Tenmoku: The Timeless Art of Japanese Tea Bowls

Tenmoku, a term synonymous with elegance and craftsmanship, refers to a type of tea bowl that originated in China during the Song Dynasty. It also shares its name with a mountain located between China’s Zhejiang and Anhui Provinces. The original Chinese name for these wares was jianzhan, and the first mention of tenmoku in a Japanese document dates back to 1335 in a record by Onkei Soyu, a monk who studied at Mt. Tienmu. In the 13th century, Japanese Buddhist monks brought back Tenmoku wares made in kilns located in Fujian Province to Japan. The Ashikaga shoguns held tenmoku in high esteem, particularly during the reign of Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the eighth shogun.

The Revered Treasures

Throughout history, only four “yohen” tenmoku tea bowls have survived. Yohen refers to a natural ash glaze that creates changes in appearance during firing. Three of these precious bowls, designated as national treasures, are located in Japan: the Seikadou Bunko Art Museum, the Fujita Art Museum, and the Ryuukouin Subtemple of Daitokuji Temple.

Exploring Tenmoku Variations

Tenmoku encompasses various styles, but two of the most common are yohen and yuteki. Yohen refers to kiln-induced changes in appearance, such as glaze running during firing, often resulting in a captivating “hares-fur” effect. Yohen can also refer to the accumulation of ash on the kiln floor, creating a natural glazing process.

On the other hand, yuteki is a technically challenging technique that produces an oil spot effect. This effect occurs when an excess of iron oxide is slowly cooled, giving rise to luminous spots on the surface of the glaze.

The Artistry and Mastery of Tenmoku

Similar to celadon, the Tenmoku style requires exceptional skill and artistry to master. Presently, there are only a small number of outstanding Tenmoku artists in Japan. Among them, Kamada Koji stands out as one of the best. The accompanying photos on this page showcase Kamada’s remarkable pieces. To learn more about this talented artist, click the link below.

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