It's the autumn of 2013, and dusk falls over the historic Nagatani-en pottery works in the hills above the city of Iga, Mie Prefecture. As the employees finish their shifts and head home, the squat buildings fall quiet and dark — all except the 200-year-old residence at the heart of this artisan complex, where a special meal is about to begin.

Yuji Nagatani, the charismatic seventh-generation company head, is there alongside his wife and children. They have gathered in the same atmospheric dining room their ancestor's once ate in, sitting on thin zabuton cushions around a long table. With its tatami mats and sliding doors covered in bold cursive calligraphy, the setting is stately — as befits the arrival of visitors from afar.

But instead of welcoming their guests with a full-scale multicourse kaiseki dinner of traditional Japanese cuisine they have prepared a much more relaxed meal: a party based around donabe, the striking hand-made ceramic hot pots that are the core of Nagatani-en's business.