Saturday 3 July 2021

When is a Chawan not a Chawan?

When is a teabowl not a teabowl? 

When it is a rice bowl! Or a soup bowl, or any of a wide variety of vessels in Japanese cuisine with the appellation “Chawan".

"Cha" means tea, and "Wan" means bowl, and any of these bowls could be comfortably held in the hand and used to drink tea. In the case of a rice bowl, it is called a "Gohan Chawan", or more informally "Meshijawan", and in days past tea would often have been poured into the bowl after the rice was eaten to finish the meal and wash down the last skerrick of goodness! "Go" is an honorific prefix, which is dropped in informal situations or when referring humbly to one's self, and both "Han" and "Meshi" are different readings of the same kanji character which means simply "cooked rice”.

But this is where it gets interesting...there are four different kanji characters which all say "Wan" and all mean bowl, but with subtle differences in meaning! 

Four Kanji that all say "Wan" and mean bowl, from left: Wooden, Metal, Pottery,  Bowl for Tea Ceremony

Three of them differ only by a change in one part of the character which indicates whether the bowl is made of wood (kihen), metal (kanehen) or ceramic (ishihen)! All of these kanji also include a portion which is called an "ukanmuri" which in this case symbolises a lid. 

From left: Ki (wood), Kane (metal), Ishi (stone), Ukanmuri

 Traditionally, these bowls would have been accompanied by a lid, though that is not very common these days except at restaurants. I always make a series of small plates which can be used separately for soy sauce, pickles, condiments or any variety of dishes, but also as lids. Which is why the underside is just as important as the upper surface! 

Incidentally, if you add the kanji for powder in front of these "Chawan", they become "Machawan" meaning tea bowls for the tea ceremony. The fourth kanji for "Wan", however, has neither a symbol indicating what it is made from, nor that it has a lid, does not require the inclusion of the "Cha" or "Macha" characters, but always and only means a teabowl for the tea ceremony. But that is another story... 

I was asked about the traditional size of "Gohan Chawan" (rice bowls) in Japan and the short answer; there is no hard and fast size, but there are a set of principles. They are based on the size of the human hand and the way that the bowl is used. 

The rim diameter of the bowl is based on the circumference which your hands can encompass when you make a circle with your thumbs and middle fingers. The average, in traditional measurements, for the large diameter is usually "4sun" (about 121mm) and the smaller is usually 10% smaller at "3sun 6bu" (about 109mm). Having said that, large bowls would range from 110~135, and small bowls between 92~115. These days people generally tend to be larger than they were during the Edo period, so I make mine in the upper range. (Anything larger than 140mm would probably be considered a Domburi, but that is also another story!)

The internal proportions are usually Depth 1: Diameter 2, but not a hemisphere, rather a parabolic curve which makes it easy to use with chopsticks. 

The foot of the bowl rests in the crook of the fingers, on top of the second and third phalanges, not in the palm of the hand, and the first phalanges extend beyond the foot. This makes the grip on the foot very stable, and also allows the middle finger free movement to assist in changing the dominant hand's grip on the chopsticks. This usually gives a diameter range of 55mm for large to 45mm for small. 

A high foot is important so that the hand doesn't come in direct contact with the hip of the bowl, which can become quite hot to the touch when rice is freshly served! 

A vessel is not complete until it is in use. Every part of the process of making a pot is a step toward this objective. Even though each of those steps requires my full presence at the time and each task gives a unique sense of fulfillment, they are all part of a journey that culminates in a culinary event. 

Just as the food that comes to the table is the culmination of a process which begins with tilling the earth, and planting and nurturing the crop till it comes to harvest. Taking that harvest, planning and preparing each individual dish, balancing and combining flavours, colours and textures, then serving them into the perfect vessels. 

A meal isn't just about filling your stomach, it is about nourishing body and spirit. It is about experiencing the sensory pleasure and the beauty of that moment. It is about sharing and being shared with.

This is always in my mind when I am making pots, whatever stage in the process that may be. It may seem to take an hour to prepare a meal, but it only seems that way. For every meal there are days, and weeks, and months, of often unseen preparation. And every vessel which I make and every meal I share with my loved ones has taken me a lifetime.

My son reminded me yesterday of something which I told him many years ago; that a potter is to the vessels they make as a tree is to it's leaves. We must make them in order to grow, they are expressions of our essential selves, but we give them up gratefully that they may become nourishment for others.

As a maker, I feel very grateful when others use my vessels with as much love and care as I did in making them. 

We need beauty in our lives every day, to nourish our spirit as well as our body. In a world which is inundated with the artificial, isn't it nice to share something real?

If you would like to own some of these works, I invite you to the opening of the New Euan Craig Online Gallery!
We open Today, Sunday the 4th till Sunday the 18th of July, 2021, with our First Exhibition of New Wood Fired Bowls, fresh from the Kiln! 

I have missed being able to exhibit at real world events over the past year and a half, mostly I have missed the conversations with friends and patrons, but this is a way to share my new works with everyone wherever you may be!

Friday 8 January 2021


 The powdery snow creaks and groans as I shovel a path from the house to the kiln shed in the pale predawn light. I take special care on the stone steps, making sure they are free of snow before I walk on them, as once the snow is compacted it becomes ice, slippery and dangerous, and I will be walking this path many times today. This is the day of my “Hatsugama”, my first firing for the year. 

Returning to the house, I get the tray which I have prepared and carry it carefully to the kiln shed. On it are two sake cups from my last firing, a rice bowl with a handful of uncooked rice grains mixed with salt, a bottle of Nihonshu and a box of matches. The sake is a gift from an old friend, his favourite, a “Daiginjo” from Utsunomiya in Tochigi Prefecture, my old stamping ground. I open the bottle and pour sake into one of the cups, a cylindrical guinomi with strong throwing rings, a form based loosely on the shape of bamboo, filling it to the brim. A little of it spills on my hand as I lift the cup and place it on the brick beside the arch at the top of the door and the sweet fragrance of sake fills the kiln shed. The second guinomi is rounder, like an inverted shiitake mushroom, and I take it outside and fill it with freshly fallen snow. I place it carefully beside the first guinomi. Above them, on the metal frame of the kiln, is the “Kagami mochi” new year’s rice cake. I carry the rice bowl outside and sprinkle the mixture of rice and salt to the four compass points for protection and purification, then come inside and do the same in the four corners of the shed.


I pray.

I pray for a safe firing and a safe year. 

I pray that the pots will be blessed with the beauty of the flame. 

I pray for health, happiness, and peace for all my loved ones and all those who will use the vessels from this firing. 

I pray for the wisdom to do what is right and good.

It is six degrees below zero outside, but the pyrometer reads minus one inside the kiln as I pick up the matches. I strike one and put it to the tinder which I set under the fire grate in the mouth of each fire box when I finished stacking the kiln. As the fire starts to pop and crackle, I go around to the back of the kiln and open the damper fully to allow draft to flow through the kiln. It is imperative that the kiln heat slowly and evenly, as the pots inside the kiln are all raw, and although they have been thoroughly air dried,  there will still be free water in the clay from humidity which must be driven from the clay without damaging the pots. Particularly in winter, when the kiln is below freezing, one must be careful not to crack kiln shelves as well by heating them too fast. Keeping the fire just inside the fire mouths means that the flame is at least a metre away from the pots inside, having to travel the length of the fire box before entering the ware chamber. Being on the floor of the ash pit, rather than on top of the fire grate, also prevents the fire from burning to ferociously as air is not able to be drawn from underneath. The bricks of the fire box and the floor of the ware chamber start to warm as the heated air and smoke is drawn through the stack of pots inside, circuiting down through the exit port in the floor of the chamber, between the twin fireboxes, and up through the chimney at the back. 

Once satisfied that the wood is burning properly, I go back to the studio to mix a batch of soft fire clay slurry to seal the gaps between the bricks of the door. In a bucket I mix warm water and dry powdered “Dosembo” fire clay in about a 1:4 ratio to make it a thick porridge-like consistency. I stir with my hand so that I can feel it’s texture and make sure it is smooth and free of lumps. Carrying it back to the kiln shed, I start to smear it over the bricks of the kiln door with my right hand but leaving my left hand clean, carefully forcing the clay into and over the gaps to prevent draft from seeping through them between the bricks and sealing the kiln door. Starting from the bottom, I gradually work my way up, systematically and painstakingly. Sealing the door properly means that the only source of oxygen into the kiln is the fire mouth, and the only exit for exhaust fumes is the chimney or the spy holes. It therefore allows a much better control of the draft and atmosphere inside the kiln, either by adjusting the damper or by the amount of fire wood per stoke, the size to which it is split and the timing of each stoke. 

As I seal the door with my right hand, I keep a constant eye on the pyrometer to make sure the kiln doesn’t climb too quickly. This firing is starting from frozen, so I want it to climb at about seventy-five degrees celsius per hour, rather than the one hundred degrees an hour which I would fire to in summer. When the wood in the firebox has burned down to embers and the temperature starts to drop below the ideal gradient, I stoke five pieces of wood into each fire mouth with my clean left hand, then continue the sealing of the door with my right. At last the door is sealed, and I take the bucket with the remaining fireclay back the studio so that it doesn’t freeze solid, and wash my hands with soap and water before returning to the kiln. 

Venus, the morning star, shines brilliant in the ruby glow of false dawn above a jagged black horizon, and a shooting star streaks briefly through the fading indigo of night. The firing will continue through the day and into the night, gradually climbing in temperature until it passes thirteen hundred degrees. How I stoke and adjust the kiln will change during the day, and the pots within will undergo irreversible changes.  But for now, not quite an hour and a half since I lit the kiln, it registers one hundred degrees on the pyrometer, and the snow in the curved guinomi is starting to melt, becoming water. The free water in the clay of the pots has all turned to steam and fled up the chimney into the atmosphere, and water vapour rises from the drying fire clay on the kiln door. Perhaps it will return to earth as snow again, a new and unrepeatable crystallization of the essence of water.

I am reminded of another firing, ten years past, a day of fire and snow just before the earthquake, when I spoke with my daughter about life and death. About how I believe that a human soul is to the universal soul as a snow flake is to the life giving water which pervades our world. Ephemeral and precious, we are fragments of spirit in the world looking at itself and finding meaning. The libations that I make are symbols of that, acknowledging the “Genius Loci”, the spirit of this place and the generations who have come before us. They symbolise the changing nature of the universe and help me recognise and show gratitude to the greater forces which I borrow in order to practice my craft, to live and breathe, to be. And the understanding that I, too, will one day return to that from which I came, and that this firing, this day, this moment, is a blessing that should be cherished. 

And thus the year, the “Hatsugama”, the first firing, begins. Let’s pray that they turn out well, but let us also strive to make each moment, each action, the best that we can. For that is what defines us.

With these thoughts in my head, I stoke the kiln once more, and go back to the house for breakfast.

Friday 1 January 2021


Dawn breaks in the south east, beams of light reaching out across the valley, tinting the world in shades of red and gold. Countless flakes of snow falling gently through the air catch the light and send it sparkling across the landscape, as I stand by the warmth of the wood stove, mug of cappuccino in hand, and watch this morning’s overture through our front windows. A deep blanket of snow covers the world, the houses, the trees, the mountains, blurring the edges and sharpening the shadows. The snow shines lustrously in shades of pink and orange, glinting off the facets of innumerable crystals strewn over the garden. There is a quiet stillness in the world, even though it is full of the motion of the falling snowflakes and ever changing radiance of the sun in its inexorable journey across the sky.

Perhaps it is just another sunrise in an endless string of sunrises stretching back to the beginning of the world. A thread that will continue forward until the world ends. But today, I am standing at the fulcrum between the past and the future, in the shelter of my pillar and post, wattle and daub cave, bearing witness to this unique iteration of the cosmic dance. As my portion of the earth’s ever rotating surface slides once again beneath the event horizon between night and day, out of shadow and into light, the bubble of swirling gasses that protects my home from the vacuum of space filters and refracts the sun’s radiance like a kaleidoscope of infinite variation. The whirling eddies of the flaming sea which covers the sun will never again glow exactly as it does right now, the earth will never spin through this self same spot, nor the clouds ever billow the same way. 

Maybe it’s simply another fall of featureless white, like any other day in any other winter. Yet the drifts of snow are carved by the capricious wind, an ever changing accumulation of snow flakes beyond number. Flakes which have materialized from thin air up in the clouds, water condensing on motes of dust and freezing into hexagonal crystalline structures, no two the same. Floating on the breeze or driven by the gale, the earth pulls them gradually down where they gently settle upon her face. They gather into thick, deep layers, like precious gems, each one an unrepeatable experiment in possibilities. As I drink my coffee I marvel at the limitless variety of nature’s perfection.

And to some, it’s just another mug, one of many hundreds that I have made over the years. But, if you pay attention, you will find that they are all unique. This mug is this mug. The handle is smooth within the grip of my fingers, rising from the rim and curving smoothly down to rejoin in a spiraling tendril at the base of the cup. Ash which has accumulated on the surface of the clay inside the wood kiln, much as the snow settles on the landscape outside, has melted into a rippling glass which coats the throwing rings and chattering, pooling in the hollows of the texture and running in a rivulet down the side of the mug to hang as a droplet just above the foot. Where the flow of the flame has left the surface untouched by ash, in the leeward side of the handle and the body, the clay has flashed orange and gold like the colours of the sunrise through the clouds. A few stalks of Igusa rush have left delicate strokes of dark ash where they were bound around the pot, like branches in the snow. Every touch of my fingers, every stroke of every tool, every lick of flame, is here in my hands as the coffee warms them through the walls of the mug, its fragrance filtering through the frothed milk and cinnamon sugar, its flavour thrilling my senses as it flows over my tongue.

Nature will always find a form which is in perfect harmony with the complex forces which are at work upon it. And that perfection has nothing to do with sameness or uniformity. There are no two snow flakes, no two leaves upon any tree, no two people throughout all of history, that have ever been the same. From the cosmic to the microcosmic, each and every one is a unique and unrepeatable moment in eternity, wondrous and precious. We humans, nature self aware, bear witness to that wonder, and can become part of the process which gives new form to that wonder. Even if it something as unassuming as a mug of cappuccino on a snowy morning.