Considering Chato: Utakata

1 Shuhally’s small tea room (chashitu (koma)).

The word chato literally means Japanese tea-ware ceramics. Sado, the Way of the Tea, is based on Zen philosophy and shows the path to the ultimate spirit of Japanese hospitality. Even though the practice of the Way of the Tea feels removed from the everyday Japanese secular world, its essence and utensils, the chato, keep grabbing the hearts of Japanese people and never seem to let go.

The Draw of Chanoyu

Every few years, several major Japanese museums put together special exhibitions on tea wares and teabowls at the same time, and last spring was one such occasion. Tokyo National Museum (www.tnm.jp/?lang=en) held a special exhibit called “Chanoyu: The Arts of Tea ceremony, The Essence of Japan,” which focused on the evolution of the arts of chanoyu (the tea ceremony) from the Muromachi period (1336–1573) to modernity. For the first time in 37 years, a large-scale tea ware show was presented, and it attracted 200,000 visitors.

2 From left to right, Yasuko Hasegawa’s rinse-water container (kensui), wind furnace (furo), teabowl, and tea container (usuki) (in foreground), to 13 in. (33 cm) in height, clay, 2017. Junko Yamamoto’s fresh water pot (mizusashi) (far right), Illusion, 6 in. (15 cm) in height, clay. Photo: T. Yamashita.

3 Junko Yamamoto’s tea ceremony bowl (Ephemeral), 5 in. (13 cm) in height, clay, fired to 2241°F (1227°C), 2017. Photo: Kanako Togawa.

Idemitsu Museum of Arts (idemitsu-museum.or.jp/en) held “Utensils of Cha no yu—The World of Japanese and Chinese Tastes” and showcased the development and beauty of the utensils cherished by the Edo period (1603–1867) tea masters.

The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (www.momat.go.jp/english) also held a tea ware exhibit titled, “The Cosmos in a Tea Bowl: Transmitting a Secret Art Across Generations of the Raku Family.” The first Raku teabowl was created 450 years ago by Chojiro, and its secret technique and knowledge was handed down from a father to only one son for generations. However, despite the long tradition, each generation created a challenge for themselves to express today, rather than repeating forms and surfaces of past Raku Masters, which resulted in a continuity of discontinuity in its art. This was a traveling exhibition that was first held in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, before traveling to Russia to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, and the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow.

4 Junko Yamamoto’s sake lipped bowls and cups, to 5 in. (13 cm) in height, clay, fired to 2242°F (1228°F), 2015. Photo: T. Yamashita.

The Challenge of Chato

For Japanese potters, chato is a separate entity from any other functional works of ceramics. Perhaps it is because of this idea that chato has to be the exceptional utensils of the highest quality for the stage of superlative hospitality and service. Some potters wait until mid career to take on the challenge of creating chato. Some hesitate and may never set foot in this genre. “Utakata,” a tea ware exhibition held last summer at Shuhally (www.shuhally.org), a tea ceremony house in Yokohama, was a good example for further investigating the special relationship between chato and Japanese female potters today.

Shuhally is a unique tea ceremony house that reexamines Japanese traditions through Japanese tea culture and proposes a renewed tea ceremony style that matches today’s lifestyle. Walking through the entrance and the waiting area, passing the refreshing green garden, you come to a small tearoom with ambient, low lighting. During the exhibition, entering the room felt simultaneously like stepping into a traditional ink painting and onto a stage set. Yasuko Hasegawa and Junko Yamamoto had their tea wares displayed all over the house, but set up all the utensils for a tea ceremony in the small tea room to show each piece in use.

What was unique about these two female ceramic artists was not only the fact that they created these tea utensils, but also that they practiced Sado themselves. Hasegawa especially has practiced the way of the tea since she was a child and served tea to the audience as the tea master on the last day of the exhibit.

The title of the exhibit, Utakata, was taken from Hojoki, an essay written by Kamo-no-chomei in the 1200s, and literally means fleeting. The exhibition aimed to capture fleeting beauty in this changing world.

5 Yasuko Hasegawa’s fresh water pot (mizusashi), 8 in. (20 cm) in diameter, clay, 2017. Photo: T. Yamashita.

6 Yasuko Hasegawa’s tea container (usuki), 4 in. (10 cm) in diameter, clay, 2016. Photo: T. Yamashita.

7 Yasuko Hasegawa’s teabowl, 5½ in. (14 cm) in height, clay, 2017. Photo: T. Yamashita.

Two Artists, Two Perspectives

Conversing with the two artists, the fascination of Sado appeared to be all of the encounters that happen both in and outside of the tea room, the idea of sharing the same moment that is filled with joy and healing, and the opportunity for new learning, which Yamamoto explains, is the very reason for each tea ceremony.

Yamamoto became involved in the world of chato about four years ago. She spoke in depth about how spiritual the tea ceremony actually is. Its hospitality connects the guests to the cosmos, and the tea master has a role as a messenger from the heavens. In the tea ceremony, everyone is equal, and each person holds a god inside. She explained that chato has an important supporting role in the tea ceremony and connects the heaven and the earth.

The role of a potter is to recreate nature, essentially cutting out forms from the natural world, Yamamoto says. “You can never beat nature, but still these pots could soothe people in the same way that walking in the forest would do.” For a long time, Yamamoto herself questioned the meaning of beauty, and struggled to express her version of beauty until she developed her current Life series. Streamlines and spirals in her forms one day suddenly clicked for her, while watching a science program on DNA makeup with her children. A potter’s way is the repetitive path of learning from the works and progressing from there, she says. The path, the way, as a potter for her seems to run parallel to her practice of the Way of the Tea.

8 Junko Yamamoto’s Tea ceremony lidded container (Ephemeral), 7 in. (17 cm) in diameter, clay, 2241°F (1227°C), 2017. Photo: T. Yamashita.

9 Junko Yamamoto’s vase (Lively Motion), 6½ in. (17 cm) in diameter, clay, fired to 2241°F (1227°C), 2017. Junko Yamamoto’s vase (Ephemeral), 19 in. (49 cm) in diameter, clay, fired to 2242°F (1228°F), 2017.

Hasegawa focused on sculpture in her university studies, and for a long time created a series of sculptures called Barrier; paper-thin, unglazed porcelain, in which lines were put together in architectural forms. These light and fragile forms suggested an invisible protector of human hearts, reflecting on today’s unstable world. It seemed a big stretch to move from such conceptual sculptural works to functional tea wares, but she explained her entry to functional works were indeed, tea wares.

The sculptural works were tools to convey message, Hasegawa explained. “When I first tackled the functional works, it was difficult for me to balance what I wanted to express with the idea of making something that considered the users.” However, as she continued pursuing the Way of the Tea, she realized there is beauty in expressing ideas within the confines of chato because it reflects time and keeps renewing. Studies of Sado became a trigger for her as an artist to shift her awareness from one-way communication to a harmonious balancing of her expression with the idea of serving and entertaining, taking into account of the feelings of all the people sharing the same moment in the tea room.

“The tea room is an exceptional place, and it is a stage for comprehensive art,” Hasegawa excitedly stated. Some of her tea wares are covered with a platinum luster. She says she is attracted to the material because, unlike silver, the platinum surface does not tarnish over time. The precious and divine quality of this material feels fitting to the tea ceremony idea of ultimate hospitality and also enhances the preciousness of the clay underneath. Clay as a material has always been very sacred “because everything goes back to the earth,” Hasegawa explained.

10 Junko Yamamoto’s Laminating 6 in. (15 cm) in height, clay, fired to 2241°F (1227°C), 2017. Photo: T. Yamashita.

11 Yasuko Hasegawa’s vase, 19 in. (48 cm) in diameter, pottery, 2017. Photo: T. Yamashita.

At the end of our interview, she spoke of the one sculptural piece, which is the furo, the tea brazier or wind furnace in the tea room she described as “the tea room of the light.” The piece has a spiral-stairway-like repetitive form. “The light in this tea room reminded me of crepuscular rays, and I wanted to express that in this piece,” Hasegawa explained. The piece is not totally covered by platinum, and you see glazed colors underneath. She also had another piece with a similar form in another room, which was bare brown clay. The beautiful world is fleeting, and what is underneath, the bare and the naked, shows human nature. The two pieces show the connection from the transient world to heaven, reflecting the title of the exhibition, Utakata—the passage of time, capturing fleeting beauty, carrying the artist’s message of living in this ephemeral world.

Junko Yamamoto’s work will be on view in a solo exhibition at Mizen Fine Art in Paris (www.mizenfineart.com) from October 26 to November 9.

the author Naomi Tsukamoto is an artist and educator. She and her colleagues offer various Japanese cultural experiences in both Japanese and English at a tea-ceremony house in Kamakura, Japan. Learn more at www.facebook.com/kitakamakurahouan.

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