Japanese Kutani Porcelain Tea Sets

I never meant to own a bunch of teapots, but somehow I do. Most came from yard sales, and some were given to me, like this gorgeous vintage tea set featuring a peacock and chrysanthemums.

Benifuki tea

My friend thought I’d appreciate this charming set, brought back from Korea by her parents many years ago. A little research showed that the set actually originated in Japan, and I realized that the maker’s marks (below, left and center) matched another tea set that I had picked up at a yard sale held by a woman whose son had brought her gifts from Asia for many years (below, right).

The maker’s mark indicates that they are Kutani.

maker's marks montage

I found it interesting that the name “Kutani” doesn’t refer to a specific manufacturer. Rather, it’s a place, an area—Ku, nine, tani, valley, or Nine Valleys—in Kaga Province, Ishikawa Prefecture.

Pottery has been made in this region since 1655, and all artists, factories, and manufacturers mark their work with “Kutani.” Granted, they may include additional information, such as the specific location in which the piece was made or their own name. (Beyond Kutani, I don’t know the meaning on my ware.)

Eventually, “Kutani” ware was made in other places as well:

The name “Kutani” is now loosely applied to a great variety of 19th-century Japanese ceramics, many of which have no connection with Ishikawa prefecture. To further confuse matters, some authorities now assert that most Old Kutani ware was actually made at Arita, in present-day Saga prefecture. (Britannica)

Kutani porcelain motifs originally drew from Chinese design. In the mid-1800s, gold was applied over a coral-red background (like with my peacock-chrysanthemum tea set) and western pigments augmented Japanese enamels, allowing even more possibilities. As far as design elements, “almost all the pieces made in the Kutani area have a very similar design based on the petalled chrysanthemum motif” (Bouvier) and birds were common, again consistent with my set.

teacup montage

But boldness also characterized many pieces, as demonstrated in this Kutani tea set. (I wish I know the meaning behind this! I feel that I am very deficient in properly understanding the import of this set.)

white kutani

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, most Kutani was exported, although that largely ended when a 1923 earthquake in Tokyo destroyed all the ware that had been in storage. After that, the industry struggled, and most Kutani ware remained in the domestic market. Today, Kutani ware is still made, with potters replicating old ware as well as producing new interpretations.

As for my friend, she isn’t sure how her parents obtained their tea set; she had thought it was perhaps made in Korea because that’s where they were living. So had this Kutani set been exported to Korea and purchased there? Or did the parents, or friends of theirs, visit Japan and bring the set back to Korea with them? No matter how they obtained the set, they held on to it and brought it back to the States with them.

I find the detail work—all hand done—on both these Kutani tea sets lovely. The teapots are well balanced and pour well.

red pot lid

I love the whimsical bug-like element but again, I wish I knew its significance! I welcome any input from anyone who can enlighten me!

white pot, mark on pot

I love using these sets, although I do occasionally wonder about the glaze composition and the likelihood of there being lead or other contaminants. The crazing on the exterior of both pots is darkened in spots and there is leaching from the gold, but there is no crazing in the interiors. I do rotate through my teapots so hopefully I’m minimizing any danger.

Using ware that we enjoy using is part of the experience of drinking any beverage. I find that having tea is so much more satisfying when ritual and mindfulness and appreciation are part of the mix, even if I know less about my tea sets than I would like.


Sources:
–Bouvier, G., The Kutani Ceramic Website, 2017–2021.
–Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Kutani ware,” Britannica, accessed 12/2/21.
–”Kutani ware marks,” Kutani Ware Magazine, Japanese Kutani Store, 10/2/21.
–Nilsson, J.-E., “Japanese Kutani porcelain,” Gotheborg, accessed 12/2/21.
–Nilsson, J.-E., “Japanese porcelain marks,” Gotheborg, accessed 12/2/21.

2 thoughts on “Japanese Kutani Porcelain Tea Sets

  1. To tell the truth, I fell in love with your article because tea is my passion and my weakness. I always try to approach the tea ceremony with a seriousness, paying it a great attention and purchasing truly incredible tea sets because I think that ware is a really important part in this process of tea time. From my point of view, it is really important to use ware that evokes special emotions and I absolutely agree with you that such ware is part of the experience of drinking any beverage. I completely share your position regarding the attitude to a tea ceremony and I also pay attention to details because they play a huge role in our life which we shouldn’t neglect. I think that all tea sets have their own distinctive unique features, but your one conquered my heart. This history of “Kutani” ware is truly interesting and the visual component of these teapots is so original.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for writing and sharing your experience. I agree with you that it’s the details that are so important and make our lives all the more meaningful. That and paying attention, as you beautifully expressed.

      Like

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