Ceramic Roof Tiles Two—In Noto

In bright June sunshine, the roofs of the buildings of this small farming complex shimmer.  In the winter the glass-like surface will cause settled snow to slip off.
Toward Black
Historically the burning of kindling with which to cook or to heat bath water always heightened the risk of fire breaking out in Japan’s communities both large and small.

Imagine what could happen when an earthquake struck just as food was being cooked over a naked flame.  Constructed of combustable materials, the collapse of a timber building could easily seed a massive fire.  The wind could then fan the flames and in no time at all the sparks would fly.

Although far less vulnerable than reed thatch, boards of wood or roofing shingles were an improvement but what was really needed was a non-flammable roofing material.

For a long time, however, tiles were more than common folk could afford.  While the aesthetic value of ceramic roof tiles should not be overlooked, they have helped inhibit the spread of fire for centuries.  They have also provided a sense of secure shelter.  To do that their durability, too, has always been important.

This was a major consideration in the Hokuriku region of which the Noto Peninsula is part.  Tiles made their first appearance here during the seventh-century on Buddhist structures.

They were, however, only biscuit fired and not glazed with a hard finish and were not therefore particularly durable.  Difficulties with production and problems sourcing sufficient amounts of wood to fire the kilns contributed to a decline in their use.

The gate at Agishi-honseiji temple is tiled with reddish brown tiles.  They were one step in the development of a shinny, hard-wearing tile.
By the beginning of the sixteenth-century basic glazes made from ground up minerals mixed with water were a step in the right direction—more durability was the result.  Subsequently a much more hard-wearing reddish brown tile was produced by adding iron oxide to the clay.  Local Noto clay was not suitable however, as it contained pumice.

Why was a more suitable clay not imported into the area?  The mere idea of transporting either the raw materials or the finished article was unthinkable at the time.

Consequently it was not until the end of the nineteenth-century that a more appropriate glaze containing manganese was used and a double firing technique was employed to produce a hard-wearing roof tile of real quality.  The result was a tile that was robust and durable and more suited the requirements of the region.

The manganese in the glaze produced a shinny, reflective glass-like coating very similar to the tiles which are being produced today.  An assured durability was not their only asset.

During the 1920s these lustrous black tiles were being sold in Kanazawa and as far away as Nagoya in central Japan.  By then transportation was so much easier.

The glossy black finish may not have been to everyone’s taste but their reputation soon spread to other regions of Japan where, like Noto, it was winter’s cold and heavy falls of snow that needed confronting.  Simply speaking the bonus was that snow soon slid off a black shinny roof.

Here too the roofs reflect the sunlight, which is reflected by the water in the newly irrigated paddy.  The regularity of the recently planted rice plants is matched by the methodical way in which the grass has been cut.  So much of the farming in Japan is orderly and tidy.  Surely it has contributed to the way so many Japanese people lead their lives.

The black mirror finish of the roofs of the vernacular architecture of the Noto Peninsula is as distinctive as the lustre of Wajima lacquerware—both treasures in their own right.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

I am most grateful to Michihiro Ura from the Department of Culture in the Wajima City Board of Education for providing detailed informaion on Noto’s black tiles.

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