Raku History

divider

Guide to Appreciating Raku

Raku is a low-fired ceramic ware first produced by Sasaki Chōjirō (d. 1592) in the 16th century in Kyoto.  Under the encouragement and patronage of his close friend, tea master Sen no Rikyū, he crafted a style of bowl which was very much unlike the colorful Chinese-influenced ceramics of the time.  In stark contrast, Chōjirō's works were mostly monochrome black or red and devoid of any decoration or sense of movement.

Before this time in history, the drinking of green tea tended to be a festive affair enjoyed mostly by the nobility.  They imbibed the emerald brew with great pomp and pageantry, often holding lively tea tasting competitions.  Later, as Zen Buddhism (an import from China) took root in Japan, the event became a much more solemn, ritualized ceremony called sadō or chanoyu.

It was Rikyū who melded principles of Zen and Taoism with chanoyu to create the comprehensive art of wabi-cha - that is, tea ceremony upon which great importance is attached to simplicity, austerity, and quiet appreciation.  Chōjirō sublimated his own artistic impulse to create bowls which embodied Rikyū's tea philosophy.  His creations so pleased warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi that Chōjirō's successor received a golden emblem of the character raku (seen below), meaning "pleasure", thus officially establishing the Raku dynasty of potters.

Although the appellation "Raku" is reserved for those works made by Chōjirō and his lineage (the current Raku grandmaster is Kichizaemon XV), the term is used by a number of contemporary Japanese potters who adhere to the same forming, glazing and firing techniques.

Japanese character for 'raku'
divider

Appreciation

To truly appreciate raku tea ceremony bowls, one must understand the Zen principles central to Japanese tea ceremony - harmony, reverence, purity and tranquility.  This explains the spartan tea ceremony room with its uncluttered, open space, tea utensils made from humble pieces of bamboo, or vases displaying the solitary beauty of a single flower.  In Zen, emptiness is liberating.  Simplicity is freedom.  In the quietude of the tea ceremony room, away from everyday distractions, even the most mundane and simplest of items is elevated to a higher level of appreciation.

Raku bowls themselves are born from the most humble of beginnings.  They are made by pressing clay into a flat disk and then building up the sides with overlapping coils in a technique called tébinéri.  After drying, the potter scrapes bits of clay away with forming tools, holding the bowl up at eye level on the palm after every few strokes to check the balance and slowly-evolving shape of the vessel.  The process is much more a mental endeavor than a physical one, requiring hours of intense focus.


Firing

Once forming is complete, the bowls are glazed and fired at low temperatures in "beehive kilns" made especially for raku firing.

Kuro (black) raku bowls are coated with a glaze made from crushed stones found along Kyoto's Kamo River and are fired individually at a temperature of around 1,100°C (2,012°F).  While still red hot, the bowls are plucked from the kiln and allowed to cool rapidly.  The iron and manganese content in the glaze produces a deep, lustrous black or, at lower temperatures, a matte, citrus skin-like finish.

Aka (red) raku is fired in similar fashion at around 900°C (1,650°F) in a kiln that can accommodate 3 or 4 bowls at a time.

Because raku bowls are fired at such low temperatures and only for a short time (10 to 12 minutes), they do not possess the durability of high-fired stoneware.  Given their thickness, however, they are surprisingly lightweight, delicate, and make a muted tok-tok sound when tapped on the rim.

 

What, then, is the appeal of these humble, unassuming vessels?  And why are they so highly regarded in the world of tea ceremony?

Because raku bowls are formed by hand without the aid of a potter's wheel, they reflect two principles central to Zen Buddhism - imperfection and asymmetry.  And because these qualities are inherently human, like the imperfections we find in even the most beautiful of faces at close range, we are able to perceive them in the bowl on a subconscious level - looking beyond the superficial to find meaning on a deeper, more abstract plane.

Although the conscious mind says, "I'm looking at a simple, black bowl," the subconscious mind is actively processing the masculine strength in the form, the feminine curvature of the rim, the imprecise undulations in the body, or the imprints of the artist's hands left behind on the clay itself.

All of these serve as mental cues leading the viewer to a deeper appreciation of raku.