Photo/IllutrationRikei Imai, foreground, helps put the last bricks in place at the highest chamber of his kiln in the Toyooka district of Kuroishi, Aomori Prefecture, on Dec. 20, 2018. (Takayuki Sato)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

KUROISHI, Aomori Prefecture--Like many of his friends, Rikei Imai assumed he was destined to work for a company until he retired.

Imai, then 26 years old, was on a business trip to Aichi Prefecture when a chance encounter changed the course of his life.

He came across Tokoname-style “sankinko” pottery produced during the Heian Period (794-1185). It left an indelible impression on the young salaried worker, who only a few years before had graduated from a technical college in Tochigi Prefecture.

Imai, who is from Hirakawa in this northern Honshu prefecture, was so impressed by the quality of the craftsmanship that he resolved to quit his job and learn how to make ceramics in the style of 1,000 or so years ago.

One of his first tasks was to learn how to build the ancient type of climbing pottery kiln used to create the stunning ceramic ware that had fired his imagination.

In due course, he started building a climbing kiln, and late last year was finally able to boast that he had completed work on the world's longest one.

Now aged 71, Imai embarked on the project more than two decades ago in this area of northern Japan famous for its apple orchards.

Built on a hillside, it consists of 52 terraced firing chambers. It is 103 meters long and 2 meters wide. It took 1,600 fireproof bricks to construct one firing chamber, and more than 80,000 for the entire kiln.

Imai, along with his second son, Yasunori, 30, finally completed the project early on Dec. 20, putting the last bricks in place shortly before noon.

Recalling that early encounter with sankinko pottery, Imai said, “I knew nothing about making pottery, so I had to learn all the techniques by myself.”

Starting from scratch 22 years ago, Imai built the kiln at the Misuji studio in the Toyooka district. Now it extends more than 100 meters, and has earned a reputation for its “shizenyu” (natural ash glaze) works free from glaze chemicals.

Imai has traveled a tough road. He had to overcome health and financial problems to gradually expand the kiln and realize his dream of producing higher quality ceremics.

After completing the kiln, his next goal is to “put much more energy into creating pottery.”

Imai is immensely thankful for the support he has received along the way.

“I was able to complete the kiln thanks to the many people who stood by me over the years,” Imai said in a voice quivering with emotion. “I will return their kindness by using the kiln (to create works of beauty)."

To Imai's mind, climbing kilns produce the best ceramic ware.

In 1985, he finished work on the 70-meter-long Hiryu kiln in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture.

In 1990, Imai completed then the longest climbing kiln, the 100-meter-long Garyu kiln, in Kashiwazaki, Niigata Prefecture.

Later, Imai moved to Hirosaki, Aomori Prefecture, before finally settling on the site of his current kiln in 1996, in the hope of creating the world's longest climbing kiln. He had to approach the project in phases as the kiln initially measured 23 meters.

The roof of the building housing the kiln was badly damaged during a heavy snowfall in 2005. By that point, the kiln already extended 65 meters, but further extensions got bogged down due to his financial difficulties.

In 2011, Imai was diagnosed with rectal cancer. He underwent three rounds of surgery, and then ureteral carcinoma was detected and one of the kidneys was resected in 2014. By that time, the kiln’s length had increased to 94 meters.

The work, suspended while Imai recovered his physical and mental strength, resumed in 2017.

To reach his goal, Imai resorted to crowdfunding and raised 5.3 million yen ($47,900), exceeding his initial 5-million-yen target set in July. Imai resumed work on the kiln in October in the expectation of completing the project before the year-end.

Imai has amassed an army of fans and supporters in and outside Aomori Prefecture who rave about the quality of his shizenyu products.

A climbing kiln is simplicity itself. Its consists of firing chambers with a firebox at one end and a tunnel through which the heat can travel upward, and finally out at the other end from a flue.

Red pine ash generated in the kiln accumulates on the ceramics and melts on the surface in the 1,300-plus degree heat, creating complex patterns.

“The designs are developed by nature,” Imai said. “People even 1,000 or 2,000 years from now will never tire of viewing their beauty. The natural patterns in the glaze beat anything that is done artificially.”

When firing ceramics at the climbing kiln, the lowest baking chamber is used first and then the upper chambers are ignited successively. As a chamber burns for two days or so, the completed kiln requires more than 100 days to fire the pottery in all the chambers, which means that several thousand works need to be baked at one time.

Imai plans to spend this year concentrating on new designs that he intends to start baking by the time the 2020 Tokyo Olympics open the following summer.

“Works to be baked in the world’s longest kiln will be exposed to larger amounts of ash over a longer period,” Imai noted. “I am hoping to produce shizenyu works that no one has ever seen before, hopefully ones that will be regarded as great shizenyu works.”

Finally, Imai plans to solicit suggestions for the name of the new kiln on a website in the near future.