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Getting to know Bizen ware’s history as king of the ceramics in the tea age

 

Bizen ware is a kind of ceramic ware derived from a kind of pottery known as sueki. Bizen ware in its infancy was not produced with the vigor it is today, and it followed its own unique evolution by remaining in an age long past.

 

However, with the rise of the tea culture, the influence of Bizen ware would begin its expansion. In the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573-1603), known for the Period of Warring States in Japan, tea ceremonies were particularly in fashion. An argument can be made that Bizen ware, at the time, was the most highly-treasured of all ceramics.

 

Momoyama Bizen as works of art
When ceramic ware comes to mind, there is a sense that – as a work of art – its colors are deep and vivid. Using "...there is a sense that" to convey the idea that the ceramic ware is thought of in such a way. A ceramics piece adorned with attractive colors catches the eye of anyone.

 

In contrast, the colors of Bizen ware are anything but vivid. It competes by using only the hues of the clay itself without utilizing any materials to add coloring. That austerity and bare-bones approach is considered “the beauty of Bizen ware”.

 

To go along with that, Bizen ware was largely put to use in practical day-to-day goods, not as works of art. Yet, as the tea culture swept across Japan, Bizen ware began to be used frequently in tea ceremonies. In particular, during the Azuchi-Momoyama Period at the zenith of the tea boom, there are Bizen ware pieces that can be considered works of art.

 

The phrase “Momoyama Bizen” refers to Bizen ware that was made mainly for usage with tea during the Azuchi-Momoyama Period. The heart of Momoyama Bizen was the chatō (a container for tea), which can be said to be the crown jewel of Bizen ware.

 

In relation to the production of Bizen ware at the time, Momoyama Bizen made up no more than a few percent of the total. Nevertheless, many other tools for tea ceremonies were made in addition to chatō.

 

There are many Japanese-made ceramic wares, but during this time, Bizen ware was the most popular.

 

Why was bizen ware used with tea?
All Japanese students learn in their Japanese history classes of Sen no Rikyū, the figure responsible for the huge success of tea. He was the person who completed wabi-cha, a style of tea ceremony. Wabi-cha is not an extravagant kind of tea ceremony – it places emphasis on the simplicity of the spirit.

 

In Japanese, there is a word, “wabi-sabi”. Wabi contains the meaning of “sadness, sorrow”, and can be taken to mean “simplicity”. Bizen ware, upon inspection, has no vivid colors and is the very image of simplicity, which is why it never becomes the center of attention in tea ceremonies.

 

Bizen ware is meant to play nothing more than a side role; it exists to enhance the natural quality of the tea, and in that sense we can say that it coincides with the spirit of wabi.

 

The word “sabi”, has the nuance of “imperfect beauty” — the idea that an imperfect state has greater appeal than a state in which everything is in order.

 

To illustrate this principle, cherry blossoms bloom in Japan in April. There is no doubt that many people are delighted by the cherry blossoms in full bloom. But how about after the petals scatter and fade away? The non-Japanese observer would likely think, "That's unfortunate," or, "It's no longer beautiful."

 

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Yet, the “sabi” spirit in Japan would consider even imperfect objects, such as the cherry blossoms that have lost their petals, as beautiful.

 

”The melancholy of the falling pink petals”

 

”The quiet in the area around the cherry blossoms that had been alive with banquets just days ago”

 

”The dawn of summer marked by the cherry blossoms turning green”

 

This is where some deep-seated feelings begin to rise. This is the sensation of sabi. It could be argued that this is a concept unique to the Japanese, who sense beauty in imperfection.

 

Bizen ware, in a similar manner, also harbors the spirit of sabi. It exists not as a perfect beauty, but as an imperfect beauty. In wabi-cha, with its emphasis on the austere, Bizen ware harnesses a strong presence in its role as enhancer.

 

Perhaps it is because Bizen ware does not stand alone as a work of art, but rather in combination, that leads it to be so highly-treasured in the world of tea.

 


*Pieces from the Azuchi-Momoyama Period

 

The Bizen ware of the time was used by Toyotomi Hideyoshi who ruled Japan at the time and Sen no Rikyū who made wabi-cha a huge success. It is believed that not just chatō, but everything from pots to bowls, all the way down to plates and other items were in production.

 

The Bizen ware that had grown to be loved by the commoners in practical items for everyday use climbed its way all the way up the chain to reach “wabi-sabi beauty” by those in the tea world.


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