Kitakata City is famous across Japan for 2 things – ramen and warehouses!
Kitakata City’s warehouses have been used for hundreds of years for the production of ingredients integral to Japanese cooking, such as miso, mirin and soy sauce, among many more.
The incredibly clear water of Mt Iide is thought to make the produce from Kitakata – especially the sake – top quality! There are 4000 warehouses in Kitakata City. Between 100 and 200 of those are made of red bricks, each and every one of which was produced in brick kilns in the city’s Mitsuya District.
Kitakata’s Climbing Brick Kiln
Why is there a brick kiln in Kitakata?
This kiln was used to make all of the red bricks used in the construction of warehouses in Kitakata City. It was first made in 1890 as a 7-level climbing kiln predominantly used to make roof tiles, but was rebuilt around 20 years later as a 10-level kiln.
Apparently Higuchi san – who ordered the construction of the kiln – travelled to the UK to learn the art of brick-firing, so that he could carry it out in Japan.
The kiln is now managed by the Kato family.
What makes this kiln special?
It is the only kiln still in use in Japan to be able to fire 10 levels of bricks at one time.
This kiln has 10 levels to accommodate for the way that the heat of the oven rises, meaning that a large number of bricks can be fired at one time.
Another unique aspect of Kitakata kiln-fired bricks is that they are glazed (uwagusuri). The harsh and freezing winters of Kitakata caused normal red bricks to crack, so Higuchi san decided to experiment with glazing bricks before firing them, as a way of giving bricks that extra bit of protection. This successful technique has continued to be used to this day.
How it Works
Bricks are layered and tessellated inside little openings on each of the 10 levels of the kiln to completely fill the inside.
Little pieces of hardened brick are used to open up spaces in between every surface of the bricks, allowing heat to pass all the way around them.
The shape of the little items used for separating the bricks gradually morphs over the course of multiple firings. The Kato family find these shapes to be endearing, as if they are little spirits, each with their own personality, that work hard to ensure the success of the year’s brick firing. For this reason, they began painting faces on them, and even sell them in their shop!
When all of the bricks are in place, the entrances to the center of the kiln are blocked off, and the burners are started!
This is a photo of a brick before it is fired.
It may look pretty large, but the bricks actually shrink during the firing process, because of the high pressure and the fact that water from the clay is entirely evaporated in the process.
Here is a little illustration of the kiln to help you imagine it.
The bricks are cooked at 1,200 degrees. On average, the kiln is only used to fire bricks once every year. Firewood is used to heat the kiln, but this by itself wouldn’t be enough to maintain the high temperature, so burners are also used to keep it as hot as possible!
Who are the Kato Family?
Unlike a lot of the families managing warehouses in Kitakata, for the Katos, this is not a family business.
The kiln was actually closed in the 1970s, and was reopened by volunteers who were determined to keep the history of Kitakata brick-making alive by reviving local brick production.
They take orders from all over the country, then fire up the bricks once a year when they have received enough orders to fill the kiln. They are helped out by volunteers – to each of whom they give some pottery made using Kitakata red brick clay as a token of their appreciation.
If you’d like some souvenirs from the Climbing Brick Kiln, don’t worry, there are really cute hand towels you can buy. The design of these hand towels was made from an ink print of a red brick wall at the kiln.
Visiting the Climbing Brick Kiln:
Opening hours: 10:00 – 17:00 on Wednesday and Thursdays (Between Dec 1 and Mar 20 please contact the Kato family in advance to get to see the kiln)
Contact Form: http://www.kitakata-renga.jp/
Wakana Family Warehouses
Nearby to the kiln, and surrounded by beautiful views of Mt Iide, the Wakana family house and warehouses are definitely worth a visit too.
The warehouses owned by the Wakana family are made using bricks made – you guessed it! – at the Mitsuya Climbing Brick Kiln!
The Wakana family warehouses have been used over the past 100 years for a variety of things, including processing straw, polishing rice, keeping grains, and for storing hay. Visitors can go and visit the warehouses – which have been converted into a string of museums – to experience old-fashioned life in Kitakata.
There are lots of family mementos on display in the museum.
The family house complex houses a number of different warehouses, each with a different use. One of the warehouses was used for miso production and you can actually buy hand-made miso created by the family here today!
Visiting the Wakana Family Warehouses:
Visiting Hours: 8:00am to 5:00pm daily
Cost: 200 yen per person
For more information see here.
It was fascinating to learn about this amazing local history, which volunteers have worked so hard to preserve for future generations.
For information on travelling to Kitakata City – including info on how to get around the city – please read my travel guide here.
More posts about Kitakata City
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