April 16, 2006
by Saki KAWAMURA
Recently, traditional Kyoto style houses have been in the spotlight in various magazines, or on the internet. This reminds us of the roots of Japanese culture in days gone by, and also that people from other countries are equally captivated by their beauty. If you take the time to look up at the roofs of these houses, you will see the very interesting tiles that are laid there and will notice that some of them have faces on and some bear Chinese characters, or Kanji. These images are essential to the uniqueness of Kyoto tiles, and that of the craftspeople who make them.
In Japan, to become an expert, whether it is in tile making of other skills, takes a very long time. For example, Kyoto tiles are made from clay, and it takes at least 5 years to learn how to knead this clay, 10 more years to learn how to shape it, and 3 more after that to acquire the skills for baking it. Quite simply, it takes a total of at least eighteen years to be an expert in the making of these tiles.
It is quite natural that the culture of ‘tile making’ was born, became popular, in Kyoto, because in this area good clay for tile making is abundant. However, such tiles were once so highly valued that only large, wealthy temples and shrines could afford to buy them and place them on their roofs. The main features of Kyoto tiles are their glossiness and thinness. Why, then, are Kyoto tiles are so thin? There is a very simple reason: they look more delicate and beautiful when laid on a roof.
Following WW2 in Kyoto, a number of types of tile have been manufactured, probably numbering around 700 in total. All of these varieties are considered traditional. Onigawara is one such type of tile. Oni means devil and gawara means tile. Long ago, a horrible epidemic spread throughout Kyoto, and a large number of people died. Thereafter, people put a devil on their roof to ward off other demons and to avoid such a terrible disaster ever happening again. Onigwara is really to be considered artwork and the mark of great craftsmanship.
Mass production methods were introduced for the making of Kyoto tiles around 30 years ago, but there are still some workshops to be found which hold to the beliefs and practices of the old hand-made traditional style.