Introduction to the variety of Japanese tea bowls

Chawan (jap. 茶碗) is Japanese for tea bowl. In Japan, also due to the Chinese influence, a great tea culture has developed which has also been incorporated into the national and especially the cultural heritage. The Chawan is one of the most important utensils in the Japanese tea ceremony, the chadō. The tea ceremony has followed certain rules for many centuries. When meeting one or more guests, they are served tea and light meals by a host. It is a ceremonial act that takes place at home or in a deliberately simple tea house. In addition to the Japanese tea ceremony, there are also Chinese and Koranic ceremonies. All of them are similar in their core, the finding of inner peace, but vary in their procedure and the utensils used.

Where did the Chawan came from?

The classical Chawan has its origin in China. There it was used by Buddhist monks of the monastery on Mount Tianmu (jap. Tenmoku) to drink their tea. On their travels Japanese monks acquired this new form of tea bowls and brought them back to Japan. The book Nihon Koki mentions that tea was first drunk in Japan in the Heian period, i.e. about 1200 years ago. However, this right was reserved only for the imperial family, aristocrats and monks. The rest of the population should eventually be busy and not waste their time drinking tea!

Over the centuries this changed and by the 12th century the custom of drinking tea had spread throughout Japan. By then the Chawan had spread to all strata of society and there was a demand for more and more tea bowls.

Japanisches Teehaus

To counteract the long transportation of goods and damage to the Chawan, the Japanese began to make their own copies of the Chawan in Seto (today's Aichi Prefecture). It quickly became known and can still be found as Seto ceramics throughout Japan. Today, Seto ceramics is one of Rokkoyō, "the Six Old Furnaces of Japan". It includes the first sites of Japanese ceramics. However, it can actually be assumed that there were in fact over 30 centres of ceramics production.

Wabi-Sabi and the Wabi tea ceremony

In the Muromachi period (1336-1573) a new concept, the Wabi tea ceremony, became very popular. Wabi-Sabi is an aesthetic concept that is specifically dedicated to the perception of beauty and simplicity. It is closely intertwined with Zen Buddhism and is an equivalent of the first of the Buddhist Four Noble Truths, dukkha.

At the Wabi tea ceremony, another Chawan quickly became very popular. The Ido-Chawan (井戸茶碗) originally comes from Korea and was used there mainly for rice. The Buddhist monk Sen no Rikyu (Tenshō-era, 1573-1592) preferred this new type of Chawan because of its rough simplicity. Transport was a problem here as well and he turned to the roof tile maker Chōjirō. Both were closely acquainted with Bhuddism and developed a tea bowl that did justice to Buddhist minimalism: The Raku-chawan (楽茶碗).

Raku ceramics at the heart of it all

This Raku ceramic is the first Japanese proprietary development for the tea ceremony and Chawan, which is why it still enjoys a very high reputation today. However, this is only one of the reasons why Raku ceramics come first. Another reason is that in the production of this ceramics, art and craft merge. At that time, Raku-chawan were individually fired in wood-fired kilns. The technical demands on the potters are high because the clay used is exposed to high stress during firing. On the other hand, it is an enormous expenditure of energy and resources to heat and maintain a wood-fired kiln at over 1000 °C. With this background knowledge it is easy to understand that the first 7 Raku-chawan, the Rikyu Shichi-shu, each have their own names. These are the 3 black (黒楽, kuro-raku) Chawan: Oguro, Hachibiraki and Toyobo and the 4 red (赤楽, aka-raku) Chawan Hayabune, Kimori, Kengyo and Rinzai. Because it is so exciting, we have compiled a detailed description of the raku technique.

In the further course of history, techniques, glazes and philosophies for the production of Chawan were always added. An indispensable example is the Oribe ceramics with its distinctive Kutsugata chawan, named after its inventor, the samurai and tea master Furuta Oribe.
The Kutsugata chawan (jap. 沓形茶碗) are tea bowls in the shape of shoes. It is not easy to describe the shape with one word, in my opinion "organic" is the most appropriate. The idiosyncratic shape is characteristic for tea bowls in the Oribe style.

schwarzer kutsugata Chawan

These have been produced in mini-kilns (potteries) since their invention. The first references to these ceramics can be found in the records of a travelling merchant. He arrived in Oribe's tea room in the 16th century and took part in a tea ceremony. There, literally, "For the usucha (thin tea), wonderfully curved Seto ceramics were used." was used. The description fits perfectly to the Chawan, which is designed in "shoe shape". The first more precisely datable evidence appears for the first time in the "Records for followers of tea", e.g. the Chaki bengyoku shu (Differences of fine tea utensils, 1671). In these, the category "new kilns" (nochigama) refers to "Furuta-Oribe ceramics". The tea bowls are declared to be a personal practice for practising tea.

Hochbrand Hangofen

The kiln revolution: the slope kiln

The kilns used since Raku ceramics could only fire the tea bowls individually. For the first time since the use of hillside kilns, several Chawan could be fired at the same time. These kilns are built on the slopes of hills, which allows them to use the convection of the combustion gases to generate particularly high temperatures. Hill furnaces are fired for over 60 hours and maintain the 1300 °C firing temperature for a long time. Because of this, the kilns are usually built in places where the necessary raw materials, such as clay, fuel and plenty of water, are available. These high temperatures probably led to the shoe shape of Oribe ceramics. The Chawan did not tolerate the temperatures as expected and began to deform. Until then, pit kilns had been used in Japan. Although these only have a small capacity, they are very easy to control. The slope kilns used now have an enormous capacity, but are difficult to control.

Originally, these deformed ceramics were regarded as scrap. However, according to the Wabi-Sabi philosophy there is no scrap. The tea masters attributed particular importance to these Chawan because of their imperfect shape, as they are related to the principles of tea (chadō). This later led the potters to adopt the organic form and consciously design Chawan in this new style.