Visiting the Raku Museum

Clay seals of the various Raku family members

I highly recommend that tea enthusiasts visiting Kyoto pay a visit to the Raku Museum.  We regretfully ran short of time the last time we were there, so we put the museum at the top of our ‘ to-do’ list this time. While we long ago fell under the enchantment of beautiful teawares of all types, we are both especially captivated by the beauty, sheer size, power and presence of Japanese tea bowls. For others who feel this way, the Raku Museum does not disappoint.

street view of the Raku Museum

This jewel-box of a museum is in a residential neighborhood a little north and west of the Imperial Palace and close to the textile district. We took a bus to the vicinity of the museum and walked the rest of the way.  The museum is located in a traditional Japanese house ( machiya ) which is situated right on the street, and its presence is so discreet that we walked right past the street where it is located before asking directions. Foolishly, we had walked all around it and had not noticed the small signs pointing the way. We later found out that the family house and workshop is located next door to the museum, and has been at this location since the Momoyama Period (1573-1615). The house was rebuilt in 1855 and is now designated at a National Registered Cultural Property and a Cultural Landscape.

very discreet signage

Raku is the family name of a lineage of potters who, from the late 1600′s up to the present, have crafted a distinctive style of over-sized tea bowls for drinking matcha ( powdered tea ) during the Japanese tea ceremony. The term Raku (literally, “enjoyment” or “ease”) was first given to this kind of pottery by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537–1598), who was the leading warrior statesman of the time, and a very high-profile student of the tea ceremony.

In the 16th century, the Japanese tea master Sen Rikyu discovered the work of a Korean potter named Chojiro.  Chojiro hand-built tea bowls that had the look and feel of the ‘ideal’ tea bowl that Sen Rikyu sought. These bowls fulfulled Sen Rikyu’s concept of the size, shape, overall appearance and humbleness that tea bowls should possess. They were also a break from the style of Chinese tea bowls that had been in use in Japan for some time . In appreciation of his excellent tea bowls, Toyotomi Hideyoshi paid  honor to Chojiro by presenting him with a seal bearing the character for ‘Raku’ to use as a family name.

From that time to the present day, over the course of just over 400 years, each successive head of the Raku family has produced  low-fired, traditional, hand-built tea bowls in the style advocated by Sen Rikyu. Today, the head of the family is Kichizaemon XV ( 1949~ ) who continues to bring innovation to Raku tea bowls while respecting established traditions passed on from father to son. But don’t for one minute think that these bowls are available for sale to anyone who wishes to own one; the Raku family is not in the business of supplying quantities of tea bowls these days and the few that are made are most likely ‘placed’ and not purchased.

The collection at the Raku Museum is intensely focused on it’s magnificent collection of  tea bowls, tea utensils and related scrolls and ancient documents pertaining to the Raku family and the tea bowls themselves. For me, the highlight was being able to feast my eyes on this stunning collection of tea bowls,  which are displayed in chronological order by generation and amply attributed to each Raku maker.  In fact, one bowl from each of the 15 generations of Raku potters is represented, and to see such a historic and important collection in one room is very moving.

In addition to the sheer beauty and commanding presence of these tea bowls, a visit to the museum gives visitors the opportunity to compare the shape, size, appearance and overall aesthetic of the bowls as they changed with each successive generation. The first tea bowl that one sees upon entering the gallery is by the current Raku, Kichizaemon XV. Its modernity, shape, size and colors is a fitting focal point at the entrance to the exhibit.

The Raku Museum was created in 1978 by the 14th Raku, Kahunyu ( 1918-1980 ) with pieces from the extensive family collection.  The depth of the family holdings provides many additional items of interest for visitors, such as the original signed wooden boxes and lids that were made to protect each bowl, scrolls, letters, etc. Such an assemblage of material is only possible in a tightly held private family collection that has recognized the value of their work from the beginning.

Exhibitions change throughout the year, and I for one would visit this museum several times a year if I lived in Kyoto. Opening hours are from 10 AM to 4 PM daily except Mondays but including national holidays, and the entrance charge is less than $ 10.00 US.

The museum is small ( although there are three floors ), quite, respectful and a calm oasis in an otherwise hectic city. There is no gift shop ( although beautiful post cards and a few books can be purchased ) and there is surprisingly, no tea room.

Black Raku teabowl ‘Omakage’ – made by Chojiro ( b.? -died 1589 )

Red Raku teabowl – made by Tannyu X ( 1795-1854 )

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