Yakimono: Fire

Yakimono means “fired thing.” It is an expansive concept that applies equally to vegetables grilled over hot charcoal and to the centuries of ceramic culture in Japan, where the crockery and lacquerware and tableware are as important as the ingredients they hold. The aesthetic sensibilities of Japanese cuisine culture are deep-rooted in the unique and delicate aesthetics of Japan’s ceramic arts.

Some people argue that as long as the food itself is palatable the container does not matter, but this is an ignorant line of thinking.

—Kitaoji Rosanjin (1883-1959)

A half dozen ‘schools’ of Japanese pottery date back more than 900 years. All of them are focused on a region and the nature of the clay found there. Minerals like iron and magnesium fuse with local clays to provide different colors and surface textures. Some are rougher and porous. Others are smoother and lend themselves to delicate glazing. Temperatures inside kilns vary based on the type and density of woods used to fire them, so that each region in Japan has evolved its own unique ceramic styles.

Few Westerners know more about this unique craft and its history than Robert Yellin. This collector turned gallery owner has had an infatuation with all things fired since he moved to Japan in 1984. Robert is a longtime friend of Kyle Connaughton, and will welcome us to his eponymous gallery in Kyoto to share the story behind some of the hundreds of rare pieces he’s collected over the years.

The deep and wide world of contemporary Japanese ceramic art is as varied as there are stars in a brilliant winter night sky.

—Gallerist Robert Yellin

In Iga in the magnificently mountainous Mie prefecture, Yuji Nagatani is another longtime friend and frequent SingleThread collaborator. He’s an eighth-generation master potter, keeping the traditions of his family’s business thriving. The small Nagatani-en factory houses a 16-level traditional climbing kiln, the oldest in existence.

The signature cookware produced at Nagatani-en are the elegant earthenware pots called donabe. Traditionally associated with Japanese home cooking, donabe have many unique styles including some like a Moroccan tagine pot, as well as steamers, soup and stew pots, rice cookers, and smokers. Donabe bring out the natural flavors of ingredients, helping them realize their higher potential. There is a scientific explanation of this phenomenon: the donabe’s naturally porous clays, filled with tiny lakebed fossils, promote higher heat retention, while surface glazes promote natural radiant heating that cooks food gradually and traps flavors inside.

Kyle Connaughton has become an adopted member of the Nagatani family, working and collaborating with them on his Donabe: Classic and Modern Japanese Clay Pot Cooking. With more than 50,000 pieces of ceramic dishware in the SingleThread kitchen at any one time, the various types of yakimono from different regions, sometimes dating back hundreds of years, help to shape the menu. “So we have dishes that are for the summer, that convey a more cooling effect on the eye. And we have dishes for the winter that can convey a more warm feeling,” says Chef Connaughton. “It really helps us to create a narrative and tell the story that we want to tell today.”