Ceramic Artist Profile

Nagai Ken

ceramic artist Nagai Ken's name in Japanese

Tamba is known as one of the six ancient pottery centers in Japan, and kilns have been fired there as far back as the late Heian period (794-1185).  Early in its history, Tamba-yaki (Tamba ware) was fired in rudimentary kilns and mostly for the production of dailyware for the local community.  In the late 16th century, the more advanced noborigama climbing kilns began to flourish, and grand, multi-chambered kilns would come to stretch up Tamba's surrounding hillside.

image of climbing kiln

As Tamba-yaki became more diverse and more refined, the attention and admiration from Kyoto's noble class began to grow.  Soon Tamba would produce pots for feudal lords, saké flasks for imperial courtesans, and bowls for tea masters, like the legendary Kobori Enshū, who found the rustic tenor of Tamba-yaki well attuned to the aesthetics of chanoyu tea ceremony.

Today, ceramic artist Nagai Ken fires his own modest noborigama not far from where the ancient kilns still stand.  His unique rendition of Tamba-yaki, however, melds two artistic genres: wood-fired pottery and cast iron ware for tea.

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Nagai Ken


Born in Yubara, Okayama Pref.


Graduates from Tsukuba University


Enters Kyoto School for Ceramic Arts Training


Apprentices at Kōzan-gama (Kōzan Kiln), Echizen Pref.


Moves to Tachikui City, Hyōgo Pref.


Establishes own kiln, Tenkū-gama (Tenkū Kiln), and begins concentrating solely on yakishimé unglazed stoneware.


Builds own wood-burning noborigama climbing kiln on the grounds of Tenkū-gama.


Holds solo exhibition at Omio Gallery, Paris


Holds annual exhibitions at Gallery Is'Sue, Kyoto
Nen Gallery, Tokyo
Gallery Joyusha, Nara


Works featured in The Story of Tea by Mary Lou & Robert J. Heiss


Relocates Tenkū-gama to Okayama Pref.


Solo exhibition, Ginya Gallery, Hyōgo Pref


Icchō Gallery, Tokyo


Nagai Ken specializes in yakishimé - a general term used to describe pottery that is unglazed and fired at high temperatures.  In the absence of glazing or other decorative elements, the form of the piece and the character of the clay, referred to in Japanese as its "flavor", become the points upon which aesthetic valuations are made.

Nagai meets these requirements by taking elements from cast iron ware, like the rough-hewn texture on tetsubin kettles, and incorporating them into clay creations that are impeccably formed, surprisingly lightweight, and pleasantly functional.


Nagai Ken established his kiln in 1991 and christened it Tenkū-gama.  Firings are a 3-day affair, requiring round-the-clock attention as bundles of red pine from the surrounding hills are thrown into the kiln every few minutes.

At a peak temperature of 1,250°C (2,300°F), pots go through an amazing transformation.  Warm gradations of rust red to chocolate brown form on the unglazed clay as it is forever heat changed.  Superheated feldspar crystals pepper the clay body as they burst through their earthen bed.  And swirling embers of pine, in wave after wave, fuse with the surface of the work to produce a natural glaze which is rough yet pleasing to the touch.

Pots that are able to survive the grueling conditions inside Tenkū-gama display the kind of dynamic kiln effects that only wood-fired pottery can exhibit.

image of kiln firing

» explore Tenkū-gama

( Nagai Ken has since relocated Tenkū-gama to Okayama Prefecture )


Nagai Ken holds annual exhibitions at a number of private galleries across Japan, including Ginya Gallery (Hyoto Pref.), Icchō Gallery (Tokyo), Kawaguchi Gallery (Amagasaki)


exhibition photo

Kōsai Gallery Exhibition, Osaka

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Potter's Insignia

Nagai Ken's works are signed with the kanji characters for "Tenkū."  The same name and artist stamp appear on the wooden presentation box.