Nanbu Tekki or Nambu Tekki? (Learn about Japanese cast iron)

What is Nanbu Tekki?

If you like using cast iron teapots or kettles then you might have heard of special ironware from Japan called Nanbu Tekki. It’s not as well known outside of Japan but in Japan this type of cast-iron is considered the best ironware for teapot and kettles and often sells at a premium. But what is Nanbu Tekki and why does it cost more?

If you visit Japan you will find Nanbu Tekki used in tea ceremonies, on display in museums and for sale in tourist shops. But what is it? And what separates Japanese cast iron from cheaper mass-produced ironware?

Tradition Nanbu Tekki kettle
Traditional way of boiling water in Japan. This house was once the home of a Samurai that protected Shiroishi castle.

Here’s what you can learn from this article

  • What is Nanbu Tekki?
  • Learn the history of the Japanese craft
  • How Nanbu Tekki almost disappeared and how it has survived
  • How artisans make bespoke cast iron kettles
  • Why many tea drinkers prefer to use cast iron teapots and kettles
What is Nanbu Tekki?


If you’re interested in purchasing a cast iron teapot or kettle you’re bound to come across the term Nanbu Tekki. But what exactly is Nanbu Tekki?

If you are short on time here’s a quick answer: Nanbu Tekki Tekki is ironware produced in the Iwate Prefecture of Japan. Is Japanese cast iron any good?

The history of Nanbu Tekki

The origins

The name “Nanbu” or “Nambu” has its origin from a feudal clan called Nanbu-Han. This clan ruled the northeastern part of Honshu for over 700 years. And because the area had resources need to make ironware the area industry quickly established.

However Nanbu-Han leaders in the 17th century had bigger plans and wanted their controlled lands to grow economically and culturally. So they invited well respected artisans across Japan to help make and improve what would later be called Nanbu Tekki.

In the 17th century, the rulers invited artisans from across Japan to design and make cast iron products in the region.

The plan worked, and the ironware became a local speciality. And the ironware became treasured gifts among feudal lords and the ruling classes. The ironware was also very expensive with very few being able to afford such a luxury item.

It’s still expensive today for the bespoke kettles and teapots from local artisans. But fortunately for us, technology has advanced and we don’t need to be a Lord to be able to afford a Japanese kettle.

If you are lucky and already have a kettle you may want to head over to our cast iron kettle guide. It will give you tips on how to correctly look after your kettle.

Nanbu clan leader Toshihisa
Nanbu Toshihisa. Original source Wikimedia Commons

What does Nanbu Tekki mean?

Let’s break down the word to make it easy to understand. Nanbu 南部 was the name of the ruling clan which ruled much of the Tohoku region for over 700 hundred years. While Tekki translates to ironware 鉄器. So Nanbu Tekkei is the Nanbu clan’s ironware.

Nanbu Tekki must be good the Japanese have used it for hundreds of years.

The manufacture Nanbu Tekki in Japan dates back over 400 hundred years. Needless to say, the Japanese craftsmen are experts in the making of cast ironware and they still produce some of the most beautiful handmade ironware you have ever laid your eyes on. Although for a hand-crafted kettle expect to pay a handsome sum.

Suzuki Morihisa Studio Ltd. Picture of four different kettles.
These kettles are from Suzuki Morihisa Studios. Amazingly the studio has made Nanbu Tekkei Tetsubins since 1625.

Many artisans still make their ironware using painstaking traditional methods such a hand made clay molds. This is one of the reasons why Nanbu Tekki is a protected art and why it’s so expensive. Luckily for us there are cheaper Nanbu Tekki options available, which use sand molds instead of tradition clay.

Sato-Kei 佐藤 圭-佐秋鋳造所
Kei Sato from Saaki Chuuzo Jo demonstrates how Japanese Tetsubins are made. The clay molds pictured are very difficult to make, Sato San tells me in a full days work he can make two. Note: Look at the foundry floor, his foundry is spotless.

Is it difficult to use a cast iron teapot? No, they are really easy to use, to learn more here’s an article I’ve written on how to use a cast iron teapot.

The Champagne of Ironware

Today, ironware from Morioka City and Oshu City are the main areas that can use the name Nanbu Tekki. Just like the region of Champagne in the northeast of France where the use of the word Champagne is protected, Nanbu Tekki is also protected. And only ironware from the region of Iwate is Nanbu Tekki.

Unfortunately there are many overseas manufacturers and distributors label their products as Nanbu Tekki. So I recommend you to ask where the product was made iron before purchasing.

Currently, there are over 70 companies which produce Nanbu Tekki. Popular products include kettles (Tetsubins) cast iron teapots, wind chimes and sukiyaki bowls.

Oitomi cast iron bell
I found this little bell outside a Japanese teahouse. I’d say it’s made by Oitomi.

When did Nanbu Tekkei become popular?

Around 1750, Nizaemon Koizumi the 3rd had an idea. He invented the “tetsubin” the Japanese kettle. The kettle had a handle and a short pouring spout. Sure this invention is not ground-breaking. But the tetsubin is much easier to use and carry than the chagama which was used prior to the invention of the tetsubin.

If you want to learn more about the tetsubin just click the link.

Antique cast iron Chagama
The Chagama was the common method to boil water in Japan prior to the invention of the Tetsubin.

Nanbu Tekei in post-modernization Japan

Cultural art

Thanks to the development of railroads and the Meiji government’s policy to promote modern industrial growth, Nanbu Tekki industry redeveloped and modernized. In 1914 the Nanbu Casting Institute formed and Nanbu Tekki was recognized as having cultural importance to the country. And it raised to the level of fine art.

Ironworks during the Second World War

The Second World War had a devastating effect on the ironworks industry in Japan. Regulations by the Japanese government in 1938 to shift the focus of the industry to the war effort. Sadly a lot of antique ironware was destroyed to produce items such as canons.

However, some local craftsmen refused to let their proud heritage die and joined together as a group to work for the preservation of the art of Nanbu Tekki. There are also stories of villagers protecting cast iron artifacts from authorities. Such as the locals from Shiroishi that successfully prevented a historical bell from being melted down.

Antique Japanese cast-iron cannon.
Antique cast-iron cannon made of cast-iron.

A downward trend in demand in the 1960s

After the war, lifestyles changed. The demand for Nanbu Tekki decreased. In the 1960s when aluminium and stainless steel products took market share from traditional ironware.

Nanbu Tekki today

Today Nanbu Tekki is having a resurgence in popularity. Today both new and vintage Nanbu Tekki is highly-sought after. Its distinctive character is still apparent in both traditional and modern designs. People all around the world have gained a fresh appreciation of cast iron products.

Shoppers looking at Nanbu Tekki kettles
Stall in Japan selling traditional Nanbu Tekkei kettles.

An authentic hand-hand Nanbu Tekki kettle can range in price from ¥50,000 up to around ¥300,000 (about $450 – $3 000). But you can pick up sand molded Nanbu teapots for a fraction of this price. If you want to learn the difference between a cast iron kettle and teapot just click the link.

Iwachu cast iron teapots
If you want a Nanbu Tekki teapot then concider Iwachu cast iron. They produce both traditional and modern teapots and kettles. The staff were really helpful and knowledgeable.

How do Artisans make tradition Nanbu Tekki kettles?

First, the mould

First, artisans make a mold, based on drawings. Then craftsmen pour special molding sand into a cylindrical wooden frame. The frame is to make the body of the kettle. While the pouring spout gets its own little mold.
Artisans also make individual clay molds for bespoke pieces. This is a time consuming process and separates a Nanbu Tekki Tetsubin from low cost manufacturers.

Decoration

Unique patterns or drawings characterize Nanbu Tekki from other cast iron. Traditionally artisans press Nanbu Tekki designs into the clay mold by hand.

Artisans use tools to press these designs into the mold while wet. (Interestingly, some tools for pressing are from the Edo Period and still used today.

A dot pattern, called Arare, is an iconic Nanbu Tekki pattern. The dots are painstakingly and precisely pressed into the still-wet mould.

Next, the spout mold and that of the body of the kettle is attached. Then, craftsmen bake the mold to make it completely dry.

Casting the design

After the mold is baked it is checked for any imperfections. Once satisfied craftsmen pour molten iron into the clay mold. After the casting process is complete the core is taken out The tea kettle is baked again in charcoal.

This method of casting creates an oxide film on the iron that prevents rust. This is a unique feature of Nanbu Tekki.

Finishing touches

Finally, the caster will check the finished product for evenness and smooth raw edges with a grinder.

(A Nanbu Tekki tea kettle with a fire-kiln finish meaning it is not enameled allows a small amount of iron to be released into the boiled water. Some Japanese believe this makes the water for green tea taste better).

Traditional Lacquering

After covering the outer surface with lacquer and coating it with rust-preventing liquid. Only then is the handle is fixed onto the kettle. Then the Nanbu Tekki tea kettle is ready for use

Iwachu cast iron workshop in Morioka
Iwachu cast iron is based in Morioka has a workshop you can visit. It’s really interesting and you can watch how the craftsmen make cast iron tetsubin.

Characteristics of Nanbu Tekki ironware

  • Ironware has excellent heat retention properties
  • You can use some kettles can be used on induction cookers. However, I recommend asking the manufacturer first.
  • Nanbu Tekki is beautiful and comes in an array of colors and designs. If you want a colorful teapot or kettle then you might want to check out Iwachu cast iron.

Nanbu Tekki has stood the test of time.

Nanbu Tekki is a symbol of how traditional Japanese craft has endured over hundreds of years. It hasn’t been easy for the industry but it’s flourished because of regulations. These laws protected the industry and the craftsmen, which keep the tradition alive.

The foundries in the region of Iwate have maintained their traditions and make some of the worlds finest ironware. If your looking for a cast iron teapot or kettle then no further than Nanbu Tekki

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