Japanese Tea Bowls: Designs & History

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Do you like tea? Did you know that the Japanese have special bowls for tea? In this lesson, learn about the history of Japanese tea bowls and explore different designs.

What is the Japanese Tea Ceremony?

Sometimes, nothing's as soothing as a good cup of tea.

But did you know tea is also a part of an important ceremony? In Japan, drinking tea can involve special tools and a cherished ritual. Central to the ritual is the Japanese tea bowl or chawan, a small handleless vessel in which special tea is made and then drunk. We're going to explore the history and designs of Japanese tea bowls, but first you should understand a bit about the ritual in which they are used.

The Japanese tea ceremony, also known as the chanoyu, involves the preparation and drinking of a matcha, special kind of powdered green tea. Three important tools in the ceremony are the tea bowl or chawan, the chashaku or spoon used to scoop the powdered tea, and the chasen, a bamboo whisk used to mix the tea and hot water together. Many steps have to occur before the tea is drunk.

The spoon, whisk and bowl used in the Japanese tea ceremony
Japanese tea ceremony tools

In Japan, tea had been grown for thousands of years. But the ritual that became the chanoyu developed during the 16th century, a time of conflict in Japan and the Far East. The ritual preparation and drinking of tea became an important political tool, used by aristocrats, warlords and samurai to cement loyalty and alliances.

History of Tea Bowls

The earliest bowls used in the Japanese tea ceremony were ancient Chinese ceramics that had found their way to Japan. Gradually, the tea masters who conducted the ritual began using rustic unglazed ceramic vessels from Korea and Japan. Made in various locations in different kilns and using regional clays, these tea bowls varied greatly in design and appearance. They weren't works of art but items to be used.

As the ceremony grew in importance, people began making bowls specifically for tea drinking. Artists developed many new methods of making ceramics. They including raku ware, in which the pottery was hand-modeled, fired at low temperatures and then quickly cooled, sometimes by placing it in sealed containers with combustible materials that left distinctive patterns and colors on the surface. Other methods included shino ware, a distinctive white pottery created by firing it with a white glaze made of feldspar; and karatsu ware, pottery made using sandy iron-rich clay with methods adapted from Korean ceramics that resulted in a rustic, natural appearance.

Now let's explore a few different shapes of Japanese tea bowls.

Different Designs

Japanese tea bowls aren't very large and tend to be in shapes that are pleasing to grasp. Why? They're held and raised in both hands to touch the lips. When using a tea bowl, you should be aware of how the bowl feels in your hands, sense the clay's smoothness or texture, and let your eyes take in the color and quality of the glazed or unglazed surface.

Tea bowls come in many different shapes, none of them with handles. Shapes are seasonal, too. Low, wide-rimmed bowls are common in summer, when it's ok for tea to cool quickly. Narrow, tall shapes tend to be used in winter when its better for the tea to stay warm longer.

We can't cover them all, but a few of the more familiar include:

Wa-nari or the circle shape: These tea bowls have a profile that resembles a half-circle

Example of the wa-nari or circle shaped tea bowl
Wa nari shaped tea bowl

Tsutsu-gata or cylinder shape: These tea bowls are taller than they are wide, with rounded sides

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