Recently I went with a group of other tea people to the Freer Gallery in Washington D.C. The museum, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution, contains the collection of Charles Lang Freer, who collected all types of Asian art at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century – around the time that Japanese families were starting to sell off all their old art treasures following the dramatic shift in culture of the Meiji Period. The gallery has a truly stunning collection of tea ceremony utensils, only a fraction of which are on display. But if you want, you can make an appointment with the gallery to come and view the utensils that they have in storage – even take them out and handle them. For tea people, it’s an extraordinary opportunity to handle the types of utensils that we normally only read about in books.
We arrived at the Freer and were led down to their vaults in the basement. They have an aisle dedicated to tea ceremony wares, many of which date back to the late 16th and early 17th century – the time of Sen no Rikyu, when tea ceremony was in its “golden age.” We got to hold bowls that were made by Hon’ami Koetsu, a 17th-century calligrapher and ceramic artist who was a personal favorite of mine; bowls made by the heads of the Raku family, the originators of Raku ceramics; and real ko-seto (“old Seto”) tea containers, the “standard” style that modern ceramic artists can only imitate.
Here’s a photo of a bowl by Hon’ami Koetsu (at least, they think it is – part of the collection is a book with details on how and where the piece was acquired, followed by page after page of experts commenting/arguing about whether or not they think the piece is genuine):
And here’s a rather dizzying array of ko-seto tea containers, all of them many centuries old:
But I think the highlight of the trip for most of us was the opportunity to handle some real tenmoku bowls. This requires some explanation. Tenmoku is a type of ceramics that originally came from China to Japan; some of those bowls were already centuries old when they were brought to Japan, and they are only used in the most exclusive, formal types of tea ceremony. Even to learn the temae (ceremonies) that use these bowls requires years of prior study, and of course, in practice we only use copies. Even to get a tenmoku bowl that’s really Chinese – not even an old one – is very difficult and expensive.
The bowls that we were looking at were, on average, over a thousand years old, and had been brought to Japan from China. The one in this photo was said to have been used by the shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi at his famous tea ceremony gathering in Kitano:
This bowl is a style called “nogime” or “hare’s-fur,” because of the fine lines in the pattern of the glaze. The photo doesn’t do justice to the piece; the silvery parts of the glaze are actually iridescent, with a bluish-greenish-purple undertone depending on how you hold it. It’s amazing to think how long ago this bowl was made, and how much it must have gone through to get to this collection.
By the way, you notice that this bowl is a conical shape with a narrow bottom. It’s shaped that way because it’s intended to be placed on a little stand called a dai – in modern tea ceremony, if the bowl is ever taken off the stand, you have to put a piece of brocade cloth underneath it; a tenmoku bowl should never touch the floor.
If you ever have a chance, I can’t recommend a visit to the Freer highly enough. It’s a fantastic experience!
(Kind thanks to Mary Lynn Howard for allowing me to post the photos she took during our trip.)