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Welcome to the World of Raku Tea Bowls

From extreme temperatures comes the hallmark glazed surface that is a quintessential feature of Raku tea bowls. This subdued appearance coupled with a mastery of form passed down in Japan for over a millennium offers tea ceremony practitioners a vessel that is not only pleasing to hold but subtlety designed to secure the tea whisk and scoop as the host prepares for the ceremony. Raku ware truly embodies the simplicity emphasized in the “Wabi-cha” aesthetic and has deservedly maintained a place among Japan’s tea ceremony styles. Keep reading to learn more about Raku ware and what to look for when acquiring an authentic Raku tea bowl.

What you need to know

➢  About Raku Ware

➢  How Raku Ware Is Made

➢  Features of Raku Tea Bowls

➢  How to Clean Raku Ware

➢  Popular Raku Tea Bowl Designs

About Raku Ware

Raku ware is a type of Japanese pottery used in Japanese tea ceremonies, in the form of chawan tea bowls.
It is said that Ameya, a naturalized Japanese born in China, brought Raku ware to Japan during the Eisho era (1504–1520). Raku ware was originally produced as tea bowls for tea ceremonies in the middle of the Tensho era (1573–1592). At that time, Sen no Rikyū, who was a renowned tea master during the Azuchi-momoyama era (1573–1600), taught Ameya’s son Chōjirō how to produce the pottery. Chōjirō was a roof tiler at the Jurakudai in Kyoto, the residential palace of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, a powerful feudal lord, general, and statesman of the Sengoku era, also known as the Age of Civil War (1467–1603). Chōjirō set about producing the pottery at the Jurakudai Palace after mastering the technique. His earthenware, therefore, came to be called “Jurakuyaki” or Juraku ware.

Jyōkei II, an heir to Chōjirō, received the official Raku seal from the Tokugawa Shōgun and started to use the name of Raku. The Raku family has since handed down their unique pottery technique to each following generation.

About Raku Ware

There is a Japanese proverb indicating the classes of the tea ceremony bowls: “Ichi-Raku, Ni-Hagi, San-Karatsu.” Loosely translated, the saying ranks Raku tea bowls above all others, followed by Hagi tea bowls, and then Karatsu tea bowls. Even today, it is widely accepted that Raku ware’s singular purpose is for the esteemed use of serving matcha at a Japanese tea ceremony.

How Raku Ware Is Made

With Raku ware, appreciation quickly leads to captivation.

Raku ware is not made on a pottery wheel but through a Japanese slab forming technique called “Tezukune.” A disk is first formed from the clay and slowly shaped into a bowl using only the potter’s adept hands and a paddle. In this fashion, the subtle variations in the bowl’s design can be deliberately planned.

Once sculpted, the unglazed tea bowl goes through an initial biscuit firing step before being glazed and placed in a cool kiln that is quickly heated to 800–1,200°C (approx. 1470–2,190°F) to obtain Raku ware’s soft appearance and unique style of glazing.

To make this process possible, fine powder from chamotte bricks is added to the clay before kneading, which increases the amount of microscopic air bubbles in the clay that make the pottery porous. The porous pottery can endure the stresses of expansion and contraction caused by rapid changes of temperature through firing and cooling. Though Raku ware could not be born from the fire without this porousness, this necessity along with the pottery’s propensity to absorb moisture make it extremely fragile, requiring extra care when handling.

Characteristic Features of Raku Tea Bowls

Soft. Warm. A form that is wholly unique in shape.
Preserved for generations, the time-honored techniques and sophisticated, ingenuous features of Raku tea bowls established by Sen no Rikyū can still be appreciated in tea ceremonies performed today.

Raku Chawan is developed for tea ceremonies by Sen no Rikyū.
Sophisticated ingenuous features can be observed everywhere about the tea bowls produced by Rikyū.

IEach Raku tea bowl is a merging of chance and planning. Though one of the most striking features, the glaze, is left to the elements, the potter’s skills show through in the nuanced features of shape. Looking at the fine example of Raku ware shown here (a Kuro Raku Chawan by Master Enraku), you will notice that the rim called the “kuchizukuri” is not even. Five subtle peaks called “gogaku” (a name used exclusively for Raku ware, where “go” means “5” and “gaku” means “mountain”) are formed to create a gentle wave.

This shape is formed not only for the sake of design but also to help secure the whisk and tea scoop when they are rested upon the bowl while preparing for the tea ceremony. Furthermore, the comfort of a smooth rim is essential, since the guest touches it to his or her lips.

Kuro Raku Chawan

II Additional considerations that must be made by the craftsman when shaping the bowl are the inner circumferences and depths of two key sections. The “chasenzuri” (outer circle shown in the picture) is where the tea whisk (chasen) touches the bowl while whisking. Of particular note, the Raku tea bowl shown here has a deep shape, making it is easy to whisk matcha tea.

  Raku tea bowls often have a round depression at the bottom like in the pictured example. The name of this feature in Japanese, “chadamari”, indicates the area where the last bit of tea grounds collects at the bottom after drinking the tea. The chadamari is one of several unique qualities of Wabi-cha to be observed and enjoyed during a tea ceremony.

Chasenzuri

III Yet another feature of Raku tea bowls is trace markings created by the kiln tongs. Raku ware is produced by the rapid change in temperatures through firing and cooling. When removing Raku tea bowls from the searing heat of the kiln, it is necessary to use tongs to handle them. Traces of the tongs’ use are then imprinted on the outside of each bowl. Kuro Raku (black-glazed Raku ware) in particular has a clearer imprint than Aka Raku (red-glazed Raku ware), because it is removed from the kiln at a much higher temperature of 1200°C (approx. 2,192°F).

These markings are evidence that the bowl is an authentic Kuro Raku Chawan. When buying Raku ware, such markings might be mistaken for scratches, but that is not the case. Rather, they are yet another unique expression of Wabi-cha dating back to Sen no Rikyū that should be appreciated.

traces of the tongs

How to Clean Raku Pottery

Rakuchawan

For Raku pottery, we recommend that it be cleaned by simply dipping the piece in lukewarm water — a new tea bowl can be submersed for 1 or 2 minutes, while an older bowl only needs to be submersed for about 30 seconds to keep it clean, prevent staining, and minimize potential damage from continued use.

Rakuchawan

When not in use, dry the pottery off with a towel. If a tea bowl is not dried thoroughly, it may become damaged and take on an unpleasant damp odor, since Raku ware is highly absorbent and breathable. If you do not dry it completely, the moisture will likely cause mold, as well.

Sazen Tea Raku Ware Selection

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