In the late 17th century, the government of the Ryukyu Kingdom centralized Okinawa’s pottery industry in the Tsuboya district of Naha. Most potters here now are located along a street called Yachimun, which means “pottery.” The mainstream of Okinawan pottery is Tsuboya ware, the majority of which has a rustic, warm, folk-art style. The works that come from the kōbō, or studio, of Jissei Omine are, by comparison, radically different in color, thickness and design. Many pieces are blue or white, thin rather than thick, and modern and artistic in design, clearly distinct from what is generally known as “Okinawan style.”
A leading figure in Okinawan ceramics circles, Omine radiates an aura of invincible vitality and pluck that defies his 80-plus years. His large frame, carrying voice and candid manner of speech seem a perfect match for the dynamic quality of his works.
He and his three sons — Yoshito, the eldest, Tsuguto and Otoya, the youngest — run Omine Kobo together. It stands at the farthest end of the Yachimun no Sato pottery village of Yomitan, about an hour north of Naha. The verdant street leading to the Omine studio and gallery is lined on both sides with ceramics studios, their kilns and galleries, making a delightful stretch for a leisurely stroll. At the entrance to the Omine gallery, shīsā (lion-dog) figures greet you. The features of these mythical creatures are strikingly original. Housed in an airy, high-ceilinged traditional wooden structure, the gallery has the comfortable ambience of an old-style private home with a gentle breeze wafting in. An impressive espresso machine stands ready for visitors who would like a coffee break after browsing the mesmerizing array of pottery pieces on display.
Works fall loosely into three categories. One is the blue series, with hues as clear as Okinawan seas. The signature color of Omine Kobo, this noble Persian blue is the unique result of clay and coloring agent, impossible to produce anywhere else. It has been the primary lure for many first-time customers. The second series, on which the studio has recently been concentrating, focuses on how best to draw out the natural “flavor” of the clay. Forcefulness, rather than earthiness, manifests itself in these works. Gaze at a piece intently, and you will feel as if you are being drawn right into it.
“Over more than half a century I have made many different pieces,” Jissei says, “but now I take great pleasure in bringing out the best in Okinawan clays. What matters most is how much I can retain of the original feel of the clay in the finished piece.” He goes on to describe the qualities of clays from different parts of the prefecture. “This piece is made from clay collected on the highest mountain in Yanbaru, in the north of Okinawa. Clays from mountain slopes are fascinating. To create what I really want to express, I might have to develop something like unfired pottery made with raw clay,” he says, half joking and half in earnest, with a mischievous grin.
The last of the three categories is the white series, suggestive of the original Tsuboya pottery. “The thick, squat, earthen-colored ware we see today was not originally the mainstream of Tsuboya,” Jissei explains. “Pieces made in the 18th century were delicate, and hailed for the exquisite beauty of their ‘Okinawan white.'” Omine’s white series is the modern incarnation of white Tsuboya. Thin, elegant pieces with contemporary lines are designed for a wide range of uses. “Their shapes may have changed but I do intend for their texture to remain the same, continuing the tradition,” says Jissei. The lustrous white pieces gleam, gently reflecting light, just as he wishes them to.
“Not typically Okinawan” turns out to be a false impression: The more you learn about Omine works, the more clearly you understand how deeply Okinawan all three series are or, you might say, “Okinawan in Omine style.”
Omine Kobo: Zakimi 2653-1, Yomitan-son, Nakagami-gun, Okinawa 904-0301; 098-958-2828. This is the first in a three-part series about contemporary craftspeople in Okinawa.