CHAIRE! – Japanese Tea Caddies


Chaire are Japanese small lidded ceramic containers for carrying tea (cha means „tea“ and ire is a word for „put sth. in“). Originally they came from 12th century China where this kind of container was used for holding medicine or valuable oils. But at least at the end of Muromachi period (1336–1573) they were used as exquisite tea caddies to contain the green tea powder during the tea ceremony. It is said that for some members of the ruling warrior class they were even more valuable than the own sword. Due to high demand and exclusive prices for the Chinese items and a change of taste, the first Japanese production was just a matter of time. Potters from the six old kilns, the oldest Japanese pottery production sites, developed soon an own language of forms according to their traditional technics. Since then a distinction was made between karamono – objects in a Chinese manner – and wamono – the Chaire in a Japanese style.

All pieces selected for the exhibition are from the last category of wamono made by masters from Bizen and Shigaraki in Japan. One is a rare work by the higly talented and far too early passed Bizen artist Masamune Moriyasu (Satoru) (1954-2006). Like Ueda Naokata IV. (1898-1975) from Shigaraki, Masamune was orientating on the old, rather simple pieces made in the Momoyama period (1573-1603) – the golden age of tea ceramics. The Ueda family is along with the Takahashi family, the oldest potter family in Shigaraki and largely responsible for preserving traditions, especially after the second world war. Ueda Naokata IV. was designated as Shigaraki’s first „Intangible Cultural Property“. Takahashi Rakusai IV. (*1925) – presented here with two exceptional pieces – is probably the most famous Shigaraki potter. He succeeded his father the third Takahashi who was designated as „Intangible Cultural Property“ by government. But also Bizen artist Kimura Tōhō (*1928) arose from a familiy traditon with a long history. The Kimuras were designated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) himself as o-sakunin (honorable craftsmen).

For more informations about the objects visit:


The Colours of Bizen – Sake Flasks and Cups

After presenting a selection of Japanese tea ceremony utensils in the Opening Exhibition, the Spring Exhibition 2013 is focusing on another kind of serving a guest: the art of drinking sake.
Japanese rice wine is associated with rather companionable and informal gatherings. The chronicle Nihon shoki 日本書紀 from 720 records a banquet arranged at court in the year 485, where noblemen and women were drinking rice wine from cups floating on a river and composing verses. Until today the custom of pouring drinks for each other has further been preserved to pay attention and show respect. As „beverage of gods”, sake also has  its fixed place within festive ceremonies, for example as kagami-biraki 鏡開き – a ceremony that is performed at celebratory events in which the lid of a sake barrel made of sugi-wood is opened with a wooden mallet and the sake is served to everyone present.

In a more intimate circle sake is usually served in smaller containers such as the flasks shown in the display above. The current exhibition aims to present the colourful variety of Bizen ware – an unglazed stoneware directly affected by the kiln’s fire. Bizen ware is named after the former name of the province where the material for this type of pottery was won. The heart of today’s Bizen tradition is located at Inbe City of Okayama Prefecture. Around this region the clay is dug out from a layer located several meters deep beneath rice paddies. It is characterized by relatively high percentage of iron (>3%) and much organic material. Base on this and due to its characteristics as unglazed pottery, Bizen ware objects must be fired very carefully in a long lasting process that consumes an enormous amount of pine wood. Only the experienced potter’s knowledge of firing type, the kind of wood used, the kiln’s atmosphere, temperature and air’s circulation within the kiln chamber can bear the highly admired spectacular results of the combined natural beauty of fire and earth. It is the great secret of each potter, whose styles are most often very distinguishable despite their collective tradition. The attraction of each single piece evolves mainly from the firing process; a beauty that also particularly arises by reason of somewhat accidental and unexpected influences and forces. Due to these circumstances Japanese pottery artists frequently try to take the backseat using the Japanese term of yōhen 窯変 (lit. „kiln mutation“). Here, the attention is shifted from a more or less conscious individual freedom of the artist’s creativity process to a rather unconscious and to the dependency to nature subordinated way of crafting magnificent works of art.

Various Sake FlasksThe more intentionally exercisable forms of decoration developed altogether during the heyday of Bizen tradition in Japan’s Momoyama period (1573–1615) and come in different shapes: „rice cake“ (botamochi  牡丹餅) descibes open areas on the surface created by covering the pottery’s body with a chunk of rice cake-like clay. Ash glazes range from sesame-like, yellowish sprinkled areas (goma 胡麻) to variegated yellow, green and brownish ash drifts, generated by the regulation of air circulation in the kiln by using logs (sangiri 棧切り). By throwing ash directly on the objects (a technic misleadingly also called  sangiri), shiny grey molten areas on the surface are created. Stunning colour changes of the unglazed parts are caused by strong changes of the firing temperature and the so-called “fire cords” (hidasuki 緋襷) – burning straw cords fixed to the item causing red line marks.

The whole colour spectrum of Bizen type ceramics (as seen above) is ranging between bright orange, yellow, green, the entire variety of earthy brown tones, a shiny greenish or blueish grey and even black on some modern pieces. Furthermore, the textures show a wide range from unglazed, sandy clay, metallic glitter, all over covering ash glaze, rust-like crust, or splashes. Despite being small in size, sake flasks and cups shown in the current exhibition, bear a whole landscape (keshiki 景色) on their surface that invites the viewer’s eyes to have a walk through.
With this incomparable palette of colours and textures, Bizen ware has achieved its outstanding reputation within the Japanese pottery world and its distinctive characteristics of an unglazed stoneware which has been rediscovered, developed and preserved until today.

Kōgō 香合 (var. 香盒) – Incense Case

Kōgō are small lidded containers for storing incense. Another japanese name is kōbako 香箱 („incense box“). During the japanese tea ceremony the kōgō is brought into the tea room on a tablet when preparing the charcoal (sumitemae 炭手前). The incense is then placed near the charcoal and the container decoratively positioned on a shelf. In a shorter variant of the sumitemae the kōgō is just placed decoratively in the decoration niche of the waiting room (machiai 待合) on a small cloth, the so-called kobukusa 古帛紗, or a special mat made of several layers of paper (kamikamashiki 紙釜敷) for charming the guests eyes.

Although kōgō are quite small objects they enjoy a great attention through connoisseurs. Like most others tea utensils kōgō too are distinguished according to their origin. But this mostly gives more a mere orientation about the origin of the technic instead about the origin of the art piece itself. On the one hand there are the chinese pieces (karamono 唐物). They include those objects made of black and red carved lacquer, lacquer ware with mother-of-pearl inlay, blue painted porcelain (sometsuke 染付け) or the three-colored Jiao-zhi ware (kōchi-yaki 交趾焼き, from a today’s region of Vietnam). On the other hand there are the Japanese pieces (wamono 和物), like Japanese pottery, lacquer ware associated with Japanese technics like gold painting (maki-e 蒔絵) or lacquers with a foundation of Japanese paper (ikkanbari 一閑張り) as well as kōgō made of different woods, also gourd et al.

Furthermore the material dictates the usage of the kōgō depending on the season. Since different incense is used in summer and winter and – according to that – a different container. Kōgō are then also distinguishable from those used only in summer, when a portable brazier is used (furoyō kōgō 風炉用香合), and those used only in winter, when a sunken fire-place is used (royō kōgō 炉用香合). In summer kōgō made of lacquer or wood go along light aromatic woods. But in winter you will find predominantly pottery kōgō. This is due to the usage of nerikō 練香 in the colder season – an incense made of essential oils like musk or agar wood mixed to a paste with honey or sugar. In order to avoid the material absorbing the scent when using nerikō it is common to use a camellia leave to cover the inside of the kōgō. Shell, metal or even ivory made items can generally be used for both seasons, but they are mainly found in the preparing room (mizuya 水屋) for storing the incense.

For delivering insight into the tremendous number of types and variants of the modelled kōgō, the Katamono kōgō ichiran 形物香合一覧 („Chart of kōgō models“) was published as woodblock print in 1855. This paper lists some 230 various designs ranging from a lot chinese examples (215 in total), some lacquer works (3), the most representative japanese pottery works (7) and a few more. The funny thing is, that the listing is arranged in the manner of a traditional sumō-banzuke 相撲番付 – a ranking for popular japanese sumo wrestling.

Tomobako 共箱 – Accompanying Boxes

Tomobako for a Tea Caddy by Masamune Moriyasu

Rarely is light shed on one of the most important topic when handling Japanese arts and crafts – even if it is one of the first things you will get hold of for sure! Thus I’d like to explain at the beginning the new logo of Gallery Kommoss which refers to the crosswise knotted ribbon of the tomobako 共箱. Tomobako is the name for the wooden boxes in which Japanese artworks, ranging from paintings, over small sculptures till ceramics, porcelains and lacquer works – just to say some – are stored. They consist of a wooden body and a lid holded together by a woven or braided ribbon. 

The boxes are usually made of either two basic materials: one is cedar wood (lat. Cryptomeria japonica, jap. sugi ) and another is paulownia wood (lat. Paulownia tomentosa, jap. kiri ). Far more seldom but also coming across sometimes are boxes made of materials like chestnut (tochinoki ), mulberry (kuwa ), rosewood (shitan 紫檀), ebony (kokutan 黒檀) or ironwood (tagayasan 鉄刀木).

Cedar (l.) and Paulownia Wood (r.)

Especially kiri wood is recognized for its several advantageous characteristics. It is lightweight and for that also relatively break-proof, it has plain wood almost free from knotholes and transports no humidity. The lid should close tightly to protect the content from atmospherical influences. Sensitive items like works of paper benefit from this protections against too extreme deviations of air humidity in the moist Japanese climate.


Example of a kabusebuta

The lid can be separated in two main construction types: the slid lid or “covering” lid (kabusebuta 覆蓋) and the “inserting lid (okibuta 置蓋). Okibuta can be further devided into lids which are flat (hirabuta 平蓋) and lids with a frame construction beneath fitting neatly inside the box’s mouth (sanbuta 桟蓋). This frame of sanbuta consists of either four wooden strips (shihōsan-buta 四方桟) or only two strips (nihōsan-buta 二方桟蓋). 


To hold the box and the lid closely together a string is used, which is knotted above the lid in a slip knot (himokake 紐掛け). It was once round, but since the beginning Edo Period (1603-1868) a flat cotton string (sanada-himo 真田) is most common.


Collecting Japanese art works it is very important to have them within the original according to size and requirements of the objects individually manufactured wooden boxes (tomo = together). Not only to know them safely stored when they are not in exhibit but for reference reasons as well. These boxes recognize some importance since they bear informations about the item stored inside from the artists hand itself. Like questions of style, type, name, date and his signature. For that reason the tomobako is also as an object of evidence of great importance. Every student for Japanese art history knows the often told story of a western museum registrar who had thrown all the boxes he just thought to be packing material away and losses this way a lot of value.

But note that this kind of artist’s proof on the tomobako is common at least since the Meiji period (1868-1912) and is not to be mistaken with a hakogaki – an inscription on the box of the owner or an admiring person.