Tea bowls, simple emblems of power

by Yoko Haruhara

Special To The Japan Times

“Ido Tea Bowls: Treasured Possessions of Muromachi Daimyo,” currently showing at the Nezu Museum, presents an array of 72 rare tea bowls that were once owned by renowned warlords, tea masters and Buddhist temples. Produced by country potters in kilns in Korea’s South Kyungsang province, these bowls were originally for domestic use and became treasured by Japanese tea masters and Muromachi Period (1338-1573) warlords for their rustic simplicity and rarity. They came to play a pivotal role in Japanese history.

To explore the history of these masterpieces, we must look back to the 16th century, a period of civil war in Japan, when the art of the tea ceremony became one of the most important political tools of the time. While the tea ceremony practiced by the aristocracy and warlords of the early 1500s had been modeled after an elegant approach to serving tea that originated in China, the influence of Zen Buddhism soon led to it developing in Japan into a new form.

Under the creative influence of leading tea masters of the day, such as Sen-no-Rikyu (1522-1591), a much more spartan approach to the tea ceremony developed that valued rusticity and simplicity. Known as wabi-cha, it emphasized ritual to reinforce the communal nature of life and the spiritual bond that its practitioners believe exists between all people. For the first time, in place of the then-standard practice of offering each guest a separate bowl of tea, the tea ceremony incorporated the serving of “thick” tea, called koi-cha, to be shared communally from a single bowl that was passed among participants in the ritual.

Impressed by the communal symbolism of this ritual, 16th-century warlords began practicing the ceremony with their most favored retainers and allies to strengthen political allegiances. In the hands of the warlords, humble Ido tea bowls were suddenly elevated in status to become emblems of power, bestowed to vassals as rewards for service and military victory, and ensuring loyalty. The tea ceremony reinforced hierarchy through ritual, and the sharing of tea in such settings created blood brother-like bonds between those lords.

When viewing this exhibition’s rare Ido tea bowls, which were produced during a narrow time window of approximately 100 years during the 16th century, it helps to understand the aesthetic code that dictated their favor. Given their large size, Ido bowls were ideal for the sharing of thick tea, and they were also imbued with an organic beauty, befitting the Japanese wabi aesthetics of rusticity and simplicity.

Nineteenth-century tea masters classified Ido tea bowls in three categories: O-Ido (large sized), Ko-Ido (small), and Ao-Ido (Blue Ido). The blue bowls were named for the bluish-green hue, caused by the oxidation process during kiln firings, which overlaid their predominantly yellowish color. The tea bowls on display in the Nezu Museum follow this classification system.

The most celebrated Ido tea bowl exhibited is “Kizaemon,” an O-Ido designated a national treasure. The bowl eventually became the possession of Lord Matsudaira Fumai (1751-1818), daimyo of the Izumo clan and an avid collector of tea utensils. Fired with a yellowish glaze known as biwa-iro (loquat color), the bowl has a tilted body and is covered with small imperfections and cracks characteristic of such Ido bowls.

The charm of such imperfections resulted in part from the brittle and porous quality of the clay used to make Ido bowls, which over time would crack and chip. The patina of age and wear from repeated use also made these vessels even more prized by their owners. The practice of the time to mend them was to paint over the chipped areas of the lip with brown lacquer. If you examine the bowls closely, you will see that there are darkened spots on their lips, indicating where lacquer has been applied.

Prominently displayed in the last section of the exhibition room is the famous “Shibata” Ao-Ido bowl, named after the warrior Shibata Katsuie (1522-1583), to whom Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582) bestowed it for his loyal service. That tea bowls were awarded names signifies their role in Muromachi society as powerful objects accorded as much recognition as human beings. They were considered as prestigious as prized swords, presented by warlords to their most valued vassals.

Citing the central role of the tea ceremony in Muromachi politics, the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598) wrote in a letter (printed in Herbert Plutschow’s “Rediscovering Rikyu and the Beginnings of the Japanese Tea Ceremony”), “For Nobunaga, tea has been part of the Way of Politics. I shall never forget, in this life or the next, that Nobunaga bestowed on me this privilege of practicing tea.”

His words speak volumes about the place of tea-ceremony and tea utensils in this chapter of Japanese history, as well as about the fascination they continue to hold for the public today.

“Ido Tea Bowls: Treasured Possessions of Muromachi Daimyo” runs till Dec. 15; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥1,200. Closed Mon.

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