Namako Ceramic Pottery

Namako Ceramic Pottery

Lets talk ceramics in this post!  Since there is so much to say about ceramics in Bonsai, it’s difficult to find a good place to start.  After much thought, I decided to start with a certain glazed style that I love called Namako.  Usually when people in the bonsai community sees a pot in this glaze, they will refer to them as a Namako pots or containers.  In Japan, Namako actually means Sea cucumber and in many ways share the same pattern and color as the glaze.  There are varying degrees of blues, white, yellow and brown mixed together making each pot very unique.  In this post, I’m going to share some detailed pictures of Namako pots from the past to the present, both Chinese and Japanese and talk about some way to distinguish them from one another.

A Rocky Start

Before I came to Japan, I did not like Namako pots.  I talked to Mr. Tanaka and he said, “Really???”  It turns out that my experience with Namako has been the poor quality types that were mass produced.  Once Mr. Tanaka showed me a couple of Chinese Antique Namako pots, I quickly fell in love with them and wanted to collect more.  Perhaps the biggest reason why this type of glaze is now my favorite is because I dismissed it so quickly in the past and feel a bit guilty for my ignorance.  Now all I want to do is collect them and share them with people so they too can enjoy the beauty of them.

Chinese Antique Namako (100-150 years ago) Naka-watari

Lets start with the highest level of Namako pottery.  I can’t say for certain that it was used earlier in the past, but in terms of Bonsai, they first appeared about 100-150 years ago.  They were produced in China with great care and quality and shipped to Japan about 100-150 years ago.  Ceramic pots that were produced in China 100-150 years ago are also known as Naka-watari.  There are also Chinese Antique pots that were produced 200-300 years ago known as Ko-watari, but I’ve yet to see one that has this glazed.  Chinese Antique pots in this post are all Naka-watari.  Current value of Naka-watari Namako pots range from 300 – 5,000 US Dollars depending on size and shape.

Here is a Namako suiban with a very large lip! (You know I had to start with this one ;op).  For those that are unfamiliar with Suibans, they are ceramic containers that can either hold water or sand with a viewing stone.  This suiban is Chinese Antique and looks brand new!  It has never been used and was protected in a wood box since it was made over 100 years ago.

Suibans are normally glazed inside and out, whereas a bonsai pot would be glazed on the outside only.

The underside.  One easy way to tell that it’s a suiban is that there are no holes, but I’m sure you already figured that one out.  Sometimes, people will drill holes into suibans so they can used for Bonsai.  I’m not sure if I’d ever do that to this pot though!

I thought you’d like to see the lip up close.  ;o)

Lets get down to the details.  Many Chinese Antique Namako pots tend to have thick beads of glaze at the bottom of the pot.  They will also tend to have a clean line under the bead and show the clay underneath.  On this suiban, the bead dripped passed the line a bit but for the most part is pretty straight.

High quality Chinese Antique Namako glazes always seem to have a feeling of depth.  When I look at it, I feel like I’m looking deep into a room or color dripping all around.

Here’s a close up of the clay.  Though the picture can’t replace the pot being in hand, it can give you an idea of the type of clay used 100-150 years ago.  Though this is not the only clay type that was used, it is a common type and a good indicator of its age.

Here is another example of a Namako suiban.  Note how this one has more browns and is lighter on the blue.  This is also Chinese Antique.

Here is what the inside looks like.  This suiban is not as shinny on the inside because it has been used and a thin layer of patina has developed.

Here is the bottom of the suiban.  No chop mark on this one.  About half of all Chinese Antique pots have no chop marks on them.

Here is a close up of one of the feet.  Chinese antiques were all made my hand.  Looking at the feet is another way of identifying a Chinese Antique pot.

Here is a look at the clay used.  Not quite the same as the first suiban but very similar.

Here’s an example of the straight line at the bottom of the pot that Namako’s tend to have.  In this instant, a glaze bead ran over the line.  Accidental or intentional?  Personally, I think the thick beads that pass the line gives the suiban so much more character.

This photo gives us an idea of how thick the glaze is.  The glaze is so thick that it has a sense of softness though in reality, the glaze is as hard as glass.

Here is an example of a Namako pot made for Bonsai.

This pot has plenty of holes and is not typical of many Chinese Antique pots.

The underside.  The imperfection of the center hole tells us that it was done by hand.

Here’s a close up of the feet.  Very well made.

Here is a close up of the drain hole.  This is another good indication that it’s a Chinese Antique pot.  The holes are normally punched from the inside of the pot, leaving a raised outline on the bottom.  Many Chinese Antique pots have this raised outline on the drainage holes.

A close up shot of the clay.  Again, very similar to the two earlier suibans.

That deep feeling when looking at the glaze.

Here is the lip of the pot.  It seems that many times with Namako pots, the edge and corners tend to be brownish and the flat surfaces are bluish.

Now this one is a tricky one.  The Namako glaze is a bit different but there are some key signs that tell us it’s a Chinese Antique.  Lets take a closer look.

Here’s a shot of the top.

Here is a look of the bottom.

Here’s a close up of the feet.  Looks hand made and similar to the second suiban.

Here’s a close up of the clay.  It’s actually a bit lighter then what the picture depicts.

Here’s a shot of the drain holes.  The raised edge of the drain holes is one of the indications that it’s a Chinese Antique pot.

Here is a close up of the glaze itself.  A very different feel then the previous pots.  I talked to Mr. Tanaka about this pot and he confirms that it’s a Chinese Antique pots because of the clay type, drain holes and quality of the pot itself.  The glaze patterns are clean and detailed but more random.

Chinese Namako pots during the 70’s

During the early half of the 1900’s, the ceramic quality for Bonsai pots dropped significantly and the rise of Japanese ceramic pottery took hold.  During the 1970’s though, there was a big push in China to produced high quality hand made ceramics that resembled the antiques.  Unfortunately they never quite reached the quality levels of the antiques and are considered second class to them.  These Chinese pots are known as Shinto pots.  The current value for Shinto Namako pots range from 80 – 400 US Dollars depending on shape and size.  Lets see what they’re all about.

Here is a Shinto Namako pot

Here is a view from the top.

Here’s a look at the bottom

Here is a shot of the drainage holes.  Note how there is no raised outline to the hole.

The clay type does look very similar to the Chinese Antiques though.

Here is a look at the glaze.  Though the picture can’t show it, the texture of the glaze is rough and thin whereas the antiques are much thicker and smoother.  Also, the glaze quality is somewhat flat, not as clear or detailed.

Here is a shot of the lip.

Here is the glaze on the inside of the pot.  This is an example of the thin glaze.

Another example of the thin glaze.  Note how there is no beading effect at the glaze line.  Though lower in quality relative to the antiques, this pot does have it’s uses and the price is affordable.

Here is another example of a Shinto Namako pot, though there could be some debate about it.  This pot was made during that borderline period between Shinto and Shin Shinto.  Shin Shinto are the much more modern pots made during the late 80’s to the present.  Lets take a closer look at this pot.

Here is a shot from the top.

Here is a shot of the feet.  Note how the lines aren’t clean and defined.

A side view of the feet.

Here is a shot of the drainage hole.

Here is a closer look at the glaze.  Overall, it’s pretty nice but it lacks depth and clarity when compared to the antiques.  To be quite honest about it, these pots are the reason why I didn’t like Namako in the first place.  :o(  Also, there is a chop on the bottom of the pot that says, “Made in China.”  Again, the pot does have it uses but I probably wouldn’t use it in a show.

Shin Shinto Namako

Recently, Mr. Tanaka purchaced two new Chinese Namako pots and I would have to say that they are pretty nice.  Though they are still mass produced and made in molds, the glazes are very interesting to look at and the quality has increased significantly compared to the last two decades.  Though not all new Chinese pots are very well made, I believe these are the exceptions, which is probably why Mr. Tanaka bought them.

Here’s a view from the top.  One indication that the pot is Shin Shinto is the numbers of holes in the pot, especially the small holes.  The Chinese didn’t make those small holes until recently.

The drain holes are much cleaner then the antiques.

Here is a closer look at the glaze.  A very clear and deep feeling.  It feels like the glaze is going to drip onto the ground at any moment.

Here is a look at the lip of the pot.  Glaze is nice and thick.  For the most part, I’m not too interested in the current Chinese ceramics because of the mass production feel to them, but this one definitely caught my attention.  Now I want one!

Japanese Antique and Modern Namako

Japanese Antique glazed pots tended to be much more rough in style, whereas the more modern glazes are much more refined.  This has led to the modern ceramics costing much more then the antiques!  The antiques do have their own characteristics though and I would not be so quick to dismiss them.  Here is an examples of an antique vs. a modern pot.

Here is a Japanese Antique Namako pot.  They tend to be much bluer and have very little yellows and brown.

Here’s a look from the top.

Here is the bottom of the pot.  Note the clay color and rough texture.  Many Japanese Antique glazed pots use this type of white clay.

Here is the drainage hole.  The japanese tend to round out the edges of the drainage holes to make them smoother.

A closer look at the feet.  Rough with not much details.

Here’s a closer look at the glaze.  Not bad overall.

The end of the lip tends to be black.  It must be the different chemicals they use for the glaze.  So overall, a pretty nice pot.  The clay itself is of lower quality but the glaze isn’t too bad.  In Japan, people either like them, or hate them.  Personally, I like them for their rough characteristics and the fact that they’ve survived for over 100 years without breaking.

Here is a modern Japanese Namako pot (Modern as in 30 years old).

Here is a look at the top of the pot.

Here is the bottom of the pot.

Here is a close look at the glaze.  It tends to look more Chinese Antique then Japanese Antique.

So What Tree Can I Put In These Pots?

Since Namako has many colors, it can be very attention grabbing.  So much so that people focus in on the pot more then the tree itself.  Namako pots tend to go well with trees that are just as attention grabbing to balance everything out.  Deciduous trees such as Trident Maples, Korean Hornbeams, Japanese Quince and rough bark type elms look very nice in these pots, because of the roughness and details of the trunk and branches.  Many root over rock deciduous trees also tend to look very nice in these pots.

Here’s a Trident Maple in a Namako pot.  Unfortunately this is the only example of have at the moment, but rest assure, I will share more pictures of trees in Namako pots in the future!

In Conclusion

I hope that this post gave you some insight not just about Namako pots, but the different country origins and time period they came from.  Perhaps you have a Namako pot that you weren’t so sure about before and more a better idea where it came from.  So have you decided which type of Namako you like? All of them? None of them?

There is so many different types of pottery and makers that it can be a full blown hobby and profession in itself.  For me, it’s hard to love Bonsai and not love the ceramics as well.  The right combination of tree and container can really bring out the best in both.  Trying new shapes, colors and sizes can be very fun and exciting during the repotting season.  The container in Bonsai is fundamental.  It’s the, “Bon,” in Bonsai!

Thanks for reading.

P.S. If you are actively reading this blog, I would appreciate it if you subscribe to it (right column of the blog).  This is one of the best ways for me to know how many people are reading.  Thanks!

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19 thoughts on “Namako Ceramic Pottery

  1. Daniel Dolan says:

    Dear Peter:

    In my unending pursuit of Bonsai Development knowledge I am forced to asked a question about trees….not pots. PS These are beautiful….I wish I owned them….but I have 120 Bonsai which need your attention!

    While rereading an issue of Bonsai today……specifically about shallow wood training boxes, the author stated that 1] during the first season after repotting the tree spends its energy stabilizing itself, 2] during the second year it builds on this and continues to gain strength, 3] only in the 3rd year does it really begin to thicken its branches and trunk.

    After this period of time we are instructed to transplant most trees, if not already. My question relates to the author’s observation that the average Bonsai training pot, being a little deeper, somehow interrupts the tree just when it is beginning to normalize its growth.

    As an American Bonsai Student, prone to recycling half or completely baked notions of how trees in containers behave…… I would appreciate your comments related to the appropriateness of transplanting trees every 2 or 3 years.



    • Peter Tea says:

      Hi Daniel,

      For the most part, the author is correct, though there are slight variations depending on the tree. When growing deciduous trees, in boxes, this is very much the case. By the fourth year, the box would be so full of roots that the tree would start to slow down it’s growth and thickening processes.

      I’m not really sure why a deeper pot would cause problems other then perhaps there is too much water at the bottom but that doesn’t really have much of an effect on deciduous trees. Japanese growing terra-cotta pots work very well in developing small trees. I think the idea is that a wide pot that allows the roots to grow out helps in developing the root and trunk size.

      Growing conifers in boxes requires much more time then repotting them every three years. In three years, there should still be plenty of room in the box. If conifers are growing well and in good soil, they are repotted every 4-5 years and sometimes longer.

      When it comes down to it, the author is using a technique that works well for him in his environment and not necessarily in your environment. Also, different growers do have their own developing technique and quirks that they go by. Most of the time when growing material, we always find out little bit of information that only experience can teach. It seems that the only way to do it well is to get some trees in boxes and see how they turn out.

      I hope I was able to shed some light on the subject Daniel. Take care!

  2. Elliott Farkas says:

    Thanks for that info, Peter. Being obsessed with Bonsai like I am, I also love the pots more and more! It’s interesting how I have over a 100 pots stacked up carefully on the side of the house, and invariably when re-potting season comes around, I rarely have the perfect pot for my tree! LOL! Gives me an excuse to buy more. When you find yourself buying pots off ebay, just to have the pot, and not because you need it for a tree, you know you have a secondary addiction.
    Recently, I have come to love the yamaaki pots. They seem to have something special about them and I hear its a 3 generation family that made them.
    A future post on yamaaki pots would be awesome.
    Take care.

    • Peter Tea says:

      I know what you mean Elliott! 100 plus pots and not a single one that fits our trees. LOL! Writing a post about Yamaaki pots is a great idea. There’s so much to talk about though so I’ll have to pool a lot of pictures together. Thanks and take care!

  3. alex says:

    Every pot post you publish seems to create this urge in me to start investing in pots with HUGE lips! lol — Thanks for another great post, Peter. ;-D

  4. lobophotography says:

    Amazing work!!!! Wish I had those formulas!! 🙂

  5. japanesepots says:

    I did have one question Peter. You refer to newer pots as “Shinto”. I’ve heard of pots made during this “rebirth” of Chinese pottery during the 60s and 70s as shin-shin watari, same deal?

    • Peter Tea says:

      Hi Ryan,

      The term Shin-shinto watari is in reference to the current new Chinese pots that are being made. Most just call them Shin-shinto. The ones that were made in the 60’s and 70’s are just referred to a Shinto.

      It’ll be interesting to see what they call the new Chinese pots 10 years from now. Shin-shin-shinto? LOL


  6. tmmason10 says:

    Another great post Peter. I like the idea of mixing in some posts about pots. I personally liked the modern Japanese pot and the last shin Shinto you showed, even if the are of lesser quality.

  7. Bill Valavanis says:

    Great post!

    Please keep them coming, I’m learning all the time.

  8. japanesepots says:

    Great post Peter, you stepping on my toes! Just kidding! Lol. A couple of interesting things to point out, those drips from the glaze running are called “yohen” or kiln changes, and are common in a couple different types of glazes. The best glazed pots from masters like Tofukuji often feature these “yohen” glazes. And the bases, where the unglazed clay shows through, is also almost always intentional, called “hima” it’s meant to show the quality of the clay under the glaze. Keep up the good work, and I’ll keep trying to get PayPal to allow me to send Prime Rib as a donation!

  9. somchee says:

    Peter you are such a good teacher. Please keep the information coming. What manufacturer in China did the two new pots. I live in Portland Oregon and have a contact in China. What do I ask for? Our Bonsai club has a guest speaker coming on his pots. These look more interesting. Great job!

  10. Felix Laughlin says:

    Peter, I really enjoy your blog as it always advances my knowledge about some aspect of bonsai. Please do more on pots in the future. How to display bonsai outdoors would also be a terrific topic.

  11. ed curlee says:

    I’ve been attending classes/demos for years, and no one
    Has ever addressed pots. So I have traditionally relied on Bruce and Yaeko Hishiyaso for my pot needs. I will look forward to anything you have to day about pots in the future. Thanks Peter.

  12. Frank says:

    Good article Peter ! I have one from China that’s 100 years old or better. Nice to know now what to call it . I just said Glazed pot –now it’s my Namako Pot !

  13. Sandy Vee says:

    Thank you Peter for an interesting and informative piece. You share with us a level of detail that many of us didn’t know existed. What is the difference between chung glaze and namako?

    • japanesepots says:

      Sandy, I do believe “Chun” is a different type of glaze than “Namako”, though both originated in China, “Chun” is a bit older. Chun is an opalescent blue blaze that can appear red, yellow, or blue depending on what its applied over. While “Namako” glazes are an actual blue with kiln changes resulting in browns and whites, “Chun” is actually yellow! and only appears blue because it refracts light in the blue spectrum.

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