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Magic of Momoyama Mino Still Shines Across the Years

for The Japan Times

Let's take a walk back in time, say to the 1570s. Not just any ol' hike through the woods, but a pilgrimage to the birthplace of some of Japan's greatest ceramic wares.

We find ourselves in the hills surrounding Toki and Tajimi cities in Mino Province, now in southern Gifu Prefecture. Many new kilns have been established by potters fleeing the frequent battlegrounds of Owari Province, where the great kilns of Seto are. Notably, one Kato Kagemitsu (1513-1585) relocated here in 1574 and opened kilns in Okaya, Ohira and Kujiri that fired some of the Shino-ware masterpieces of the Momoyama Period (1573-1615).

Nerikomi Shino (Mino Ware of Momoyama Period)

Nerikomi Shino water jar with "iroha" underglaze iron design; Mino Ware, Momoyama Period

Kato was under the personal protection of none other than Oda Nobunaga, the great warlord who began the reunification of Japan. This vividly shows the important status that some potters had. Able to peacefully concentrate on throwing and firing, Kato and his crew introduced other classic ceramics: Setoguro (black Seto), Ki-Seto (yellow Seto) and Oribe. With the inclusion of these wares in the tea ceremony, the Japanese ceramic scene took on a new dimension and one that has captivated ceramic lovers ever since. 

A sweeping look at some of the best of these Momoyama Mino wares (and some contemporary work as well) is at Nihonbashi Takashimaya until Aug. 29, 2000, and will appear in Mishima Sano Museum between Oct. 6 and Nov. 6, 2000. 

The four Mino styles relate exclusively to the tea ceremony, and we see all sorts of serving and drinking vessels here. First and foremost is the chawan (tea bowl). Up until the Momoyama Period fancy imported Chinese wares (karamono) or quiet Korean wares were the stars in the tea room. Then the winds of fortune changed for costly imports and the purely Japanese Shino chawan stole the spotlight.  

Oribe incese box (Mino Ware, Momoyama Period)

Oribe incense box with "chrysanthemum helmet" design; Mino Ware, Momoyama Period

The finest Shino chawan were fired from the 1570s until the early 1600s, yet the word Shino  itself doesn't appear in records until the early 1700s. Kyoto aristocrat Konoe Yorakuin (1667-1736) lists four Shino pieces in "Kaiki," his record of tea gatherings. Indeed, Shino wares were used before that time but were referred to as "white Ise Tenmoku" or sometimes just simply as "small white tea bowls."

There is much mystery surrounding old kilns, and no one is even sure where the name Shino actually comes from. Many believe it was taken from Shino Soshin (1440-1522), but why would the name be taken from someone who had already passed on when Shino ware was first  made?  

Another case to illustrate the rewards and respect Mino potters were given is evidenced by Kato Kagenobu (d. 1632), who, in a 1597 proclamation by Emperor Ogimachi, was made titular governor of Chikugo Province. Quite amazing, for all he did was present the Emperor with a "white-glazed tea bowl," most likely a Shino one similar to the ones in this exhibition. 

Black Oribe Chawan (Mino Ware, Momoyama Period)

Black Oribe Tea Bowl
Mino Ware, Momoyama Period

It is that creamy whiteness that has endeared Shino chawan to chajin (tea  people) for so long, even to this day. The whiteness comes from the feldspar glaze that varies in thickness and evenness. Some parts where the glaze is thin have red fire markings (hi-iro) and parts of the glaze look like the rinds of citrus fruits. Another  decorative technique that originated with Shino is the iron-underglaze painting of simple mountain scenes, single Zen-like  lines and textile designs.  

There are a few different styles of Shino and in the current exhibition one will walk past e (picture) Shino, nezumi (gray) Shino, muji (plain) Shino and one very interesting nerikomi (marbled) Shino mizusashi (fresh water jar). 

As you walk through the exhibit you may notice that there are many Shino chawan, plates and such, but no Shino chaire (tea caddies) or hanaire (vases). Well, some forms just don't work well with a certain glaze. I've rarely seen a Setoguro mizusashi or a Ki-Seto hanaire, and for good reason. Flowers just look better in a darker colored vase, and a big black mizusashi would command too much attention in the very subtle, understated tea-room setting. Yet food in Ki-Seto wares looks appetizing, and matcha (whipped green tea) in a Setoguro chawan is mesmerizing.

So the potters had coordinating directors of sorts. One of the most famous has a style named after himself: the tea master and gentleman samurai Furuta Oribe (1544-1615). These wares are very easy to identify with their emerald green glaze, fanciful designs and distorted shapes. Foreign influences during the Momoyama Period had a profound impact on the Muromachi monochrome mentality; it had played out its artistic welcome, and the new foreign goods that  entered the country sparked the imagination of many, including Furuta. Looking at some of the larger tokkuri it's easy to notice the similarity of shape to Venetian glass. Some of the chawan are called kutsu-gata (shoe shape) for their resemblance to Portuguese shoes. In any case, Oribe wares were like a brilliant fireworks display over the land and set free the artisans' minds to create the colorful Kyoto wares of the Edo Period. 

Oribe wares in this exhibition include chawan in the Kuro-Oribe style, te-bachi (handled dishes), small chaire, and mukozuke (deep side dishes).

Ki-Seto is said to have been the outcome of the attempts of potters to recreate Chinese celadon wares. A fortunate mistake, for a new ware was born. The ash glaze looks like deep-fried tofu and has been given the name aburaage-de. Almost all Ki-Seto wares are serving utensils; only two very rare chawan are on display. Setoguro is represented exclusively by chawan. 

There is so much to know about Mino wares: the introduction of new kiln technologies, hybrid styles and the spread of the tradition. It will have to wait until another time. The exhibition also offers a look at how the glory days of Mino have influenced eight contemporary potters and these include such legends as Rosanjin Kitaoji (1883-1985), Arakawa Toyozo (1895-1985) and Kato Tokuro (1898-1985). 

The present-day Living National Treasure for Shino, Suzuki Osamu, is represented, as is the Kyoto potter Yanagihara Mutsuo, rather out of place; I presume he was added to show the distorted and warped mentality of Oribe-influenced wares.

Not the best way to end such a fascinating walk, but one that leaves the heart praising the past achievements of Japanese potters and sees the mind guessing at the possibilities of what the future holds for Mino pottery. Admission 800 yen.

The Japan Times: Aug. 26, 2000
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