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Take a swig from the right cup

by Hiroaki Sato

ODE TO JAPANESE POTTERY: Sake Cups and Flasks, by Robert Lee Yellin, photographs by Minato Yoshihide and Yoshimori Hiroya. Coherence, 2004, 207 pp., 4,800 yen (cloth).

I’ve been a fairly good imbiber of alcohol ever since my high school days or earlier. My father was almost a teetotaler but loved inviting people over to make merry. On such occasions he made sure that enough sake and beer flowed, and we young ones weren’t really excluded. My mother — perhaps because she was the quintessential Japanese mother — seldom said no to me.

Still, I wasn’t familiar with guinomi, the name of one of the two types of sake containers that are Robert Yellin’s subject in “Ode to Japanese Pottery.” The reason, I thought, was simple: While a student in Kyoto during the 1960s, I was only an occasional drinker, and naturally it was beer, not sake, that was usually served.

But Aoyama Wahei, who provides “Ode” with a short history of sake utensils, suggests another: The term “guinomi” gained currency only recently. Kaneshige Toyo (1896-1967), who in 1956 became the first Bizen potter designated a Living National Treasure, popularized the term, Aoyama says.

For that matter, my friend Ueda Akira reports from Tokyo that some say Kitaoji Rosanjin (1883-1959) — “the boisterous, arrogant and brilliant artist/cook/potter,” as Yellin calls him, who famously declined the LNT designation in 1955 — was the first to call his own handiwork “guinomi.”

It may well be that this type of sake cup, which is far larger than the standard sake cup, or choko, was known only to connoisseurs before I left Japan in the late 1960s.

The word, in any case, still sounds like a description of an act rather than the name of a container, a point on which Akira, no mean drinker himself, agrees with me.

So I looked it up. The dictionary “Kojien” gives a single citation — from “Kosode Soga Azami no Ironui,” an 1859 kabuki by Kawatake Mokuami (1816-93). I checked the text and, sure enough, the term appears early on, in a scene where a bunch of rowdy samurai out to view plum blossoms starts drinking. Even better, the passage doesn’t just include the word but describes what it is: “tsutsujawan, ‘tubular tea bowl.’ “

My erudite friend Kyoko Selden promptly cited an earlier occurrence, in “Koman-sai Angya Nikki,” by Koikawa Harumachi (1744-89). It is one of the satirical short stories the author illustrated himself, and it came out in 1776. The word occurs in a scene where a group of goblins has a brief drinking session. As professor Selden noted, though, it is used as a verb: “chawan nite guinomi, ‘quaffing with a tea bowl.’ “

Quaff. Swig. Pull. Whatever the English word for it, the guinomi act suggests a certain raffish determination to drink of the sort we associate with a hero in 1950s’ westerns, a man of mettle who walks into a saloon, pours a shot from a bottle slid to him the length of the counter, and downs it in one gulp. Fittingly, most guinomi are squat and sturdy, like the Jack Daniels shot glass. Beside them, choko appear decidedly dainty and delicate.

Yellin, who contributes articles on pottery to The Japan Times, has lined up an impressive array of guinomi, along with tokkuri (sake dispensers) from a number of famous kilns. The guinomi — mostly made of ceramic unlike choko that are mostly made of porcelain — vary in shape, from tubular to flat or open-faced. Some even come on a pedestal of considerable height. All of them are lovingly photographed against a variety of settings by Yoshihide Minato and Hiroya Yoshimori.

The only kiln I can think of as missing in “Ode” is Satsuma (today’s Kagoshima). It was originally made by the Korean potters taken to that fiefdom following Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s ill-conceived, ruinous expeditions to the peninsula, in 1592 and 1596.

Though hardly to make up for the missing kiln, I’m glad to report that one of the guinomi I find particularly attractive in Yellin’s selection is by a Korean craftsman, Chi Soon Taek (1912-93).

One astonishing piece of work is also Korean, but this one is utterly mysterious. It is simply described as a “5th- to 6th-century Korean black stoneware guinomi,” with no further explanation. It has a cute handle, and appears on page 151.

More than a quarter of a century ago, I met one of the two American potters described in “Ode”: Richard Bennett. With a friend, I once visited the Japanese-trained, Harvard-educated American potter who had a kiln just outside the ramshackle town of Housatonic, Massachusetts. Yellin tells us, sadly, that Richard Bennett “has had an uphill struggle in America.”