Japanese cast iron: history, benefits, products, and brands

Kamasada-Cast-Iron-Studio

We have used cast iron cookware to cook our food for centuries. And for good reason, cast iron is durable, healthy, and in my humble opinion, beautiful. No wonder this rather weighty material has made such a comeback in recent years. But have you heard of Japanese cast iron?

In this article, you can learn about Japanese cast iron covering the following:
  1. history
  2. cookware options
  3. popular and trusted Japanese brands
Brett-Standeven-holding-Oisei-Dutch-oven
Had to take this little Dutch oven home with me. It’s made by the Oisei Foundry which has been in operation since the 17th century.

History of Japanese Cast Iron 

Nambu ironware

During the Edo period (1603-1868), around the end of the 17th century. The Nambu Clan invited artisans from Kyoto in Southern Japan to come to Morioka to make cast iron cast products. Including: iron armor, tea kettles, and pots. 

During this time Japan’s trade was cut off from the outside world and was largely domestic. Industrial specialization was vital for feudal lords to hold power. The Nambu rulers hoped specialization of ironware would help the area economically and strengthen their influence both financially and culturally.

Iwate ironware became treasured gifts and home to a cottage industry

Ironware became popular and cherished gifts given to feudal lords during the Edo period. These gifts were expensive and out of reach for the working classes. Ironware became items of admiration and desire for the masses.

Today, Nambu ironware remains a specialty of the region. And the two main areas of cast iron manufacturing Osu and Morioka are home to many foundries and artisans. But don’t worry Japanese cast iron is much more affordable today.

If you to want to learn more about then check out this article I wrote on Nambu Ironware.

Iwachu-Cast-Iron-worker
If you visit Iwachu in Morioka you can watch traditional clay molded kettles being made.

Modern Japanese cast iron

Good news for manufactures, cast iron cookware is making a comeback in Japan. There are several reasons for this including the following:

  1. Japanese appreciation for simple, durable and beautiful items
  2. many foundries adding bright and colorful options
  3. induction cookers becoming popular

Where is the best Japanese cast iron made?

To this day, high-quality kettles, teapots, and cookware are still made in Iwate with Morioka and Osu home to many foundries. Of which many are small workshops of one or two workers.

Yamagata is also a huge cast-iron manufacturing hub with a history going back hundreds of years. But other regions such as Aichi and Niigata have very good brands that offer a wide variety of products.

If you’re looking for a teapot here’s my top choices.

Why is Japanese cast iron expensive?

Japanese craftsmen have perfected the art of making cast iron over the last 800 years. Some artisans study for anywhere from 15 to 40 years to learn how to make Nambu ironware. This just shows how much sophistication goes into Japanese cast products. But as a result, Japanese cast iron is more expensive than low-cost manufacturing countries. 

However, more Japanese companies have switched to sand molding instead of traditional clay molds, resulting in more affordable cookware. But I’ll be honest there’s also a lot of high-end products available and unfortunately out of my price range.

What kind of cast iron cookware is popular in Japan?

Kettles 

Nambu Tetsubins are Japanese cast-iron kettles. Making a traditional clay molded Tetsubin is a detailed process that usually consists of around 68 steps — most of it still done by hand. 

Mastercraftsmen known as “kamashi” oversee the entire process of making tetsubin. These artisans train for 30 years or longer to learn the craft. The process of making tetsubin is quite painstaking. 

To make a tetsubin:

  1. Artisans pour molten pig iron or crude iron, into an inner mold made of clay or sand.
  2. Next, the artisan carefully etches the pattern on the outside.
  3. The kettle is removed from the mold.
  4. Imperfections are hammered out by hand.
  5. The kettle is then oven-fired to prevent rust.
  6. Lastly, the craftsman coats the kettle with a lacquer made from a mixture of green tea, brown rust, vinegar, and pine ash. 

If you want to learn how to use a cast iron kettle then click the link to read my easy to follow guide.

ettles-by-Suzuki-Morihisa-Studio
One of the most famous Japanese ironware makers is Suzuki Morihisa Studio Ltd. They have been iron ware since 1625.

Cast iron teapots 

Cast iron teapots, called “Tetsu Kyūsu” by the Japanese, have an enamel coating on the inside. The enamel helps inhibit rust and make the teapots easy to clean.

Because of the enamel lining, you can’t use a cast iron teapot on an element to boil water. The lining might get damaged. These types of teapots are used to steep or brew tea. Most come with a stainless steel infuser on the inside where it conveniently holds tea leaves and can easily be removed for cleaning.

Teapots are super easy to use but I’ve written a little step by step guide if you’re interested.

Modern-Japanese-cast-iron-teapots
I love the modern look. Today cast iron teapots come in a various sizes and colors.

Skillets and cast iron bowls

The use of cast iron bowls in winter remains popular and Japanese often make seasonal dishes such as Nabe and Sukiyaki in cast iron. However, summer barbecuing is also popular and using a good old fashioned skillet is a good choice.

Japanese-cast-iron-skillets
Japanese cast iron foundries offer a wide range of products including Western style skillets and griddles.

Why should you buy Japanese cast iron cookware?

Cast ironware offers a variety of benefits compared to other materials. Here are some of the reasons to purchase Japanese cast iron. 

Tetsubin 

With today’s elegant high-tech kettles, why choose a tetsubin? Here are a few of the reasons. 

  • It can be used over an open flame and other heat sources.
  • Enhances the tea experience: A Japanese tetsubin mineralizes and softens the water.
  • Long lasting: Sure, a cast iron can kettle can rust. However, they can be restored to almost-new status with a little elbow grease and some know-how. 
  • Has health benefits: When you use a cast iron tea kettle to boil water, you get the added benefits of iron supplementation. 

Cast iron teapots 

So, why a cast iron teapot? Here are some reasons:

  • Beautiful: It’s hard to match the beauty of a cast iron teapot. These feature bright colors and detailed, elaborate designs. 
  • Durable: Similar to tetsubins, cast iron teapots will last for years. As long as you follow the basic care tips, you can expect to pass them down to your children and even grandchildren. 
  • Easy to care for: Because of the enamel interior coating, cast iron teapots are relatively easy to take care of. They are resistant to rust. After using, you simply rinse with warm water and dry thoroughly. 
  • Superior heat retention: Cast iron teapots stay warm for longer periods. Just make sure you remove the tea strainer from the pot after brewing to prevent over-extraction.  

If your unsure of difference between a teapot and a kettle, then check out this article?

Cast Iron Cookware 

There’s no substitute for cast iron cookware. If you have just one pan in your kitchen, it should be a cast-iron skillet. Cast iron produces perfect sear without burning. If that is not enough to convince you, here are a few more benefits of cast iron cookware. 

  • Versatile: You can use the same cast-iron skillet to fry eggs, cook over the campfire, and bake your favorite dessert. 
  • Durable: When you invest in a cast-iron skillet or Dutch oven, you are investing in a piece of cookware that can last your entire lifetime. 
  • Gets better with age: Thanks to a natural patina or seasoning that forms when you use it, cast iron cookware gets better with repeated use. How many other types of cookware can you think of that gets better with age? 

Popular Japanese cast iron brands 

Vermicular

Most of the Japanese cast iron companies have been in operation for generations. But there are many new start-ups that often give a modern take on traditional designs. And Vermicular is one of these companies that have come on to the scene. 

The company was started in 2010 by two brothers. Already, it has achieved widespread acclaim and has risen to become the equivalent of Le Creuset in Japan. Vermicular’s most notable offering is the Musui-Kamado. An enameled Dutch oven that fits into a programmable case. Sure, the Musui-Kamado is expensive, granted. However, it does an impressive array of things. You could use it to make rice, pasta, meats — just about anything. 

This could just be the only cookware that you need. Home and professional chefs alike say that it can take the place of several kitchen tools, including the Instant Pot and the slow cooker. And, currently, there is nothing else like it on the market thanks to the detail that went into making it. And it took the brothers three years to finish the design. 

Vermicular-cast-iron-oven.
If you want an alternative to Le Creuset than take a look at Vermicular cast iron ovens and frying pans.

Oigen cast iron

Oigen is another well-known Japanese cast ironware company. The company is located in Osu City, Japan, where Japanese artisans have been casting iron for more than 900 years.

The company has won numerous awards for its cast ironware designs. They sell all kinds of cast iron products from camping skillets to wind chimes. They also have a wide range of enameled teapots available and those who prefer a traditional Japanese kettle they have master craftsmen on-site who still use the clay molding methods.

I visited the foundry and learned so much about the industry. If you want to learn more about Oigen cast iron just click the link. 

Oigen cast iron
Oigen is one of the bigger manufacturers based in the town of Osu. Oigen have a full line of cast iron cookware including some very neat looking trivets.

Oitomi

If you’re looking for a Japanese iron teapot that will last the test of time then you might want the have a look at Oitomi. Oitomi is a family business that has been making cast iron kettles and teapots since 1848. Located in Oshu an area famous for traditionally made Nambu Tekki and home to many artisans. 

If you want to learn more about Oitomi just click the link for an in-house article. 

Oitomi-cast-iron-teapot
Oitomi offer a wide range of teapots and kettles is a well respected brand abroad and in Japan.

Iwachu casting works

Iwachu is one of the leading Japanese cast iron companies. For more than 100 years, the company has been producing superior Nambu cast ironware in Morioka, Japan. When you buy traditional Japanese cast iron from Iwachu, you can count on it being very high quality. 

Check out the following link to learn more. 

Iwachu-cast-iron products
Iwachu Casting Works is one of the largest foundries in Morioka. Most of their products are made using sand molding. However, Iwachu also makes traditional tetsubin kettles using clay molds.

UNILLOY

Hailing from Tsubame Sanjo, Niigata. A manufacturing town known for its many casting works. Unilloy is a new kid on the block considering the long history of cast iron manufacturing in Japan. The company was founded in 2012 and claims to produce the world’s lightest enameled cast iron cookware. 

Unilloy made by Sanjo Special Cast Co., Ltd offers a selection of Dutch ovens and skillets made from FCD cast iron (graphite-rich cast iron).

UNILLOY cast-iron cookware
If you’re looking for for a Dutch oven but are put off by the weight then you might want to take to look at Unilloy.

L’hirondelle 

L’hirondelle makes some of the finest enameled Dutch ovens and casserole pots I’ve come across. They combined superb enameled cast iron with a heavy gauge stainless steel to protect the edges of the pot and lid.

The small company located in Tsubame Niigata outsources its casting locally to Sato-Wax Co., Ltd. Despite the small scale, you’ll see L’hirondelle sold in premium department stores.

L'Hirondelle Dutch Oven
I have to admit it, I really love these Dutch Ovens. L’Hirondelle ovens have a stainless steel rim that protects the edges of the pot from rust and chipping.

Is Japanese cast iron cookware worth it? 

Authentic Japanese cast ironware may be a bit more expensive than other types, but it is definitely worth the money. The detail that goes into making every piece is amazing. And, cast iron offers excellent durability, heat retention, and beauty. 

References:

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