Raku's hand-held universes and the unseen pots of Kamoda

by Robert Yellin

The phrase “contemplation of the everyday object as a mystical resource” graces the back of a catalog from the 1998 Raku exhibition that toured Europe. I say it over and over in my mind like a mantra, challenging myself to be aware of the things I live with and how they not only satisfy my needs but also nourish my spirit. Although the item referred to there was chawan (tea bowl), it could apply to anything.

Raku chawan, the pride of the tea world, have traditionally been the perfect match for whipped green tea and the accompanying, Zen-like tea ceremony; their thick-walled bodies insulate the warm tea without becoming hot to the touch — and yet they are light in the hand. In the strictly controlled realm of the tea ceremony, there is even a ranking of the best chawan that is expressed in the old adage, “Raku first, Hagi second, Karatsu third.”

Raku means “pleasure,” and the word derived from Jurakudai, the name of the recreation palace of warlord and art patron Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-98). Hideyoshi, a devotee of tea, gave a seal with the palace’s name on it to Joukei (1635-?), the son of Chojiro (1589-?), who worked under the guidance of tea master Sen no Rikyu (1522-91) to create the first Raku chawan. Initially, the pottery had been simply referred to as ima-yaki (now wares).

From now until Jan. 31, 2006, the Musee Tomoo in Tokyo hosts the Kichizaemon Raku XV Chawan Exhibition, featuring 38 rarely displayed chawan from the current Raku master.

The lineage of Raku potters has remained basically unbroken for the 15 generations since Chojiro. But Kichizaemon Raku XV isn’t resting on the laurels of his illustrious potting family by simply making chawan to please tea pundits and rich patrons. He is, as the mantra suggests, on a transcendental path that awakens not only his own creative energies but also directly connects him with the cosmic essence of Chojiro’s chawan.

Raku makes chawan so he can “meet the maker,” and to liberate his soul. As he wrote in the 1998 catalog, “What truly matters is not so much the attainment of a style as the outcome of creation, but rather the dynamic energy of the thoughts leading to the creation of a style, and the exploration inside myself of the truth of such energy.”

The energy emitted by this talented potter’s work is invigorating and profound. His forms run from standard cylinders to faceted, compressed ovals. While the shapes are sculpturally exquisite, what really draws the viewer in is the way Raku decorates them with abstract lines and color schemes that recall ancient poets writing on gold-tinged paper. Naturally we find the black that is so prized on a Raku chawan, yet in addition Raku uses reds, blues, greens, yellows and minerals that even do glisten like gold.

All 38 chawan were fired between the autumn of 1999 and spring of this year. At a recent press conference, Raku said that he was feeling quite dark and somber from the end of 1999 into the start of this century, and one can feel it in some of the forms where an intense pressure is suggested in their collapsing walls.

How such an artist could avoid feeling any pressure with all that history weighing on him? How does someone, whose sole output is tea vessels, approach the making of his work?

Raku writes in the 1998 catalog: “Without any preconceived image of the final work in mind, I start with the first cut of the cutting tool in a haphazard way and this is followed by another. The pressure of my hands on the clay is responded to by the counter pressure from the clay, causing distortion which results in a shape developing. The aim is not to express myself by using materials, but to rediscover myself bound inseparably with materials and nature.”

A very Zen way of thinking, and one tied in with a mu (nothingness) state of mind. They say a chawan maker doesn’t reach his peak until his 50s. Raku is now 56, and it is obvious that his creative energy is at full force, allowing him to push an honored tradition into further mystical, hand-held universes.

Musee Tomo is located in the Nishikubo Bldg., B1F, Toranomon 4-1-35, behind the Okura Hotel; (03) 5733-5131; open Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; admission 1,300 yen. For a detailed map, visit

Brilliance at Tokyo Station

Another outstanding exhibition in Tokyo, and one surely not to be missed by ceramic art fans, is the retrospective of Shoji Kamoda (see Ceramic Scene, Nov. 27, 1999 and Oct. 8, 2003) at the Tokyo Station Gallery until Oct. 23. What is especially significant about this exhibition is that many of the works are being shown for the first time.

Kamoda (1933-83) was a brilliant star of ceramics — ingenious, ever changing and gone in a flash. The trail of pots he left behind still inspires artists today, and collectors are ready to snatch up any of his works that come on the market (which rarely happens).

From Kamoda’s early, gorgeous green ash-glazed pots to his later prismatic, inlaid forms, the exhibition offers a rare chance to see the breath of his work. Small as the confines of the Tokyo Station Gallery may be, the lighting, display cases and layout are far superior to any major museum, and all the pieces are spectacular to behold up close. Unfortunately, this show is not only the first, and but will also be the last ceramic exhibition ever held at the Tokyo Station Gallery, as it is closing in 2006 and moving to another location in a few years time.

The Tokyo Station Gallery can be accessed from the Marunouchi side of Tokyo station; open 10 a.m.-7 p.m. weekdays, and till 6 p.m weekends, closed Mondays; admission 800 yen. For more information, visit en–zh/gallery/index–en.html

Relighting the fire

Togaku Mori’s 53-meter tunnel kiln was fired this spring for the first time in six years. He is a living legend of Bizen pottery, and a Tokyo exhibition showing works from the two-month firing will be held Oct.1-8 at Wako Hall, Ginza (closed Sunday). A map, in Japanese only, can be found at

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