Mizuya, fine Japanese tableware

When most people think of raku ware, it is no doubt the humble, yet transcendent chawan (tea bowls) first made by the ancestors of the Raku clan that come to mind. The soft contours and -red or -black simple glazes — so close to the earth — are perfect vessels to hold the vivid green of matcha (powdered tea) for the tea ceremony. Peering into a bowl, one feels like it holds the universe.

Raku is fired at a low temperature, which yields a soft, relatively porous and fragile type of pottery. It is delicate, lightweight and feels earthy to the touch. Most importantly, raku chawan are not thrown on a wheel, but hand-pinched in a process known as tebineri. This hand-sculpting, so seemingly simple, yet profoundly difficult to do well, is thought to impart the feeling of the potter directly to the tea-drinker's hand.

Raku chawan
Above: A black and white chawan. Below: Green raku boxes.
Raku boxes
raku plate, available on Mizuya.com
The Edo-era plate above is one of the original raku plates made for the Miyako odori, a spring dance festival in the Gion neighborhood. The bold dango (rice dumpling) motif is still made today.
Lobby of Raku Museum, (c) 2009 Kirk Vuillemot

Above: Lobby of the Raku Museum

Raku Museum
Address: 84 Aburanokôji Nakadachi-uri agaru,
Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto 602-0923
Tel: +81 (0)75 414 0304
Fax: +81 (0)75 414 0307
Website: raku-yaki.or.jp/e/index.html
Matcha (powdered green tea) served in a raku bowl

Raku was first called ima-yaki (now ware) because of its avant-garde quality when it was first made by Chojiro in the 16th century. It then came to be known as Juraku-yaki (later shortened to Raku), after Jurakudai, a castle built by the great warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The kanji (Chinese character) Raku means "ease and enjoyment." According to the Raku Museum, Hideyoshi presented a seal that bears this character to Chojiro, whom he greatly respected in part because his tea master Sen no Rikyu had a huge influence in the potter's career. Chojiro's family then adopted this name.

Chojiro's chawan have an intense spirtual quality that has seldom been matched through the ages — though many have tried. The Raku Museum in Kyoto houses some of these famous tea bowls, as well as the work of others in the Raku lineage, which is still alive and active today. The present master, Kichizaemon XV is highly respected and widely collected. His style; modern, original and bold, takes Raku in an exciting new direction.

Although most people can't afford a signed Raku family chawan, other potters work in the style, and raku tea bowls are readily available throughout Japan. They are perhaps one of the souvenirs most sought-after by travelers to Japan. However, finding a good piece can be a challenge. Look for pieces with depth and an earthy, spiritual quality. People often comment on how they must hold a chawan to see if they like it; it should fit comfortably in one's hands. Red and black are the most common colors, but tan is also found. Bowls with glazes that resemble the texture of an orange peel are highly desireable. Like most things, prices are in line with quality.

Raku mukozuke (c) 2010 Risa Sekiguchi

Raku ware is also perfect for food, and on Savory Japan, this is our focus. Since raku ware is delicate and easily broken, it isn't as popular as more durable imari or oribe ware in the modern Japanese kitchen. Instead, raku ware is often used as an accent, such as in small bowls for chinmi, or kozara (small plates.) Antique raku food vessels, such as the boat-shaped mukozuke above, are hard to find.

We have a limited supply of raku pieces in our gallery, Mizuya.