Buddhist monks in China first advocated drinking tea as early as the 7th century as an aide to stay awake during long periods of study and mediation. In Japan the ritual of drinking tea became an artistic and cultural pursuit. Tea bowls in particular were essential to the way of tea (chado) and were believed to evoke complex aesthetic terms such as ‘deeply mysterious’ (yugen) and ‘well worn with age’ (wabi sabi).

In the 14th century simple tea bowls from China were highly valued. However cultivated samurai indulged their aesthetic awareness in the accoutrements (equipment) of tea drinking particularly bowls which were created in a Japanese style and featured asymmetry, uneven ash glaze, repairs and on occasion were given names.

Tea bowls from Korea in particular were highly valued and influenced the creation of tea bowls in Japan. The two tea bowls below were both created in and around Kyoto, Japan in the 17th and 18th centuries and are strikingly different. The beauty of Morning light (akebono) is appreciated in its imperfections.

The other, much darker in appearance was created by the famous family of raku potters and was most likely hand shaped (one of a kind) rather than thrown on a potter’s wheel. Raku bowls are easy to identify as they are asymmetrical, uneven and glazed in a variety of colours, and is often said to embody Japanese aesthetics. The pursuit of imperfection was first suggested by the tea master Sen no Rikyū, a famous daimyos tea instructor, who asked a tile-maker, named Chōjirō, to create hand-moulded tea bowls for use that look broken or worn know as wabi or sabi. The resulting tea bowls made by Chōjirō were initially referred to as "ima-yaki" (contemporary ware).

What is Raku?

Raku is a firing technique used in ceramics, the clay is glazed and fired at high temperatures. It is then removed from the kiln while it is still hot and placed in a flammable material (sawdust or newspaper). This causes the glaze to vary in colour.

Japan, Tea bowl (chawan) named Morning Light (Akebono), 17th century, Shigaraki, Shiga prefecture, Japan, earthenware, ash glaze, gold, silver mends, 8.0 x 13.0 cm (diam.); M.J.M. Carter AO Collection through the Art Gallery of South Australia Foundation 2019, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

Keinyu (Raku XI) Tanaka, 1817, 1902, Tea bowl (chawan), 1850-80, Kyoto, Kyoto prefecture, Japan, earthenware, ash glaze, 11.5 x 10.0 cm (diam.); Gift of Andrew and Hiroko Gwinnett through the Art Gallery of South Australia Foundation 2007, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

Watch The Way of the Tea video below. Japanese tea ceremony is said to engage all of the senses. What are the key elements to a tea ceremony? What rituals do your family or culture practice? Does your ritual require any special objects? Share these with the class.

Do you or someone in your family drink tea at home? What is their ritual for making and drinking their tea? Watch the video below 7 Ways to Drink Tea Around the World. Which is the most familiar to you?

Create your own set of tea bowls using clay or paper-clay. Using the seasons or atmospheric effects (light, rain, or wind) as inspiration decorate your tea bowl. Tip: Consider the size and shape of the bowls to ensure they are functional for drinking tea. Remember, don't worry if your bowl isn't perfect, there is beauty in imperfections. Name your tea bowl.