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.