text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
They cast a spell on me since the first time I saw them; I don’t remember when it was but I was certainly old enough to have already gathered enough images of Japan. Yet, these were outside my perception: everything I’d seen was a product of a much more sophisticated process while those were the exact opposite: they seemed as if they were made by chance or by mistake, with very rough lines, with no design or pattern –just some simple hues of black or red- with imperfections and with a shape that looked unfinished. They were called “Raku-yaki” (楽焼) or “pottery of the Raku school”.
They weren’t called that when I discovered them; they have been called that since the mid-16th century when a potter named Chojiro, the son of a Chinese immigrant living in the Kyoto area started making teacups and especially teacups for the art involving the preparation of the green “maccha” tea, for the man who is considered the father of this particular art, Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591). And under the aegis of the powerful feudal warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598) who is credited with naming Chojiro’s family “Raku”, lending to his son one ideogram from the name of his palace, Jurakudai.
Sen no Rikyu wasn’t just a man who knew how to make good tea and Raku aren’t just cups to prepare and drink this tea. He was one of Japan’s first esthetes and he created the “tea ceremony” as a vehicle for an aesthetical view appreciating the old the worn and the natural and focusing attention to the simple, the unpretentious and the familiar. And Raku pottery was –and is- the best illustration of this view although its creation (which continues to this day by Chojiro’s descendants) is much less simple and easy than one would guess just by looking at them.
Rikyu’s initial idea was to create an antipode to the ostentatious and filled with countless Chinese influences imperial aesthetic of the Kyoto aristocrats. But his creation became something much, much bigger: a dominant characteristic of Japanese aesthetics, co-modulating the whole austere and functional perception now called “wabi-sabi” and which most of us have in mind when we speak about “Japanese style”. And although the style is not limited to the pottery of the Raku family, the particular teacups never stopped being its symbol; even if you don’t know their story, it is hard to miss that there is something hidden behind their black clay.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.