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teabowls: tidbits in the snow ii

updated fri 28 feb 97


Hiro Matsusaki on wed 12 feb 97

---------------------Original Message--------------------

I am gratified to learn that some clayarters enjoyed my previous "article" on
teabowls. Here's a sequel. I'll answer some common questions today.

First, the basic economics on teabowls. Is there a good market? Yes.
Teabowls are a versatile vessel. Functionally and aesthetically. You can
use them to drink coffee. Without clumsy handles, they look balanced even if
you deliberately make them asymmetrical. Heavy and thick ones are even
better. They are the opposite of machine-made plastic foam cups. Heavy and
stable, and colourful. Can be used as pencil holders on an executivr desk.
So, all it takes is a little user educaiton. They are less susceptible to
tip over accidentally and hold the liquid warm or cold for a long time. Just
a bit of pre- warming or cooling. That's all. Besides, we do not have to
make one thousand pulled handles. Lots of fun, when someone appreciate your
thick pots, isn't it?

This reminds me another tidbit. At one time, the Japanese imported tons of
small bowls, just bowls, thrown off the hump, bottom ring of rolled coil
attached, (instead of elaborately trimmed footring, elegant and sturdier but
time consuming), then once fired, etc. This was a logical and economical
attempt in order to sustain the high volume production. There's production
where demand is, or more appropriately where money is. Judging from tons of
discarded shards with bottom cracked, they were shodily made.

Teabowls may not keep coffee as hot as disposables, but we are used to
drinking cold coffee, anyway. We forget and we don't mind. Theoretically,
I know how to make a winter teabowl or coffee cup to keep the liquid warm,
without handles, but the secret cannot be divulged yet, until I shall have
negotiated my full retirement, and I may need the knowledge as a sort of
thrush fund for making pot politics. You know how important it is to be
popular and accepted for the peace of mind.

Jokings aside, there is a good market for teabowls in Japan. About three
years ago I had the privilege to attend a select pottery show in a
prestigious department store there. I saw beautiful teabowls showcased by a
resident American potter (or was it Japanese, I didn't think so, I honestly
do not remember). The person was a male who used Shino glaze ingenuously.
Like a venture capitalist, he knew his clay chemisty and used his technical
savvy to the best advantage. Just gorgeous. That is why I thought the
person was an American. It could have been a pseudonym for a female potter.

Actually, the law of supply and demand suggests there is a pauciy of good
teabowls in Japan. Why? Toward the end of the Pacific Conflict, 80% of her
cities were bombed out (in a desperate attempt to bring her into submission
before the atomic bomb became available, while others claim it was an
indiscriminate, wanton destruction of personal propery and civiliams against
the basic tenets of international law). A lot of good hitrorical pots were
gone, together with lousy ones. Hence, good market for both, wouldn't you

Second, green tea. The majority of Chinese tea we see in stores are not the
green tea I have been talking about, one fit for the materialistic tea
ceremony. The spiritual tea ceremony as practiced in Zen budhism temples
should be possible with just plain warm water for contemporation. But I have
not heard otherwise, yet. Whetever the green tea you find in stores in North
America is not up to snuff, although they sell a good variety of stuff.
Genuine green tea is expensive. It's not fermented or scented. Today, what
you normally find in stores as Japanese green tea is not even fit to drink.
Japanese food used to be healthy, holistic and natural. Not any more. I
ascribe this phenomena to the Americanization of Japan. Did you know that
the seven-eleven has the largest market share of all convenience stores over
there? Seven to eleven years in a row? As a reflection of recent economic
downturn, actually a wholesale depression of the entire society, there
appeared the cheap green tea substitute which tout definite health benefits.
Less than ordinary quality green tea is mixed with roasted barley, roasted
brown rice,or whatever strikes health consciousness. They have exotic, fancy
names. They must be good to drink, for sure, but they do not look green or
taste like the genuine green tea. Incidentally, do not confuse this
situation with the pottery market in an upbeat U.S. today. Japan tops the
G-7 nations for its accumulated national debt. No comparison to the American

Third, origin of tea ceremonies. Green tea drinking was an accepted practice
by the intellectual warriors and top ranking army officers in the turbulent
years where fiefdom lords engaged in geopolitics and fought each other to
expand the sphere of influence and gain econmic advantage over between 1500
and 1600. They did practice it in the fields, since more than 80% of
Japanese land is not arable, just forests, hills and mountains, on their way
to attack those who did not agree with them, especially immediate neighbors.
Green tea drinking gave them respite from the long march. Foot soldiers
were treated like mercenaries of today, and they did not benefit from such
elegant pastime.

Rijyu reputedly perfected the ritualistic side of the tea ceremony in its
current form. However, he favored black teabowls. Hideyoshi, the grand
marshall general who unified Japan, did not like the black colored ones. He
said that they did not show the green tea color well, and did not look clean
or sanitary. He favored white ones. Maybe he did not like the ritual
pomposity or stylized teahouse politics, as symbolized by Rikyu. Or, maybe
that's why he managed to reach where he did. He was a master logistician,
from all accounts which survived to this day, handwritten on non-acid paper
that has not crumbled and which paper bugs have found not nutritive enough to
devous. By the way, rice paper is a misnomer. It was made from tree barks.

Finally, the associated esthetics on teabowls, again. Form derives from
function. If ritualistic styles are more important than the act of drinking,
the vessels get treated accordingly, and elaborate meals accompany the
ceremony. For ordinary people, to enjoy the green tea after the meal, the
rice bowls suffice for daily use. The liquid can wash out bits of rice grain
clinging to the interior of the bowl. No need to soak it for cleaning again.
These rice bowls are relatively small. Two or three cupfuls of green tea
are commonly taken.

In contrast, a fair sized large tea cup, size reaching 4"h x 8"d is not
uncommon in a traditional restaurant featuring Kaiseki, genuine Japanese fare
made from locally available food and seasonings. Held on both hands and
brought to the mouth, it looks wider then the face of a lady. Only a small
amount of green tea is placed inside. The idea is to show the design of
such cups and elegant hands of those joining the ocasion to drink the green
tea. No manual labor is welcome there, I guess. What snobbery!

Seriously, many sushi shops routinely use a small, but tall and thick bowl to
serve tea to go with the raw fish dishes. It's shaped exactly like a coffee
mug minus the ubiquitous handle. With a name of the restaurant inscribed, it
should find mass markets, literally, of artisric quality, dispelling old,
tired bowls. The more ritzy and authentic the establishment, the more apt
for the management to take to such bowls. Tell them to serve coffee in them.

Personally, I have missed all those ?exotic" markets. I have been busy
making money doing something else. So, I am no competition. I never have
been to anybody in clay, anyway.

Hiro Matsusaki
FAX 1.403.963.7954 Phone 1.403.963.3809