionable to include art into the daily life. So seeing these so very different pots opened the eyes of the West to a whole new world of ceramics: pottery as art. Western pottery had been produced in large workshops, with different people completing individual tasks on the pots. The shapes and decorations of these pots were dictated by tradition and left little room for spontaneity or individual expression. While perfect in their execution, European ceramics had a tendency to be rather static and lifeless.

     ... we spend time in getting smoothness of surface, while the Japanese devote it to the production of art effect. We get finish without art, they prefer art without finish. (5)

I think there are few ceramic artists in the West that have not been profoundly influenced by Japanese pottery. In 1974 Virginia Wirt, a student of the American potter Warren Mackenzie, was the first American pottery to study the shino glaze in Japan. Back home in America she tried to reproduce it with the local ingredients. She based her glaze on the feldspars nepheline syenite, soda feldspar and spodumene with the addition of ball clay and soda ash. But unlike the white Japanese shinos, the soda ash tends to trap the carbon during the firing which colours parts of the glaze black or grey. These glazes are now known as American shinos and have little in common with the original Japanese shino. It is very difficult to replicate the original shino glaze as it is made only of local feldspar which is impossible to replace. Nevertheless, shino glazes have been very popular with Western potters who have tried for years to recreate it.

The tea ceremonial wares have in general achieved what the West was looking for, combining utilitarian requirements with decorative impulse and sculptural elements. Zen pottery is gestural which means the act of making the pot, the decorating, the glazing and the firing are more important than the finished look. The deftness of the finger-marks on the clay and the energy in the brushstroke give life and character to the pot. Symmetric pots have a static characterbut the asymmetric dynamics of these ceramics give a sense of movement and fluidity. This reflects the central ideas of Zen Buddhism: emptiness, movement and the now. In order to create this kind of ware the artist has to let go of the conscious mind so that he can allow the beauty and expression to flow from within in a state of undifferentiated being in which creativity flows easily and naturally.

The Western potter on the other hand had been more interested in the finished product, and saw any mark of the potter or the fire as a blemish rather than an asset. Andoche Praudel writes:

     Japanese ceramics are a reflection of the rhythm while the history of Western ceramics reveals an immense effort to minimise technical losses: an artistic medium in one case, a technological conquest in the other. (6)

The main difference between Western and Japanese pottery has always been the intellectual approach of the West and the spiritual one of the East. As a German I have inherited these Western intellectual traits. We are known for our punctuality, formality, perfectionism and discipline. This is reflected in the history of German pottery, the salt glazed ceramics of the Westerwald , the perfection of the Meissen porcelain, the straight lined wares of the Bauhaus era. And while these pots are technically extremely well made, they are also very controlled and intellectual. The introduction of the aesthetics of the Japanese ceramics have allowed a new approach for potters, a combination of Eastern philosophies and Western techniques.

When I first started making pots, I was aiming for this perfection. Naturally I was trying to imitate the kind of pottery that I had grown up with, the controlled forms without any irregularities or blemishes. But I soon became dissatisfied with my work. What was the point in producing the kind of pot that could be made better and cheaper in a factory? I also noticed how my eye would get drawn to the little irregularities in my pots, the dribble of glaze or the mark of a finger or tool on the clay. These spots became the focus point, the part of the pot I was drawn to.

A perfect pot shows nothing of the maker, but through the imperfections the potter is opening up his inner being, revealing his true self. An artist has to learn to trust his feelings and to obey his intuition. His work should not be the result of a reasoned and calculated act but should be intuitive. Zen Buddhist call this ‘artless art’, art without any contrivance, artifice, or deliberate application of cleverness.

So I started to try to make more loosely thrown wares, purposely distorting pots, showing throwing lines and tool marks. Now this might sound easy, but to my surprise, I actually found it much harder than to make a perfectly thrown pot. I really had to force myself to loosen up which was against my nature. In order to change the kind of pot I made, I had to make changes within myself first. Otherwise my ‘loose’ pots could become as contrived and artificial as my straight once. Or even more so! So the act of making a pot becomes a journey of self discovery, and shape of it an expression of myself. This realisation helped me with my approach to working with clay.

The Japanese potters used a locally dug clay that was high in sand and impurities, incomparable to our processed perfect clays. In order to get a more porous and more lively surface I have added local clay from the paddock, pebbles and sand. These additives also prevent me from being too precious in my approach to the clay. Throwing a thin walled pot to perfection with large pebbles in it provides a challenge in itself!

As one of the most unpredictable glazes with a large range of surface textures and colours and often astonishing and unexpected results, it teaches the potter to let go of any illusion of control. There is no such thing as a perfect pot glazed in shino, this glaze has its own sense of perfection. In fact every kiln opening is a shock at first as no pot looks as expected. One has to put aside the mental image and learn to appreciate what is there, however unexpected it might be.

For many potters working with shino can become so absorbing that it becomes a lifelong quest for knowledge. Bill Samuels, an Australian potter who spend many years working with this glaze, says:

     Shino is not so much a glaze as a way of working. In unravelling some of its quirks, I have learnt something about pottery in general and a lot about myself. (7)

But it is not just the production of shino ware that requires a certain mind set. The effects of shino are so different from anything we have learned to value or admire that a viewers first reaction is often a negative one. The Japanese say that only a person who understands tea, meaning the Zen Buddhist principles, can truly appreciate the beauty of a shino pot. Because shino, really is the essence of tea!




1. Wikipedia, Wabi-sabi, visited on 25.5.07

2. Kuroda, Ryoji and Murayama, Takeshi, Classic Stoneware of Japan,
Kondansha America Inc, New York, 2002, Page 17

3. Paysen Gudrun, Keramik in Japanischer Tradition, visited on 6.5.2007

4. De Waal, Edmund, 20th Century Ceramics,
Thames and Hudson, London, 2003, Page16

5. De Waal, Edmund, 20th Century Ceramics,
Thames and Hudson, London, 2003, Page 17

6. Praudel, Andoche, By Chance of the Fire,
Ceramics: Art and Perception, Issue 58, 2004, Page 60

7. Stephens, Helen, The Taste of Shino,
Ceramics: Art and Perception 7, !992, Page 51

Books and Articles:

Crueger, Anneliese und Wulf, Wege zur Japanischen Keramik,
Ernst Wasmuth Verlag, Tuebingen, 2004, Pages 14- 20, 177- 178.

De Waal, Edmund, Looking in the Opposite Direction,
Ceramic Review, Issue 225, May/ June 2007, Pages 40- 43.

De Waal, Edmund, 20th Century Ceramics,
Thames and Hudson, London, 2003, Pages 13- 18.

Hildyard, Robin, European Ceramics,
V&A Publications, London, 1999, Pages 8- 15, 124- 125

Kaneko, Kenji, Modern Revival of Momoyama Ceramics,
The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, 2002, Pages 15- 19, 96- 98.

Kuroda, Ryoji and Murayama, Takeshi, Classic Stoneware of Japan,
Kondansha America Inc, New York, 2002, Pages 8- 39

Mikami, Tsugio, The Art of Japanese Ceramics,
John Weatherhill Inc, New York, 1972, Pages 126- 149.

Praudel, Andoche, By Chance of the Fire,
Ceramics: Art and Perception, Issue 58, 2004, Pages 60- 63.

Stephens, Helen, The Taste of Shino,
Ceramics: Art and Perception, Issue 7, !992, Pages 50-54.

Terayama, Tanchu, Zen Brushwork,
Kodansha International, Tokyo, 2003, Pages 7-8.

Willis, Ben, The Tao of Art,, Inc, 1987, Pages 1, 20, 92, 120.


Akiko, O., The History of Shino, 2000, visited on the 22.5.2007

Delank, Claudia, Das imaginaere Japan in der Kunst, 1996, visited on 22.5.2007

Japan Arts, The Tea Ceremony, visited on 19.5.2007

Weiss, Gustav, Keramik, Kunst und Materie, visited on 22.5.2007

Elena Renker
Ceramics / Pottery
Auckland, New Zealand

© 2016 renker