Jewels from the Kiln: Sake Vessels as a Cross-Cultural Icon

by Shirley Booth

“Why do the Japanese drink sake from such small cups?” is a question I am frequently asked. The answer to that question tells us a lot about Japan and Japanese life and culture. A recent exhibition at the Stratford Gallery, in Stratford-upon-Avon, entitled The Sake Vessel: Contemporary Interpretations, gave me an opportunity to talk about this; and at the same time taught me about the influence of Japan on the wider world of studio ceramics.

Margaret Curtis – Guinomi Ochoko Sake Cup

No blossoms
And no Moon
And he is drinking sake
All alone

This sad little haiku poem illustrates the importance of, and reason for, the small cups. Drinking alone is considered extremely unfortunate: a miserable state, akin to when there are no blossoms and no moon – nothing to celebrate. Sake is meant to be drunk with others, and pouring for each other is part of the ritual. When your companion’s cup is empty you refill it. With both hands they offer up their cup and, holding the flask with both hands, you fill. They then do the same for you. So, the smaller the cup, the more often you have to pour for each other, which creates more interaction, and engenders conviviality.

Drinking sake then brings people together. This much I knew from experience.

But what I learned at the Stratford exhibition is how the craft, and making, of sake cups has done the same.

Howard Clegg, Owner of The Stratford Gallery, with Shirley Booth, President of the British Sake Association. Photo courtesy of Karen Kennedy.

The small ochoko, referred to earlier, is designed for rather formal occasions, often when one is seated on the floor, and sake is taken in small sips in a delicate, feminine and elegant way.  But it is with the guinomi – slightlybigger than ochoko – that we properly enter the world of studio ceramics.

Guinomi became popular in the Edo era, and are designed for more casual, masculine, drinking, when sake is gulped as opposed to sipped. Guinomi are made in a variety of shapes and materials – porcelain, china and even glass – all suitable for delicate Daiginjo and Ginjo sakes. However, the more widely practised style is stoneware and earthenware, well suited to the drinking of more robust sakes like Junmai, Kimoto and Yamahai: their flavours are enhanced by the absorbing and softening effect of such pots.

And it is this tradition of hand made studio guinomi in earthenware and stoneware, often wood-fired, that has fascinated potters all over the world.

The attraction of the guinomi lies in the fact that a potter is able to incorporate so many aspects of his craft – the clay, the shape, the foot, the glaze, the firing – in one small pot. An added bonus, for the collector, is that they tend to be that bit more affordable than a bigger piece. Meaning you can collect more of them…..

Lucien Koonce, Curator of The Sake Vessel at The Stratford Gallery, with Shirley Booth, President of the British Sake Association. Photo courtesy of Karen Kennedy.

“As I experimented with the various vessel types indigenous to Japanese ceramics culture, I began to develop a special affection for those relating to sake, specifically the guinomi or sake cup. Aside from great respect for a vessel with rich tradition, and its evolution from humble beginnings, it was the cup itself that fascinated me. I saw these as jewels from the kiln, an object of beauty, meant to be used in the most intimate type of consumption: drinking” – Lucien Koonce

These are words of Lucien Koonce, a celebrated potter from the US, who put together the Stratford Gallery exhibition, cleverly choosing a range of potters who he felt both reflected the tradition and diversified from the tradition.  

Many, like the German-born Uwe Loellmann, Frenchman David Louveau, and Somerset-based Sim Taylor are wood firers, using traditional Japanese anagama kilns: others, like Anthony Gaudino, work also with gas and electric kilns; Yoca Muta‘s pots are highly decorated recalling the classic woodblock prints of Japan; Nishi Koichi practises neriage – the delicate art of layering clay in different colours; Mami Kato works in porcelain, whilst Asato Ikeda’s porcelain cups bring to mind delicate folds of fabric, or frosted cake icing.

Sim Taylor, Potter, with Shirley Booth, President of the British Sake Association. Photo courtesy of Karen Kennedy.

Koonce himself is a perfect example of how the art of guinomi has been embraced by potters worldwide: Koonce has never even been to Japan, but the influence of the Japanese studio pottery tradition is evident in his work.

Koonce says in the exhibition catalogue:

“The purpose of the exhibition is to introduce a genre of vessel that has a rich history in Japanese culture, yet has been embraced by contemporary potters around the globe. The pieces exhibited are by some of the best makers today in the field of ceramics”

The work of thirty seven potters was shown; both Japanese and non-Japanese, including from the UK such well known names as Akiko Hirai and Welsh-based Phil Rogers; and Lisa Hammond MBE, who pioneered soda glaze and shino firing, an innovation that has been adopted in Japan, where she studied extensively and exhibits regularly.

Fourteen of the potters shown now work in America, including the Japanese couple Takuro and Hitomi Shibata who fire Shigaraki-style in a wood fired anagama kiln in North Carolina; Joe Bruhin, who has his own wood fired anagama in Ozarks, Missouri, but who previously worked with master potter Shiho Kanzaki in Shigaraki; Kristin Muller from Pennsylvania, where she fires an anagama hybrid kiln built by Takao Okazaki; Tim Rowan, who spent two years as an apprentice to Ryuichi Kakurezaki in Japan and now works in the US in deepest Hudson Valley. His angular forms echo the traditional masu, the wooden cedar box used to serve sake in Shinto ceremonies.

Lucien Koonce – Chawan

John Dix and Richard Milgrim are Americans long resident in Japan, both working there still. In England Eddie and Margaret Curtis have been potting in Cumbria since 1979, although Margaret, who is fascinated by ancient forms and techniques from Japan, visited Living National Treasure Miwa Kyusetsu in Hagi.

The influence of Japan then on all these potters is inescapable. And one particular town in Japan exerts a special influence.

One of the most celebrated Japanese potters represented was Ken Matsuzaki, from the pottery town of Mashiko, in Tochigi Prefecture. Mashiko itself is a potent symbol of cross-cultural exchange: of how ceramics has the power to bring people together.

Mashiko is the town where the celebrated potter Shoji Hamada lived, and where the Englishman Bernard Leach went to learn from him. Famously, Leach and Hamada then travelled back to England together, setting up their pottery in St Ives, in 1920, exactly one hundred years ago, establishing a bond between the two towns that has remained ever since.

Hiromi Matsuyama – Bajohai cup

In 2011 this bond was notably strengthened when the people of St Ives rallied to support the re-building of the town of Mashiko after the destruction of the Tohoku earthquake. Tomoo Hamada, Shoji Hamada’s grandson, lives and works in Mashiko, on the same compound that his grand father built, and is a frequent visitor to the UK. The gallery was delighted to be able to include his work amongst the Japanese potters shown.

Although experiencing Japan, and in particular Mashiko, has been a strong influence on many of the potters shown, inspiration can come simply by reading. Lucien Koonce is known for his practice of the ancient Japanese technique of kurinuki, which he started to explore simply after having read an article on the Japanese potter Ken Masanao. In kurinuki the pot is not thrown, but hollowed out of, and carved from, a sold piece of wedged clay.

Koonce’s work is now highly collectable but, even so, Koonce, like many potters, is keen to emphasise that his cups are to be used. The Japanese, who traditionally are insistent on using pots for their expressed purpose, would no doubt be horrified at Koonce’s suggestion that you might use your guinomi for your morning espresso. Or flowers. Personally I strongly recommend using them for drinking sake. One of my favourite styles is the bajohai, or ‘horseback cup’, which has a short stem to hold it by. Historically it was designed for warriors on horseback, as the cup is easier to hold with one hand whilst riding!

I doubt that many of us will be riding horses into battle whilst drinking, but drink from these cups we should. Hiroshima-born Shigemasa Higashida wants his work to reflect such ceramic traditions and history, but certainly doesn’t want them sitting on gallery shelves. In fact he says that he ultimately regards his work as being complete only once it is owned and used.

Which seems the perfect excuse to fill one of his delightfully wonky tokkuri with a nice earthy sake, and pour for your companion, perhaps into one of his colourful Shino or Oribe glazed guinomi. As for me, I’ll be drinking a funky Kimoto from my prized purchase – a bajohai by Okayama-based Hiromi Matsuyama.

Lucien Koonce – Tokkuri

It was a real privilege to help expand the knowledge of these sophisticated ceramics collectors by introducing them to some of the traditions and history of sake drinking in Japan; and of course to the delights of Ginjo, Kimoto and Daiginjo.

Watching them eagerly sipping the different types on offer I realised that the love of ceramics, and studio potters themselves, have an important role to play in strengthening and supporting the tradition of sake-making in Japan, just as much as the sake-makers. 

It once again demonstrated to me the power of sake to create warmth and understanding between different cultures – to bring people together.  

Thanks to Lucien Koonce and Howard Clegg for allowing me to quote, and use information, from the exhibition catalogue, The Sake Vessel: Contemporary Interpretations. The Stratford Gallery

© Shirley Booth

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