Crafting the tea demon in Hagi

by Robert Yellin

Psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-1970), in his theory of self-actualization, said, “If you plan on being anything less than you are capable of being, you will probably be unhappy all the days of your life.”

At 96 years old, the grand potter of Hagi, Miwa Jusetsu (formerly Kyusetsu XI) is a very happy man indeed. A Living National Treasure, Miwa once wrote, similarly to Maslow, that “the arts are an expression of individuality, an exposure of one’s character, and I know that the full-realization of one’s character is the most important thing.”

How can a maker of chawan — tea bowls — express his inner soul in a form of such extreme limitations? A chawan is certainly not a canvas where the possibilities of texture and color are endless. Nor does it allow for distorted sculptural shapes that would render it useless — after all, a chawan is meant to be used to drink whipped-powdered green tea. It’s a bowl, pure and simple.

But Miwa will have none of that. To him, a chawan is a hand-held cosmos, and you can see why in a retrospective of his illustrious career at the Craft Gallery, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo until Sept. 24. On display are a total of 88 chawan that date from 1964 to this year, selected from the 191 pieces produced during his long career. At the recent opening, a speaker noted Miwa was two months older than the gallery, which was built in 1910, the year Miwa was born.

Like many pottery styles, Hagi ware derives its name from its home, a former castle town located on the Japan Sea in Yamaguchi Prefecture. The old chawan adage goes “Raku first, Hagi second, Karatsu third” in terms of importance, and for centuries, Hagi has been considered a perfect vessel to enjoy tea from. For chajin — tea men — not owning one would be the sure sign of lack of culture.

The first Hagi wares — glazed, high-fired stoneware — originated with Korean potter Li Kyong, who was invited to Japan by Lord Mori Terumoto after the 1593 invasion of Korea. Li, who changed his name to Saka Koraizaemon, made pots that were mirror images of the Korean peasant rice bowls that later came to be called Ido Chawan in Japan.

Quite a few potting centers in western Japan, such as Agano, Takatori and Satsuma, date their beginnings to the same period, and for the similar reasons. Local daimyo focused not only on war activities but also on the greater world in chashit su — tea huts — and were intent on setting up potteries to supply the needed chadogu — tea utensils. The potteries were a matter of pride that revealed one’s cultural level and, more practically, produced gifts for retainers and often a way to make a little cash for the daimyo.

In the year Kanbun 3 (1663), a new kiln was founded near Hagi in Matsumoto by the first Kyusetsu, Miwa Chubei Toshisada. Both his and the Saka family served the Mori daimyo until the Meiji Restoration (1868). At that time feudal support for the kilns were extinguished and Hagi, like many potting centers throughout Japan, faced tremendous hardships. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that regional kilns found new energy in a tea revival. In Hagi it was Miwa Kyuwa (1895-1981), Jusetsu’s older brother, who was responsible for breathing new life into the style.

Kyuwa’s chawan are graceful and elegant, and it is easy to see his influence on Jusetsu’s earlier chawan. Yet it’s Jusetsu’s Oni-Hagi (Devil) chawan that set him apart from any Hagi potter ever known.

Miwa once wrote in the quarterly Honoho Geijutsu, “I often ride my bicycle to the Japan Sea, which is so different from the Pacific Ocean or the Seto Inland Sea. The waves are so rough, even if there’s only a light breeze. I often lose myself while watching them crash on the shore. I have only just recently been able to put that turbulent feeling into my chawan.”

Inspired by the rough sea, Oni-Hagi chawan are in direct contrast with the more tame and traditional Hime (princess) Hagi. The creamy glaze seen on Oni-Hagi are mostly of a pure ivory color that sometimes has shades of pink or blue and ishihaze — small stones — bursting out from them. They have a coarse, almost grotesque look to them, especially where the thickly applied glaze has crawled during the firing, leaving large chunks of the body exposed over the gritty, porous clay.

A few short videos set in the exhibition show Miwa at various stages of the production process. Miwa uses a special mountain clay called daido into which he adds large portions of sand to give it a coarse, earthy feel. He kneads the clay the old-fashioned way by slapping a large pile on the floor and trampling it with his feet for up to an hour. After forming the piece — and his signature kodai footring, often in a split cross called a warikodai — he then dips or ladles onto them a feldspar glaze mixed with various kinds of ash. The pieces are loaded into a wood-burning kiln in a stacking style called tenbin-zumi — balance piling — on the kiln shelves, a technique that requires extreme skill and experience. Miwa fires his kiln for about 30 hours, raising the temperature very quickly and intensely stoking the fire box.

It’s amazing to see the evolution of Miwa’s chawan from his ‘soft-spoken’ early ones to the roaring, near Noh madness of his latter Oni-Hagi, even the ones made this year. Only someone at one with himself, his materials and the universe could create works in this limited clay canvas that give off such an aura of pure energy and grace.

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