Modern serving of traditional tea

by Robert Yellin

If you’ve ever been fortunate enough to attend a tea ceremony, then you know that within the simplicity of movements, the quiet beauty of the room and the refined elegance of the utensils, there is a deep world where the moment becomes living art.

A tea master — chajin — pays attention with concentrated focus to all aspects of the ceremony, such as what type of scroll to hang, the season, the nature of the guests and possibly a theme for the event. To choose and match all the needed utensils for a Tea ceremony — and there are many — the host must be as creative as the makers of the utensils to deliver a performance that allows everything and everyone to harmonize. This is no easy task and takes years of study and practice.

If you happened to be a tea master for a day, what combination of utensils would you use? There’s now a splendid opportunity to test your own sensibilities at the National Museum of Modern Art, Crafts Gallery’s current exhibition “About the Tea Ceremony — A Viewpoint on Contemporary Kogei-Studio Crafts,” which shows until Nov. 23.

The exhibition showcases piees by 26 artists working in a variety of mediums that include glass, lacquer, metal, textiles, porcelain and stoneware. As you enter the first room, the curators have been thoughtful enough to arrange two settings of utensils so that guests can see how arranged utensils should appear in a tea room.

The first setting displays ancient works that include a 16th-century Bizen ware mizusashi (fresh-water) jar — the 16th century being the time that the tea ceremony developed into its present form — along with a nanban (southern barbarian) waste-water jar. Inside this glass case are also works in bamboo, metal and a fine scroll by the late Morikazu Kumagai (1880-1977).

Across the room is another case showing works of some of the greatest 20th-century giants that include a 1952 Shino incense case by Toyozo Arakawa (Living National Treasure, 1894-1985) and a stunning lacquer tea caddy by Tatsuaki Kuroda (Living National Treasure, 1904-1982), among others. Now that you now have the criteria for mixing and matching the needed tea utensils, you’re on your own to explore the individual works in the adjoining rooms.

One important aspect of this exhibition is to find how younger artists are approaching the tea ceremony, and there are a few artists still in their 30s who are valiantly producing works that speak to the present day. One such artist is Bizen potter Koichiro Isezaki (b. 1974), whose boldly faceted Black Bizen mizusashi container was chosen to grace the exhibition’s main poster. I was able to talk with Isezaki about how he viewed this exhibition, and about his own work and the tea ceremony.

“As an artist, I don’t think that much about the rules of a tea ceremony. My role is to make works that I enjoy and then let a tea master decide how they will integrate into a tea ceremony,” he told me when asked about his mindset when making chawan (tea bowls). He added, “I’ll fire about 40 chawan in my kiln, and out of those 40, only about 20 will be successful. And then out of that 20, only 10 or so will be works I will exhibit.”

In the exhibition, Isezaki is showing three chawan that are strong expressions in clay with a fine sense of balance, texture and temperament. He remarked, “I want to tell a story within my chawan that builds upon the process of forming, the beauty of the clay combined with the unpredictable firing. I also like my chawan to have a little sensuality as well.”

He concluded that he feels it is a great honor to be showing in such a prestigious show. And he offered hope for the tea ceremony when he commented, “In my generation there’s a growing interest in things Japanese and this naturally leads people to the tea ceremony and tea culture. I’m certainly one of those who are looking toward Japan again, and I just happen to make chawan. In the end, these days it seems we’re all searching for something.”

What is to be discovered in the cosmos of a tea room is certainly worth searching for:an inner world of silence and contentment matched with an outer world of beauty within the seasons and time. What could be more enlightening?

“About the Tea Ceremony — A Viewpoint on Contemporary Kogei-Studio Crafts” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Crafts Gallery (1-1 Kitanomaru-koen, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 102-0091) runs till Nov. 23. Admission ¥500 (free entry on Nov. 3); open 10 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Mon. For more information, visit www.momat.go.jp/english. Robert Yellin is a longtime resident of Japan who runs www.japanesepottery.com. He’s available to give lectures and/or guided tours to the great potting towns of Japan.