Every tea accessory used during Cha no Yu (茶の湯), a Japanese tea ceremony is crafted using an ancient method. Raku is a classic method that was often used to make “Chawan”- the bowl used in Japanese tea ceremonies.
Raku Chawan or Raku tea bowls are recently gaining a lot of global attention, which is why it is important that you learn a thing or two about these tea bowls. After reading this guide, you will truly appreciate Raku ware.
Let’s get started;
What is Raku-Yaki?
Raku-Yaki is among the most famous types of teaware in Japan. There are other popular earthenware including NI-HAGI and SAN-KARATSU. Raku-yaki is the first earthenware, Hagi-yaki is the 2nd, and Karatsu-yaki is the 3rd of all Japanese earthenware. In other words, Raku-yaki is the most prestigious and highest ranked earthenware in Japanese tea ceremonies.
There is a long history behind Raku-yaki, and it is thought that the first of these tea bowls were made about 450 years ago by the founder of the Raku family known as Chohjiroh. History says that Sen no Rikyuh, a renowned tea master in 16th century, and the founder and inventor of Wabi-cha, which formed the basis of the modern tea ceremony, had Chohjiroh create Raku-Yaki as a suitable bowl to go with Wabi-cha during Japanese tea ceremonies.
Raku-yaki is a ceramic ware with a soft glaze. It is majorly divided into two types, including Aka-raku, which is red Raku-yaki and Kuro-raku, which is a black Raku-yaki. Kuro-raku, an earthenware which is darkened to take a black color, is made from the iron glaze. When heated at over 1000C (1832F), iron glaze color changes by reduction fire.
On the other hand, Aka-raku is made from clay, and it takes the red color since it is heated in a kiln at approximately 800C. The clay used to make this tea bowl contain ocher, which changes to red by reduction firing.
One surprising thing about Raku-yaki is its forming method. This tea bowl is formed by hand and spatula with the clay placed on a pallet, unlike most earthenware which are made using a kicking potter’s wheel or an electric potter’s wheel. The depth of the bowl is limited by how far a hand can go. The uniqueness and originality produced by bare hands will amaze you.
To help you better appreciate the ingenuity of this tea bow, it is important that we look into its history and history of the Raku Family. This will open your eyes and enable you to understand why tea lovers are appreciating and paying a top dollar for this earthenware.
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Brief History of Raku Ware
Raku ware founded by Chohjiroh, the first of the Raku family in the mid-16th century during the Momoyama period. During the Momoyama period, three colorful pottery came into existence, and Chohjiroh was one of the potters of the three. The oldest work of Chohjiroh, including the making of Raku-yaki, is well documented in history.
The History of Raku Family
It was in the 16th century that Cha-no-yu traditional tea ceremony gained pace and became very popular. It was associated with the status symbol. This ceremony was organized as a way of enhancing the upper-class culture values.
Sen-no-Rikyuh, one of the members of the ruling class in Japan, requested Chohjiroh, a renowned tile maker at that time, to make Raku-yaki so that it can accompany Wabi-cha, a teacup that has a style which is associated with an artistic sense of countryside simplicity.
Initially, Raku-yaki was called Ima-yaki, which loosely translate to ‘now ware’ in Japanese as it was unique and avant-garde at that time. Raku-yaki was later renamed to Juraku-yaki due to the fact that Raku home was near Jurakudai palace, where Sen-no-Rikyuh was residing. Juraku-yaki was later shortened to Raku-Yaki.
Since the time of Chohjiroh, the founder of the Raku-yaki, the tradition of Raku-yaki has been passed down from one generation to the other. The present head is Kichizaemon, who is now in 15th generation.
For over 450 years, this technique has been passed down across successive generations with the original design, the technique of making, and style retained- no modification has ever been made on any of its original design or mode of molding.
It is thought that the tradition of making this tea bowl not only serve as a way of keeping the tradition and history of the Raku family intact but also follow in the successful steps of predecessors.
Each generation aims to surpass its predecessors in terms of sales. This has led to excellent and remarkable progress in retaining the great tradition of the Raku family.
How Raku Ware Is Made
Traditionally, all raku potteries have always been hand-shaped rather than made using an electric wheel. This gives them a slightly irregular shape. Of course, most of them are similar in terms of design and volume, but you will find their indentations different. Originally, raku bowls were modest in shape and were never decorated. The small-sized bowl fitted on the hand and was meant to test the warmth of the tea.
Raku bowls are porous earthenware, which are made from low-firing temperatures and lead glazes. The process also involved the removal of pieces from the bowls while still in the kiln as they glow. However, the tradition of removing the bowl from the hot kiln and allowing it to cool in the open air stopped. Nowadays, potters have modified the technique of cooling the bowl in containers.
When it is removed from the kiln, where temperatures can be as high as 1000 degrees Celsius, crazing occurs on the glazed areas of the bowls. The red, glowing bowl is then placed in an airtight reduction chamber that is filled with old newspapers and sawdust.
This results in the ignition of the combustible materials, and this is where reduction or carbonization process begins. Once the ignition starts, the containers are closed thereby preventing any air from entering the containers. The intense reduction of air effect colors in glazed areas; any unglazed areas turns black from the smoke. This process takes a lot of precision, right from the degree of thermal shock to the timing.
After about 15 minutes of the reduction process, the potters plunges the bowl into cold water to cool it down. This is followed by thorough cleaning whereby toothbrushes and scouring pads are used to scrub the bowl clean.
Two Key Features of Raku Ware
- Round depression at the bottom and straightened sides
When shaping Raku tea bowls, potters take into consideration the depths and circumference of the bowl. Raku tea bowls often feature a round depression at its bottom, which is called chadamari. In Japanese, this indicates the area where the last tea grounds collects after drinking tea.
During the Wabi-cha tea ceremony, chadamari is among the unique celebrations that must be observed.
- Trace marking
As mentioned earlier, Raku ware is made through rapid temperature changes whereby low-firing and rapid cooling takes place. When removing glowing Raku tea bowls from the kiln, potters use tongs to handle them.
This leaves traces of imprinted tongs on the outside of the bowl, which adds to the bowl uniqueness. These markings help to show that the tea bowl is authentic. Therefore, when you see such marks, don’t mistake them for scratches, they are there for a reason, and they should be appreciated.
It is important to mention that Raku tea bowls might not be perfectly identical because they are entirely hand-molded. Therefore, if you order two or more bowls and you notice slight imperfections, just know it was not a mistake. The shape of the bowl, although quite identical, depends on the potter’s hand.
How to Clean Raku Ware
Raku potteries are easy to clean- you just need to dip a new pot in lukewarm water for 1 or 2 minutes. An older bowl requires only 30 seconds.
When not in use, you should store them in a dry place. Ensure that the tea bowl is dried thoroughly before storing. This because Raku ware is highly breathable and absorbent and thus can absorb the unpleasant damp odor. Also, moisture in the bowl can cause mold.
What Makes Raku Tea Bowls Stand Out?
Raku-yaki, or Raku tea bowls as people normally call them, are hand-molded earthenware originally made by potter Chohjiroh 450 years ago, who was commissioned by Sen Rikyu, Zen tea master, to design wares that would crown the tea ceremony.
The Raku wares are quite distinct from other wares, and their uniqueness and beauty date back to many years ago. The design and style of this tea bowl have been retained, and it resembles the original.
The shape of the vessels is simple- a wide, straight-sides tea bowl, with a narrow base. And because these wares are molded by hand rather than an electric wheel, each piece clearly shows the individuality of the potter’s hand, and this is what makes each of them unique in its own way. Their glaze colors include light-orange red, dark brown, cream, green, and straw color.
The unique thing about Raku tea bowls is that they have retained their design for centuries, and the fact that they are entirely hand-molded makes people appreciate them even more.
If you are a tea lover, a Raku bowl is a piece of teaware you cannot afford to miss out in your kitchen.
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