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.
This tea bowl is characterised as Ko-Karatsu (Karatsu ware), a pottery style which originated in Japan’s western island of Kyushu. Along with Raku and Hagi, Karatsu was the pottery style most commonly used to make teawares for the tea ceremony. Kilns in this region specialised in crackled white glazes and surface decoration with painted iron oxides, as seen on this example. The glaze drippings on the bowl’s exterior would have been a desirable feature, thought to enhance the tactility of the tea bowl’s surface. Japanese tea bowls are made in a variety of shapes and sizes to suit different climates and periods of the year. This particular form is known as Natsu-jawan or ‘summer bowl’. Used during the hot season, the shallow bowl and wider mouth allow the tea to cool more quickly.