Mizuya, fine Japanese tableware

The Japanese ceramic tradition is arguably the finest in the world. With influences from China, Korea and the West, a talented lineage of artists and artisans, an adoring collecting public, and a food tradition that places utmost importance on tableware, it's only natural.

My husband and I have been collecting antique, vintage and contemporary Japanese ceramics for many years. We keep these in an antique mizuya from Kyoto. I can hardly believe it, but we're now finally nearing a point where we have just the right vessel for the right food, and we enjoy mixing and matching patterns and colors, taking into account the season, color and preparation of the food. Like many arts and crafts devotees before us, we believe that ceramics should be used, not put on a shelf, and these small bursts of artistry and color lend richness to everyday life. While we enjoy our own collection, we're humbled when we dine at fine ryo-tei, amazed at the depth of the tradition and innovation that the ita-mae (chef) shows in pairing just the right dish in the right season with the right food. It's a life-long pursuit, one that perhaps can't be mastered by a foreigner, or even a Japanese native wihout a long family lineage or huge pocketbook. Antique dealers recount how young chefs wistfully long for dishware that they won't be able to purchase for a few more years. I suppose we are all on the same path, and boy, is it ever fun!

Did you know that in the late 16th century, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of the most famous military leaders in Japan’s history, coveted ceramics so fiercely that he kidnapped Korean potters and brought them to Japan during what are now referred to as “The Pottery Wars?” These Korean potters were sent to the many fiefdoms to train Japanese potters, where their influence can be seen to this day. Korean pottery, especially humble ware made for daily use, was valued because it exemplified the Japanese aesthetic of “wabi sabi”.

Hideyoshi might have been a brave and brilliant military man, but in the world of tea, he was but a student. His tea master, Sen-no Riyku, who originated wabi tea, commissioned wabi sabi tea bowls, mostly in the raku (unglazed, low fired) technique. These bowls, made by the Korean master potter Chojiro, are so brilliant – capturing the essence of “the way of tea” so perfectly – that potters through the centuries strive to come even close to their spirit.

Sen-no Riyku believed that the way of tea should be spread to the masses. Because of his influence over Hideyoshi, he had substantial power over the aesthetic lives of the powerful elite, and his ideas helped shaped the vision we know today as Japanese art – and by extension – its very culture.

In this atmosphere of enlightened creativity, innovation flourished. Tea master and potter Furuta Oribe created boldly misshapen forms freely painted with brown motifs and dipped in green glaze, founding the Oribe style that continues to be popular to this day. This period marked a turning point in Japanese ceramics, where local Japanese pottery was increasingly preferred over imported ware.

By the late 17th century, as the Japanese aesthetic renaissance was in full bloom, Ogata Kenzan, the most revered potter in Japan’s history, started his ceramic studio in Narutaki, outside of Kyoto. He soon moved his studio to central Kyoto, where he prospered. The brother of the famous Rimpa artist Ogata Korin, he created Japanese versions of classic imported ceramics by adding freely painted decorative motifs and patterns from paintings, fans and lacquerware. Inspired by his brother’s paintings (in fact, Korin often designed his brother’s tea bowls) each piece is complete in itself, yet comes alive when food is placed artfully on it.

With the opening of Japan to the West and the ensuing Meiji era (1868-1915), Japanese ceramics, being handmade and imperfect, fell out of favor in a world that was rapidly modernizing. Some Japanese households a Western style, favoring tables and chairs to traditional dining. This led to a rise in Western ceramics such as china, which at first had to be imported.

In the meantime, potters throughout Japan who were producing everyday dishes had a hard time making a living, and many gave up and turned to farming and other careers. Japan’s rich ceramic tradition was in danger of vanishing.

In the 1920s, influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement in England and by the writings of William Morris, Yanagi Soetsu, a collector of folk pottery and art, strove to reverse this trend. He and potters Kawai Kanjiro and Hamada Shoji formed the Mingei movement (a term that Soetsu invented-) which means “art of the people”. His book The Unknown Craftsman, which celebrates humble, anonymous folk pottery, is considered a classic to this day.

Thanks to the Mingei movement, which was perfectly timed to coincide with a return of interest in Japanese aesthetics in the nationalistic Taisho era, Japanese pottery traditions were once again revived, and the public learned to appreciate folk pottery.

Japan now supports a healthy ceramics industry. Not only are potters of famous lineages selling enough to make a living; there are also independent young potters who have struck out on their own, driven only by their talent and creativity. One of our favorite pastimes is going to exhibitions and craft fairs in Japan, hoping to discover new artists, and visiting the artists we know to purchase some of their latest works.

Start your exploration of Japanese ceramics with the links to the left: brief introductions to Imari, Mimpei and Oribe ware. We will be adding other styles, including Raku, Karatsu and more. Also visit Mizuya, our online gallery for fine Japanese tableware.

Next: Lacquerware

An array of colorful antique mugiwara, imari and ao-kutani illustrate how ceramic dishes come alive with food.
Raku tea bowl, Raku Museum
Contemporary potters such as Tomonori Koyama continue the 16th century Oribe tradition to this day