The beauty of the dark side
By ROBERT YELLIN
for The Japan Times, Feb. 10, 2001
Black is usually associated with the "dark side" -- evil, frightening, and negative. But in the Way of Tea, a black chawan (tea bowl) is prized above all others.
This is partly due to the fact that the great tea master Sen no Rikyu favored black chawan, a preference some say may have cost him his life. Even though he knew that his lord, Hideyoshi, despised black (it supposedly reminded him of his lower-class upbringing), Rikyu dared to serve him tea in a black chawan. It was the perfect vessel for his wabi cha: a Zen-like universe in a black hole.
Rikyu particularly loved a Setoguro (black Seto) chawan known as Oharagi (Ohara wood), and the inscription on the lid of its box is attributed to him; it is a treasure of the tea world.
The finest Setoguro chawan, fired at the Sengen kilns outside Tajimi, Gifu Prefecture, are called hikidashi-guro ("pulled-out black"). They were made for only a very brief time, in the Tensho and Bunroku eras (1573-1596), and then vanished. A revival began in the 1920s, led by Kato Tokuro and Arakawa Toyozo; both made spectacular Setoguro chawan.
I've seen some decent Setoguro chawan made since these two legendary potters were active, but none come close to those of Tsujimura Shiro (b. 1947). Tsujimura is showing about 100 hikidashi-guro pieces at Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi's sixth-floor gallery until Monday (Feb. 2001).
Momoyama hikidashi-guro chawan are few in number, quite rare and expensive. The Momoyama potters and their modern followers like Arakawa used an ogama (large kiln) and fired for days. Inside those kilns were various styles, like Shino and Ki-Seto. A few pieces were placed strategically near side holes, to be plucked out (hikidashi) of the kiln.
Why were they placed near a spy hole? In the beginning, hikidashi-guro bowls were not intended as chawan but as temperature test pieces; they were plucked from the kiln at the height of the firing. Many of them were doused in water in their inferno state, turning them black instead of the brown that comes from the oxidation of the iron in the glaze.
All of the chawan have tong marks that are scars left from their sudden baptism. The tong marks add to the beauty of the piece, like a prop on a stage enhancing the drama. Other points are fingerprints, crazing, stone bursts and fissures.
Again, it was the "seeing eye" of Rikyu that took them from the side of the kiln and into the chashitsu. Many a potter in the West would want to hide these imperfections, yet the beauty of wabi is exactly in these imperfections. It allows the materials and the process to speak, and even more than other styles, the process is important for hikidashi-guro.
Tsujimura started on his hikidashi-guro project just about three months ago and has since fired over 500 chawan! Quite amazing, yet Tsujimura is capable of that type of intensity. He told me that he was firing his kiln often, sometimes three times a day. Tsujimura's kilns are very, very small and hold only a few bowls at a time. On top of that, his firing time is only three hours.
Tsujimura has the right spirit for making hikidashi-guro. That spirit is essential since any hesitation, weakness or posturing shows right up; not just any potter can form hikidashi-guro chawan. Tsujimura is a chajin (tea master) himself and trained in a Zen temple before becoming a potter. He taught himself potting, not emulating some honorable sensei. That gave him freedom to create his own work.
The typical hikidashi-guro chawan has a very low foot and broad base with almost straight-up vertical sides. This was done to make it sturdy and easy to grab when it needed to be taken out of the kiln. Tsujimura also makes some distorted kutsu-gata ("shoe-shaped") bowls in another black style known as Oribe-guro. Those have a much thicker lip. The show also includes works of his in other styles, such as Iga and Shino.
I was drawn into many of the black-as-night chawan, but there was much more color going on than just a jet-black glossy surface: subtle reds from the iron, chocolate browns from the ones that weren't doused, and star-filled skies on others.
A nice contrast to the black is the white clay that is left unglazed on the base. It's OK to pick up the chawan, but it's polite to take off all rings and to lift it only a few cm above the display counter.
Tsujimura has done only one black chawan exhibition before, in Germany. At last, he's brought that magical color and his spiritual chawan back to his own homeland.
A bonus in going to Mitsukoshi is they're also having a rather large sale and exhibition of works by Mashiko's first Living National Treasure, Hamada Shoji (1894-1977), until Feb.19. A retrospective focusing on Hamada and Bernard Leach is also on at the Mingei-kan until March 25, 2001.
The Japan Times: Feb. 10, 2001
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CLICK HERE for another review of this exhibition, one with more photos.
CLICK HERE for Japan Times story, Jan. 2003.