Japanese Raku Ware

Black raku ware tea bowl

This fired tea bowl first came into being when Sen Rikyu asked the tile maker Chojiro to make him a tea bowl for the tea ceremony. With these tea bowls, Chojiro subsequently became the first generation Raku ware master. Up until Rikyu, a tea bowl was always Karamono (Chinese things) or Kouraimono (Korean things). So Rikyu’s Raku tea bowl was the first one ever made especially for the tea ceremony.

raku ware tea bowls introduced by Sen no RikyuIn the Muromachi period tea drinking was done by a group of several people in a spacious room adorned with shelves especially for displaying Karamono of the highest quality. It was at this time that “tea battles” (Toucha) in which people gambled with their treasured objects in guessing types of tea became popular. (It would seem that love of Japanese for foreign brands goes back to this time.) Tea bowls made is from southern Song celadon porcelain and Tenmoku black-glazed stone ware were among the highly praised Karamono displayed at these gatherings.

But a succession of tea masters – Shukou, Takenou Jouou, and then Sen no Rikyu – rejected this slavish worship of foreign brands. They sought the antithesis of the pretentious, ultra refined Karamono sensibility in tea bowls that were beautiful precisely because of their rustic quality. The pitch-black tea bowls Chojiro made for Rikyu are the pinnacle of this sensibility. Rather than the flared, conical shape of Tenmoku tea bowls, these tea bowls are shaped so that both hands can snugly wrap around the circumference. Holding such a tea bowl in a dimly lit tea rustic tea room creates a sensation as if the tea bowl has vanished and only the tea itself remains cradled in the hands. Is then the key to Rikyu’s seemingly inscrutable way of tea in which every object is somehow wiped away until only the tea remains? Indeed these radical tea bowls mark the turning point when tea ceremony became about the tea and not about the tea utensils.

 
 

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