Fired with Flavor
By ROBERT YELLIN
for the Japan Times, May 26, 2002
The Hagi yunomi (tea cup) on my desk is stained from years of use, and some might even say it looks a bit shabby. I prefer to call it full of aji (flavor), the way a pottery connoisseur describes an item with character and patina.
A Hagi yunomi is famous for going through seven stages of change and deepening in aji as more green tea is poured into it. That's how it is with most stoneware yunomi, unlike porcelain that really never changes even after the passing of centuries -- how dull.
A great joy of collecting and using Japanese stoneware pottery is to notice these subtle changes in color tones and crackles that form on a piece. Nowhere is such change easier to find than on the containers used to enjoy steeped green tea, our healthy and adored ocha.
The basic teacup is called a yunomi. Almost all potters make them ranging from large production kilns to living national treasures. This being so, the prices are also wide-ranging, yet a fine yunomi can be found for less than 10,000 yen.
Some yunomi styles rank higher than others for various reasons, such as their ability to insulate or the coloration of the body, which enhances ocha's emerald-green color.
A white Shino yunomi, for example, with its thickly applied glaze, almost never feels hot to the touch and the splendid ocha color is clearly seen. In contrast, a Bizen yunomi is unglazed and quite hot to the touch. On top of that, the dark rusty brown Bizen clay makes it near impossible to observe shades of ocha green.
Yunomi are basically found in a tsutsugata (simple cylindrical shape; see images at right). Recommended stoneware styles for yunomi are Hagi, Shino, Karatsu and Mashiko (see Style Guide for style descriptions). Of course, porcelain yunomi are made, but like Bizen, they are very hot to the touch. What they do have going for them though is their milky-white bodies that allow the beauty of ocha's color to shine.
Other styles worth looking out for are Kakiemon and Kiyomizu. Teapots are called dobin. They usually have a twisted vine handle, globular body and a disc-like, finial-topped lid. Like yunomi, dobin are found in almost all styles of Japanese pottery, but it really doesn't make much difference which kind you use.
The smaller tea pourers with side handles are known as kyusu. The largest production center is Tokoname (situated south of Nagoya), and the ones from there are the red burnished ones often seen in restaurants. Kyusu are also used to steep high grades of ocha and are used with much smaller yunomi, often looking like thimble-size doll cups called sencha teacups (see photo at bottom of page, right column).
For more formal settings, a wide-mouthed cup called kumidashi chawan is used to serve ocha. Chawan means tea bowl. These are often presented resting on a lacquer saucer and were originally served to guests waiting to enter a ceremonial tearoom.
Unlike yunomi, which are often sold individually, kumidashi chawan are usually sold in sets of five, as are sencha teacups. A decent set starts at around 25,000 yen or so.
Speaking of prices (which I think is part of learning about any art form and not vulgar at all), yunomi are cheaper than the much smaller-size guinomi (sake cups). Because of this, yunomi are termed zakki, or common crockery.
But so much is to be found in the common. As the Zen monk-poet Santoka said:
"Truth is seeing the new in the ordinary."
Or as one potter put it:
"Yunomi can be used by anyone, regardless of age, and it is also the last item removed from the dining table. It is there at our sides for many hours during the day and brings us comfort."
Just like the Hagi yunomi on my desk.
The Japan Times, May 26, 2002
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See nearly 200 examples of
tea ware at the wonderful site of
Teaware Potter Richard Milgrim.
Includes photos of chawan, chaire, mizusashi, and other types of tea ceramics.