• About Flame Pots

About Flame PotsThe ot that Taro Okamoto saw and exclaimed “What on Earth?!”is recognized as the first Japan Heritage in Niigata Prefenture!

The pot that Taro Okamoto saw and
exclaimed “What on Earth?!”
is recognized as the first Japan Heritage
in Niigata Prefecture!

The story ‘"What on Earth?!" Flame Pots and Snow Country Culture in the Shinano River Basin’ submitted by Niigata City, Sanjo City, Nagaoka City, Tokamachi City, and Tsunan Town was recognized as a Japan Heritage on April 25, 2016. This was one of the 19 newly recognized stories from among 67 stories proposed by municipalities nationwide. Japan Heritage is recognized and awarded by the Agency for Cultural Affairs, Govemment of Japan to stories that tell Japanese culture and tradition through the historical charm and characteristics of the region.

01Flame Pots Born of the Snow Country

Flowing 367km from the south to the north of Niigata prefecture, the Shinano River is the longest river in Japan. The people who chose the massive basin of this river for their home over 13,000 years ago were the first in the world to start making pottery. With this began the Jomon period. Particularly in the upper river basin, archeological sites from this period are more concentrated than anywhere else in Japan. Blessed with abundant forests and water sources, the Shinano River basin became a treasure trove of flora and fauna. We can see evidence of the Jomon people living here in harmony with nature for 10,000 years.

Jomon people of the Shinano River basin were subjected to a large environmental change around 8,000 years ago. As a result of the Tsushima Current flowing into the Sea of Japan, snowfall drastically increased. The heavy snows that made this area into a world renowned Snow Country began in the Jomon period and continue to the present day. While heavy snowfall hindered the daily lives of the Jomon people, living in the vibrant beauty of the seasons helped to develop their sensitivity and expression.

It was in this Snow Country, during the middle of the Jomon period 5,000 years ago, that "Flame Pots" came to be. Their overwhelming shapes evoke the image of blazing flames or flowing water and waves depending on the viewer. A characteristic feature of Jomon earthenware is "projections". With four exaggerated projections, flame pots are the epitome of Jomon pottery.
These exaggerated projections would have gotten in the way of adding and removing ingredients while cooking. These vessels were not intended to be practical; they were instead an idealized expression of the Jomon world view. The Jomon pottery,
represented by the flame pots, is unique in the world in the use of the projections on the rims. If we consider Jomon culture to be the root of Japanese culture, flame pots are just as significant to Japanese cultural identity as ukiyo-e and kabuki.

The beauty of these flame pots was first noticed by the famous avant-garde artist Taro Okamoto. His essay ‘Thoughts on Jomon Earthenware’ begins: “Whoever comes into contact unprepared for the wildness, the dissonant shapes, the patterns of Jomon pottery, feels their heart skip a beat. The intensity of mature pottery from the middle Jomon period is especially difficult to convey through words.” Upon seeing a flame pot for the first time, he is said to have exclaimed "What on Earth!?" He has left the lasting statement, "Flame pots, fierceness, elegance". The flame pots that so stunned Okamoto are almost exclusively from the Shinano River basin in Niigata prefecture. That place is unquestionably “The land of flame pots”, where mountain, river, and sea meet.

02Niigata, Birthplace of the Flame Pots

The people who made the flame pots lived in villages built on river terraces in the Shinano River basin. The majority of these settlements were near natural springs. The villages were built around a central clearing, forming a circular settlement of approximately 100m in diameter. About fifty pit dwellings were arranged in a horseshoe shape around the clearing, which was also used for ritualistic purposes. Burial pits have been found between the dwellings and clearing. In addition to this, there was a line of pits for storing nuts and other foodstuffs. On the outer edges of the settlement, there were waste pits for the disposal of old tools and other holes into which animals were driven for capture. Jomon village zoning was systematic and undoubtedly deliberate.

More than four hundred sites from the middle Jomon period have been discovered in the Shinano River basin. From this we know the scale and density of villages in this area were greater than that of anywhere else in Japan. A variety of ritual items such as clay figures and jade beads, from the same period as the flame pots, have been excavated from these sites. Such items are rare in the rest of Japan, making them a distinctive feature of the Jomon culture in this area. The landscape in parts of the Shinano River basin, such as Kiyotsu Gorge, Yagigahana, Mt. Yahiko, Mt. Kakuda, and many river terraces and lagoons, remains unchanged since the Jomon period. If you visit the remains of villages where the Jomon people lived, you can experience for yourself the landscape much as it was 5,000 years ago.

03Snow Country Culture, Heritage of the Jomon Period

We can catch glimpses of the lifestyle of the Jomon people who created the flame pots through the wisdom of the Snow Country. A good example of this would be everyday items from the area. The knitted clothing called "angin" that the Edo period author Bokushi Suzuki wrote about in his book 'A Journey to Akiyama' (1831), is fabric made from knitted plant fibers. Although impressions of angin knit have been found on the bases of Jomon pottery throughout Japan, the only places it remained in use until recently are villages like Akiyama in the Shinano River basin. A lifestyle in harmony with nature, using skill and wisdom to make the most of the Snow Country's natural resources, continues there to this day. The people of this region have passed the Snow Country knowledge down through many generations. They are living in the midst of Jomon culture even now.

Since the Jomon period, the Shinano River and its tributaries have been rich fishing grounds. This is because the far reaching broadleaf forests feed nutrients into the Shinano River, helping to nurture the fish. Salmon born in the Shinano River system migrate to the sea, and then return to their river of birth to spawn. This has not changed since Jomon times. The salmon that return before the heavy snowfall were an important food source for the Jomon people. There are charred traces of what is thought to include salmon in some of the flame pots. Artifacts excavated from the Matoba site in Niigata City also tell the story of a flourishing salmon fishing industry in the Shinano River estuary. Since the distant past, in the Echigo province (modern day Niigata prefecture) salmon has been subject to taxation. In addition, knowledge of fishing tools has been passed down in each region of the Shinano River basin.
The Jomon people ingeniously took advantage of the natural resources available to them, and made use of natural asphalt as an adhesive when making arrows and other hunting tools. Asphalt is naturally formed in large quantities along the Sea of Japan coast, and still wells up on hills along the Shinano River in places like Nietsubo.
In the Shinano River basin, culture rooted in the Jomon period still lives on, both in products of the mountains, rivers, and sea that nourished people since Jomon times, and in knowledge of how to process and store , along with the local cuisine rich in regional flavor and techniques of fermentation used to produce things such as sake, miso, and soy sauce. The craftsmanship and customs that came to be as a result of the tremendous snowfall could perhaps be remnants of the skills used to knit angin and make flame pots. Flame pots live on as a symbol of the Snow Country, and monuments in their shape stand in many places in the Shinano River basin.