Wednesday 5 November 2008

The Art of Tea

I was talking with a third generation Japanese potter and the curator of a major western public art gallery a few years ago, about Tea Bowls. "Why, " asked the potter, "Do western potters insist on making tea bowls when they have no understanding of their use?"

The curator and I mulled over the question and came to the conclusion that there were two reasons, firstly a recognition of the tea bowl as a pinnacle of functional art and therefore worthy of emulation, and secondly a kind of syllogism. The thinking goes like this: Great potters make tea bowls so if one makes tea bowls one must be a great potter. Unfortunately it doesn't quite work like that. One of the most important conditions of making functional ceramics is being familiar with the function.

AND SO.....

After years of deliberation Steve Tootell and I finally did something about it. This years World Art Educators Workshop , the Art of Tea, focused on understanding the basics of tea ware and Japanese "kaiseki ryouri" functional ware through a hands on experience of their function.

Twenty participants from around the globe gathered in Tokyo at the pottery studio of the International School of the Sacred Heart on Friday morning (Oct. 24th) for a demonstration first and then hands on production of functional ware designed for a specific Japanese meal. This included slab plates, mold making, throwing, trimming and altering forms.

On Friday afternoon we all headed to Kamakura to the ancestral home and traditional tea house of Noriko Saito sensei. Saito Sensei is a Master of the Omote Senkei school of tea, and the tea room "Sai An" was the focus for revitalising the tea ceremony during the post war period. Here the participants were able to experience the tea ceremony first hand with step by step instruction. Each member took turns making the tea from the hosts perspective and also receiving the tea as a guest. Saito sensei explained the philosophy of tea and tea ware, emphasizing that a tea bowl is only one part of the greater artwork which is the tea ceremony itself, and should form an harmonious focal point without being obtrusive. Even the weather becomes part of the experience, the sound of the rain being a foil to the quiet of the tatami room, the soft natural light from the garden, the scent of the wet leaves and soil wafting in on the light breeze blending with the fragrance of the tea and the flavour of the sweets. The art of simplicity; the art of function.

With this experience fresh in our hearts, the taste of the tea still on our lips, we hurried back to the studio for a demonstration of the making of tea bowls by Masakazu Kusakabe Sensei. He analysed and demonstrated a wide variety of traditional and contemporary forms and techniques, then the participants made their own tea bowls based now upon a new understanding of their function in context.

Saturday morning we focused on the making of other tea ware, as the tea ceremony entails more than just a bowl. The "Kensui" for taking the used water, the "mizusashi" for the fresh water, the tea caddies and the lid rest, a wide variety of vessels are needed.

At lunch time we went to Nihombashi, the centre of Japan, to experience fine Japanese cuisine. Master Chef Touru Hashimoto at Kappo Toyoda restaurant explained and demonstrated the selection, preparation and serving of "Ocha Kaiseki", and we enjoyed a full course kaiseki lunch. Kappo Toyoda was established in 1863, when Nihombashi was a market place full of fresh fish from Tokyo bay. Hashimoto san is the fifth generation owner chef, and was head chef for the Japanese embassy in Germany. He explained that "Kaiseki", like the tea ceremony, was an extension and a refinement of traditional Japanese home hospitality, striving to bring peace, comfort and happiness to the weary traveller. The meal which was served utilised the vessels which had been demonstrated the previous day, once again putting the vessel into its functional context.

After lunch we moved on to Ebiya Bijutsu Ten, the antique gallery in Nihombashi where I hold my annual exhibition. Established in Kyoto in 1673, Ebiya came to Nihombashi as a purveyor to the imperial household with the Meiji emperor. Masahiro Miyake, the ninth generation owner, showed us a range of historic tea bowls, from kourai chawan, commissioned from Korean potteries by the Tokugawa shogunate, through a variety of Japanese bowls explaining their history and provenance, to two fine examples of black and red raku tea bowls. We were able to hold these bowls, feel their weight and proportions. With an understanding of their function these historic bowls brought the reality of fine tea bowls into sharp focus. Also in the gallery were a variety of other historic tea ware, include the "chashaku" tea spoons in bamboo and ivory.

Once again we returned to the studio to glaze raku tea bowls that I had prepared earlier, and sake cups by Kusakabe san.

On Sunday morning we raku fired the bowls and cups, preparing tea for each other in the freshly fired bowls. I brought out the youhen tea bowl which Shimaoka sensei had given me as a graduation present and prepared a cup of tea for Kusakabe san, and the participants each examined the bowl in context. Every one went home with a wealth of experience and information, and a better understanding of tea bowls, functional ware, and the art of tea.


  1. Hi Euan,

    In reference to Tomoo's question:

    "Why,Do western potters insist on making tea bowls when they have no understanding of their use?"

    I would answer that, most Japanese really don't understand their use either. The Japanese forms expressly made for tea ceremony, never come close to the "found" Ido Korean rice bowls, that were used for tea.

    In a sense, the Western tea bowls come closer to the unaffected innocence of the Korean rice bowls.

    Japan's greatest work always grew out of its interaction with China, Korean and later with the West. Today, ceramic work in Japan suffers because it depends too much on itself for inspiration.

    The difference between Tomoo's work and Shoji's work can be partially attributed to Shoji's cosmopolitan and universal life experiences. Shoji was an incredible interpreter. No Westerner would be so naive as to question his understanding of mugs or pitchers.

    At this moment, I am watching the USA Presidential coverage on T.V. and the computer, drinking extra pale ale, and cracking pistachios shells into a Lucie Rie influenced Warren MacKenzie "tea bowl."

  2. Well said Lee.

    There are a plethora of bad tea bowls out there, most of which are made by people who don't understand tea (and even some who do). Neither nationality nor heredity imbues one with an inherent ability or disability to make good pots. There are some excellent tea bowls made by westerners who understand tea, just as there are some really bad ones made by Japanese potters who do not.

    The Korean bowls were made as rice bowls and were excellent as such. Some, but not all of them, were bowls which tea masters found to be ideal for tea. What made them tea bowls was whether they were good for drinking tea or not.

    The same is true now, the proof of a tea bowl is in the drinking. Many bowls which are made for other purposes are excellent tea bowl, and others which are made as tea bowls are better for pistachios. One would need to try them.

    What I think is important is that if you set out to make a vessel with a specific function you must understand what that function is, not merely as an intellectual excercise but with the knowledge of experience. Many modern "tea bowls" are made based on historic tea bowls, and are just that, bowls influenced by historic tea bowls, but not necessarily good tea bowls in and of themselves. They are too concerned with keeping the promises, regurgitating and introspecting, and forget about enjoying the tea.

    The Korean potters understood rice bowls because they used them every day of their lives. They were rice bowls. There was neither claim nor intention that they be anything else.

    Western soup or breakfast bowls are in that sense very close to the unaffected innocence of Korean rice bowls. Among them are bowls which would make excellent tea bowls.

    Shoji Hamada made fine mugs and pitchers because he was familiar with them, he surrounded himself with good work,used them every day and made them with an understanding of their use.

    I think the real issue is to make honest pots, pots which we can share with the user with confidence in their function because we are familiar with that function. Be that rice bowl, cereal bowl or tea bowl. If a user finds a different function all the better.

    Happy potting,