Raku ware was created in 16th century Japan for ritual tea drinking. The Japanese tea ceremony, with its roots in Zen Buddhism, is a kind of meditation. The underlying philosophies are harmony, respect, purity and tranquility. The Raku type of tea bowl with a natural and unpretentious style and earthy colors was developed to enhance the experience of those participating in the ceremony.
Raku is a very hands on process. The tea bowls are fashioned by hand to be thick enough to keep the bowl from becoming too hot to hold, but thin enough to warm up and retain the warmth of the tea. Raku ware is removed from the kiln while still glowing hot, causing a forced cooling at air temperature that is a thermal shock treatment. The low firing temperature keeps the clay from completely hardening. This gives the tea bowls the insulating qualities that keep the tea warm longer and a softer feel, which makes them more appealing to hold in the hand. The distinctive sound the Raku tea bowls gives when struck is valued in the Zen experience of the Japanese tea ceremony.
Zen Buddhism originated in India and subsequently traveled to China in the sixth century A.D. where it developed further. Tea drinking in Japan dates back to the eighth century, when tea was introduced by Japanese monks trained in China. The monks originally used tea to help them stay awake during long sessions of meditation. Ritual tea drinking was first practiced in Japan during the Kamakura period (1192-1333) by Zen monks. In the 13th century, samurai, Japan’s warrior aristocracy, took it up. During the 15th century ritual tea drinking became an eclectic social art form where a group of friends gathered in an isolated atmosphere to drink tea and discuss the aesthetic merits of paintings, calligraphy and flower arrangements on display in the Tokorama of the teahouse. The tea ceremony developed in the brilliant and luxurious days of Higoshiyama and Monoyama. Passing through the hands of Shuko and Sho-o it finally took shape under those of Sen Rikyu as Cha-no-yu, or the “way of tea.”
Sen-No-Rikyu, a tea master at the 16th century court of the military dictator Toyotomi Hedeyoshi, codified the ceremony into a style known as wabi, meaning simplicity, quietude and absence of ornament. Rikyu became an art director and commissioned craftsmen to create original objects in this new sensibility so this period of Japanese ceramics is call Cha-no-yu.
Tea bowls in the Cha-no-yu period are divided into three classes: Chinese, Korean and Japanese. The Chinese Temmoku and Celadon tea bowls are artistically fine and pleasing to look at, but they are not good for tea drinking because of their hardness. Korean potters kidnapped during invasions of Korea developed their own line of organic and rustic pottery in Japan.
The originator of Raku was Chojiro, the son of a Chinese emigrant. When Shogun Hideyoshi built the pleasure pavilion Ju-raku-tei he brought Chojiro to live there and had him make tiles and tea utensils. Chojiro was given an income so that he did no more commercial work and was formally appointed tea bowl maker to work under Rikyu. Hediyoshi gave Chojiro a golden seal bearing the second character of Ju-raku-tei, and hence the character “Raku” was stamped on his tiles and pottery. His wares were usually glazed with one or two colors. It is known as Raku ware and is still classified as either black or red ware. Chojiro adopted the term “Raku” as the name of the family producing the ware, not in the character’s normal sense of “joy” or “ease.”
The Japanese tea masters developed a sensibility called wabi-sabi. The first recorded wabi-sabi tea master was Murata Shuko (1423-1502), a Zen monk from Nara. About a hundred years after Shukos innovations came Sen-No-Rikyu (1522-1591). The closest English equivalent to wabi-sabi is “rustic.” It shares some characteristics with what we call “primitive art,” that is objects that are earthy, simple, unpretentious and fashioned out of natural materials. Wabi-sabi was a reaction to Chinese perfection, much as our own Modernism is a reaction to Classicism.
Wabi is what the tea master Sen-No-Rikyu and his successors endeavored to create with the rustic teahouse, the bowl of muted colors and the single flower immaculately arrange in the dark alcove. The Japanese tearoom was much like an ordinary study in its furnishing with boxes for stationary, ink stone, bookstand, incense burner and flower vase. Since the tearoom is modeled on the pure spotless ideal world of Buddhism meditation, all luxury and all ostentation must be avoided.
A consequence of this belief led educated men to leave their rich palaces and comfortable homes to stay in a poor hut in the forest or by a lake away from the world and concentrate on just being. It was used by the powerful to escape the demands of the day-to-day.
Chojiro probably glaze-fired his Raku ware in a coal or wood-burning muffle kiln and watched the firing through a hole in the lid. (The muffle kiln is a thin-walled cylinder protecting the ware from direct contact with flames; it is like a protective box or saggar, but is permanently part of the kiln structure.) When the color of the kiln’s interior was right, the ware would be removed red-hot from the kiln with long-handled tongs and would be quenched by immersing it in a concentrated solution of green tea.
The American method of glaze firing Raku ware differs from the Japanese method in that after the red-hot piece is removed from the kiln, instead of quenching it, the piece is placed in a metal can with a combustible material, like paper. The combustible material ignites, and the fire and smoke reacts with the glaze to create a very unique and unpredictable effect on the surface of the pottery. This process is called post-fire reduction. After about 20 minutes, when the can has cooled down, the piece is cooled quickly with water mist to freeze the colors.
Using a combustible material in a metal can was discovered by accident in 1960 by American professor Paul Soldner during a demonstration of the Raku process. The piece he was moving from the kiln to the quenching bath fell into some dried leaves and ignited them. He liked the results, so the post-reduction process was born.
SOME PRACTICAL ADVICE
The majority of the above information was extracted from the following books and websites, which are recommended as good resource information:
Cha-no-yu, The Japanese Tea Ceremony, by A. I. Sadler, Charles E. Tuttle Co., Vermont. Comment: A great history resource.
Raku Pottery, by Robert Piepenburg, Pebble Press Inc., Michigan. Comment: Good for beginner’s techniques and recipes.
Wabi-Sabi, for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, by Leanard Koren, Stone Bridge Press, California. Comment: Information on wabi the Zen monks way.