Sōma-yaki was a type of pottery produced in Ōbori, Fukushima Prefecture in northern Japan. This style first emerged during the Genroku period (1688-1704) when suitable clays were found locally. The functional wares produced there gained the attention of the Sōma clan, the feudal lords of this region, who encouraged production, secured raw materials and allowed the use of their crest on the best examples. This stoneware tea bowl’s gray glaze is characteristic of Sōma-yaki pottery, while the stylised, galloping horses are thought to represent the character ‘ma’ in ‘sōma’, which means ‘horse’. At its peak, the Sōma-yaki pottery industry consisted of around one hundred workshops, but the Meiji restoration in 1868 ended support from the Sōma clan and brought about a decline in quality, as potters faced competition with mass-producing manufactories across Japan.
The first known references to tea in Japan date back to the early Heian period (794-1185), when monks studying Zen Buddhism in China returned to Japan with tea seeds. Tea-drinking was quickly adopted by Japan’s aristocracy, samurai and religious classes for its medicinal and revitalising properties. By the 16th century, when this tea bowl was made, the complex ritual which unfolded in preparing and serving tea according to codified etiquette (sarei ) gave rise to the tea ceremony (chanoyu) . Tea bowls, kettles, caddies and fresh water containers became of central importance to the proceeding and were personally chosen by the tea master for their functional but also aesthetic qualities. Although earlier forms of the tea ceremony incorporated Chinese or Korean vessels, tea masters from the mid-16th century turned to domestically-made tea utensils, which they favoured for their imperfect, unrefined and natural forms.