A Masterful Japanese Tamba Teapot

This is a photo of my favorite Japanese teapot – a gruesome beauty crafted by Tamba artist Ken Nagai. I discovered this teapot several years ago on the Japanese ceramics website www.2000cranes.com which is owned by our friend and ceramics expert Brian Nolan. It was love at first sight for me, and I contacted Brian immediately.

Fortunately, he still had the pot so it quickly became mine. When it arrived from Japan, I tore the box open and wrestled with the layers of wrapping around each piece. Once I unearthed the teapot it was even more exceptional than I had hoped. It was rustic, muscular and lean: nothing fluffy here.

I ran my hands over it, feeling the spots and bumps of it’s gritty, textured surface. I loved it for what it was: a rustic, flame-licked pot that proudly wore the subtle flashes of grey-blue and red-brown color that it had earned while being birthed during an intense night in a hotter-than-hot wood burning kiln.

To me, this pot was a rare beauty made by an artist with talent and vision who truly understands the dynamic forces of heat, smoke and fire at work inside his kiln. A lesser hand might have turned this teapot into something gloomy or a piece that could be discounted as a foolish dalliance. But instead, Nagai-san hit a brilliant chord in the execution of this pot. Because, underneath the brooding and somber nature of this teapot lies a sophisticated and intentional design that gives the pot radiance and soul.

I came to recognize that the clay overskirt which covers the body of the teapot ( and obscures the bottom of the teapot in the photo ) mimics one of the historic designs of Japanese tetsubin, large cast iron water kettles. ( Today, smaller versions of these kettles are enamel-lined and sold as teapots ). In spirit, this teapot is a precious equilibria between two essential yet contrasting elements of Japanese tea preparation materials: pottery ( earth ) and cast iron ( metal ) wares.

But the story of this teapot does not end there. In advance of our trip to Japan last spring we talked with Brian about his pottery and the talented artists he represents. He offered to take us to Tamba and meet Ken Nagai. Of course we were thrilled.

We left Kyoto for Hyogo Prefecture and the area surrounding the village of Tachikui where the kilns of the Tamba potters are located. Tamba is referred to as one of the Old Six Kilns of Japan, meaning that it is a very historic and significant area of regional pottery production that dates back to medieval Japan. Like its other historic brethren – Seto, Tokonome, Shigaraki, Bizen and Echizen – the characeristic appearance of Tamba pottery is determined by the composition of the iron-rich local clay which produces red-brown to blue-grey flushes of color, the shape and style of kiln and firing techniques used, and the overall, traditional aesthetic of the pottery. Tamba pottery is dark in color with an iron-like hardness and simple, utilitarian aesthetic. These pieces are marvelously earthy in feeling and organic in appearance. Like most Tamba wares, Nagai-san’s pieces are not glazed and the finish and texture of the pots is given to each piece by the kiln.

Nagai-san’s pieces have textural surfaces that play with the light. Hold one this way or that way and subtle colorations on the surface will reveal. Nagai-san fires his pottery in a small noboringama or climbing kiln. This type of kiln is wood-fired and can create quite dramatic effects on the pottery depending on where the pots are placed in the kiln, the type of wood used, and other magical variables.

When we arrived, Nagai-san was just opening his kiln. The once red-hot temperature of the kiln had cooled down so that the pots could be removed safely. We were told that all of these new pieces had been made for an upcoming exhibition of Nagai-san’s pottery at an art gallery. Reading between the lines of this statement, I knew that Brian was telling us that no pieces would be available for us to purchase. Althought we were initially disappointed by this, we knew that the invitation to the kiln opening and the opportunity to meet this admired artist and learn more about his craft was the real treasure. So we concentrated and entered the moment.

It was exciting for the three of us to watch Nagai-san remove the bricks that had sealed up the kiln. He peaked inside with a light as it was clear that he too, was anxious to see how successful his firing had been. He seemed pleased with what he saw. Brian explained to us that potters who fire with wood commonly lose some pieces in the kiln from damage that is inflicted by sticks of wood that are pushed into the kiln ( via slits in the wall of the kiln ) during the firing. Bits of burning wood can also ‘pop,’ causing damage to delicate pieces.

When the opening was complete, we peered into the kiln and this is what we saw. To us it  looked as though the forces of nature had wreaked havoc inside the kiln. In some ways that is exactly what happens during a wood-buring fire. But we were assured that all was fine, and that the ash and bits of wood debris covering the pottery was normal and expected. 

Teapots came out, as did cups, bowls, plates and more teapots. Little fat teapots and larger teapots that had the shape of ripe summer melons. None of the teapots were like the one we had at home, but these pots also projected the stoic, austere Nagai-san style and his Tamba roots.


After weeks of throwing and building and a week of firing and cooling, Nagai-san still had work to do to get his pots ready to show. It would take him most of the evening and next morning to empty the kiln, after which he had a scant 36 hours to clean, burnish and primp every piece.  Once we returned home, we heard that the exhibition was a great success and that Nagai-san had sold most of his pieces.

To see more of Ken Nagai’s work and images from his 2010 Osaka Exhibition, or to purchase a teapot, please visit Brian’s website: www.2000cranes.com

Click here to see images of classic overskirted tetsubins from a traditional Japanese craft company: www.suzukimorihisa.com. Under the Works header, click on the Teakettles header. The 2nd teakettle pictured in the top and bottom rows have the overskirted design.

Click here to see our selection of tetsubin teapots


Teawares Addiction



Yes, I admit it. I have an addiction to teawares.  Not to conventional tea ‘bling’, but to handmade ‘treasure’: traditional,  Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese teawares. Treasure does not necessarily mean something that is expensive, although some teawares are extremely costly. Shockingly so. But to me treasure is something with a ‘soul’ that will harmonize with tea and teach me a lesson about tea culture.

Enought is never enough. I cannot pass up a svelt or chunky tea cup with a pleasing shape, a rustic feel or an unusual glaze. I like pieces that give me clues about where it was made by it’s shape, glaze and overall style.  I  like to use different teacups with my gaiwans and keep my friends guessing as to what my tea table will be set with each time. Old cups, new cups, shiny finishes, matte finishes, delicate pale colors or rich earth tones all catch my magpie eye in equal measure.

Teawares are my best ‘ take-home’ memento when I travel. In fact, my carry-on bags bulge when I set off for home after a tea buying trip to Asia. Because that is where the treasure lies (some tea is hand-carried too; the rest is air-shipped).

Teapots, too, are just too delicious to be limited to a useful few.

Have you ever noticed that unglazed Chinese teapots are quite different in shape and style from Japanese unglazed teapots ? Both are constructed for use with certain teas, so the form and function of each teapot  is in sync.  I like to look too, for telltale signs of the hand of the maker in the construction of the teapot or teacup. You know, the little details that let you know that it was made by man and not machine. Whatever clues I can deduce about how was the piece made, what tools were used, what type of kiln was the piece fired in, etc. fascinate me.

I also wonder about the artist who made the piece. Was it a man or a woman ? In Asian, the majority of potters are men, but talented women have been elbowing their way in to some areas of pottery and ceramics work. Did the artist work in peaceful solitude or in a jovial group with other colleagues ?  Where do they find most of their inspiration – in a bright, sunny studio space or in the middle of the night sitting beside a woodburning kiln full of their hard work ?

I use many of my teawares; others I do not. Not yet, anyway. Some tea ‘connoisseurs’ find collections of unused teawares silly or wasteful. I don’t.  Why ? Because I am supporting the livelihood of potters and ceramic artists with my purchases and using them to educate my tea enthusiast customers about tea and tea culture. And they are lovely reminders of places that I have been in Asia and tea that I have drunk there with friends and colleagues.

To me, the enjoyment of a delicious cup of tea depends as much on the teawares and the environment in which the tea is drunk as much as the quality of the tea. Each piece has a voice and a story, and together they sing so sweetly.  Here, a large cookie jar made by a Chinese artist friend can be seen proudly masquerading as a Pu-erh storage jar.

Tea Ceramics Exhibition: Richard Milgrim


Those of us within striking distance of Boston ( and who are looking for something tea-related or ceramics-related to do on a winter’s day ) are in for a treat this month. From January 15th until February 14th the Pucker Gallery at 171 Newbury Street in Boston is featuring the inagural exhibition of the tea ceramics of Richard Milgrim. The opening reception is scheduled for January 15th and from 3 – 6 pm the artist will be in attendance.

Richard Milgrim is an American potter fully imbued in the Japanese tradition of ceramic tea wares (chato)  and Chado, The Way of Tea. (Chado is a synthesis of numerous philosophies and arts which culminate into a unique method of preparing and drinking matcha (powdered green tea) known as Chanoyu, or the Japanese tea ceremony. Cultivated and nourished by the Japanese since the 1500s, the Way of Tea is a discipline which transforms simple daily activities into the fine art of life. )

He is an exceptional artist whose work reflects what he has learned and absorbed from his time studying with four different Japanese master potters. Early in his career, Richard was endorsed by Dr. Sen Soshitsu XV, who was at that time the Grand Master and Head of the Urasenke School of Tea. Dr. Sen was so impressed with Richard’s interest in Japanese tea and the tea arts, his potter’s skills and knowledge of the intricacies of Japanese tea ceramics traditions that his endorsement opened the door for a young Richard to meet and work with many famed Japanese potters.

As a result, Richard studied with Iwabuchi Shigeya, a specialist in Kyoto ceramics; Tahara Tobei, a 12-th generation master of the Korean-inspired Hagi tradition; Fujiwara Yu, a famed maker of wood-fired Bizen ware (who was later named a Living National Treasure), and Kato Koemon, a prominent potter of Shino and Oribe wares in the Mino tradition.

Since 1979, Richard has worked in Japan as a potter specializing in tea ceramics, first under known masters and then as a master himself. These extraordinary opportunities have put Richard in the unique position of being an American with a breadth of understanding and familiarity with Japanese ceramics that no other American potter possesses.

Richard approaches tea ceramics as an insider and his work reflects the complete degree to which he has immersed himself in understanding all the essential aspects of what is required of his pieces to work successfully in a Chanoyu setting: the size, proper balance, weight, form, and above all, functionality. It is because of his high level of accomplishment and because he lives a life dedicated to tea and tea ceramics that his best customers are among the most discriminating tea practioners and ceramics collectors in Japan.

Those familiar with Japanese tea ceramics for Chanoyu know that the pieces are usually large, and commanding in presence.  Richard’s work is thusly so, but my eye finds a softness in  his work rather than an aloofness or awkwardness. This welcoming quality begs the onlooker to admire and contemplate each piece individually as well as to imagine how well the piece will fit in to the context of the other materials chosen for inclusion in a particular tea ceremony. (Ceramics represent only one type of material used for Chanoyu. Other materials to be considered when planning a particular toriawase ( the selection of a combination of various tea utensils and objects chosen for a particular tea gathering ) are the iron tea kettle; chasen or bamboo whisk; chashaku or bamboo tea scoop; lacquer incense burner; woven bamboo flower container; hanging brush-painted calligraphy scroll. )

But above all else, these ceramics are appealing. I immediately want to hold them, touch their sculpted and slightly uneven surfaces, and to feel the cool smoothness or slight roughness of the glaze that drapes each piece of clay for just the right effect. The beauty of Richard’s work goes beyond their intended use for tea and will be of interest to ceramics enthusiasts in general.

Richard maintains two studios, one in MA ( Konko-Gama ) and one in Kyoto, Japan ( Richado-Gama.)  The greatest concentration of his work  is produced in Japan, but in each of his kilns Richard uses local clays and glazes that have been formulated for those clays. Hence, his American work and his Japanese works bear a distinct difference from one another. But they all exude the Richard Milgrim style and flair, making the purchasing decision even more difficult for collectors of tea ceramics or for Chanoyu practitioners seeking to add a new piece to their carefully chosen and valued collection of teawares.

Richard is a friend and a huge talent. I urge tea lovers and ceramics collectors to attend his inagural gallery exhibition. It will be a wonderful opportunity to view a full compliment of Richard’s work, and to see  how his Western and Japanese sensibilities interplay to create Japanese tea ceramics that pay homage to the past but bring the tradition forward via pieces that both function flawlessly while effortlessly pleasing the eye.

We had the pleasure of meeting with Richard on several occasions in the past two years, including on his turf in Kyoto, Japan. It was a thrill for us to spend time in Japan with Richard and his wife, Mari, who is a master tea practitioner in the Urasenke Foundation school of Chado or Way of Tea. She is involved with both the Kyoto and Boston Chapter of Urasenke. ( The Urasenke Foundation, based in Kyoto, Japan, through diligent and dynamic efforts has become the largest school of Chado both in Japan and around the world. They have branch schools in many parts of the world, including the USA. Urasenke spreads international appreciation of Chado, through Chanoyu, the Japanese tea ceremony, which is based on tenets established by the tea master Sen Rikyu (1522-1591 ) and continued by successive heads of the Sen family every generation since. )

Mari and Richard lead what I call a ‘fairy-tale’ life. They are a joyful couple and each is completely devoted to separate aspects of tea culture and Chado; he to ceramics and she to teaching the graceful art of Chanoyu. ( Chanoyu is based on tea master Sen Rikyu’s seven principals:  Make a delicious bowl of tea; lay charcoal so that the water boils; provide a sense of warmth in the winter and coolness in the summer; arrange flowers as they are in a field; be ready ahead of time; be prepared in case it should rain; and with whom you find yourself give every consideration without fuss.  Practicing these  seemingly simply activities one soon discovers how challenging it is to carry them out without fail. The Way of Tea concerns the creation of the proper setting for that moment of enjoyment of a perfect bowl of tea. Everything that goes into that serving of tea, from all of the tea utensils to the quality of the air and the space where it is served, becomes a part of its flavor.‘ )

As a couple and as artists they complement one another beautifully, and spend much of the year in Kyoto: the central place where the tea arts are taught and practiced and tea is considered an important aspect of life. Attending a tea cermony with Mari and Richard at a private temple was a privilege and joy to experience. We had a little glimpse into their life in Japan, enough to realize how very unique their world is.  With a several hundred year old tea tradition behind them, they have dedicated their lives to the gentile Kyoto world of  tea, tea ceramics, kimonos, traditions, protocol, reverence and etiquette.

You can now have a glimpse into Richard’s world by viewing his work on display at the Pucker Gallery. Come and let him tell you about the pieces. What will one see here ?  Many delightful objects and vessels essential to Chanoyu. Japanese tea fanciers and collectors of Japanese ceramics are of course familiar with the chawan, the oversized tea bowl that is most central to the shared experience or direct connection between the host and the guest in a tea ceremony.

But tea practitioners need many other ceramic tea utensils, too, so one will see several examples of the lidded ceramic tea caddie or chaire which holds the koicha or thick tea ( a very particular type of matcha used at certain formal tea ceremonies); the mizusashi, or lidded container for the freshwater; the hanaire or flower vase; and various sized shallow serving bowls as well as some sake cups, sake bottles and tea cups that could be used during kaiseki, the multi-course meal with accompanies the serving of 2 types of tea in the most formal tea ceremony called a chaji. 

Of course, any of these tea utensils could also be freely used outside the formal tea setting for everyday use.

Surpassing Boundaries:
Richard Milgrim’s
Ceramics for Tea and Beyond
January 15th – February 14th

Pucker Gallery
171 Newbury Street
Boston MA 02116

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 )