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Chawans are very special in Japan, so in addition to a quick mention on the Teawares page, we elaborate here.
Japanese tea bowls, called chawan, are used to prepare and drink matcha. The first chawan was probably imported from China. Over time, they changed to meet the ideals of the chanoyu.
Originally, smooth ceramic tenmoku tea bowls were used. In the 16th century, tea master Sen Rikyu sought a new style of tea bowl to express his philosophy of wabi (appreciating the beauty of simplicity). A Korean potter named Raku Cho-jiro was making a rough-textured, unglazed pottery suiting wabi perfectly. Sen Rikyu’s student Furuta Oribe encouraged potters to create modern tea bowls, with lovely glazes and painted designs. Both styles are available today, with the finer ones being quite expensive.
What to look for when buying a chawan:
- Smooth bowl interior so matcha powder mixes evenly with water.
- Smooth and even bowl lip.
- Even, steady foot so bowl sits on the table without tipping and spilling tea.
- Pick up the chawan to see if it has the right weight and feel in your hand (a good reason not to shop online).
- Buy the best you can afford, preferably a one-of-a-kind item made by a well-known ceramic artist.
Often, Japanese tea bowls used in the tea ceremony are heirlooms, and some are given names by the artist that created them. There are also different styles for the seasons. A wide, shallow chawan allows the tea to cool faster and so is used in Summer, and a narrower, taller one that keep the tea hot longer is used in Winter.
Photo: TianMu Summer Chawan
Sen no Rikyū’s Last Act
Japan’s most famous tea master, Sen no Rikyū (千利休, 1522 – April 21, 1591), founded the philosophy of wabi. In 1591, at the age of 70, he was ordered to commit suicide by the Japanese ruler. His last act was a tea ceremony.
After serving all his guests, he presented each with a piece of tea ware as a souvenir, with the exception of the bowl, which he shattered, uttering:
“Never again shall this cup,
polluted by the lips of misfortune,
be used by man.”
One guest stayed after the ceremony to witness Rikyu’s death.
His last words to his dagger:
Welcome to thee,
O sword of eternity!
And through Daruma alike
Thou hast cleft thy way.
© 2016-2020 World Is a Tea Party photos and text