Japanese Tenmoku Pottery

One of the oldest Japanese crafts and art forms dating back to the Neolithic period about 12,000 years ago is pottery. Kilns (thermally insulated chamber) have been used for hundreds of years to turn clay into pottery and has produced some of Japan’s finest earthenware, glazed pottery and stoneware, blue-and-white ware, and porcelain.

Tenmoku Japanese pottery. | Albert

The country is known to have an exceptionally long history of ceramic production, one of the oldest in the world.  Japanese earthenware can be traced as early as the Jōmon period(10,500–300 BCE). Ceramics is well esteemed in Japan and has enduring popularity because of the Japanese cultural activity of the tea ceremony.

Jian ware. Yohen tenmoku tea bowl with blue and green “oil spot” marks, southern Song dynasty, 13th century.  Japanese National Treasure. | Key-museo

Tenmoku is a type of Japanese pottery and porcelain that originated from emulating Chinese stoneware, Jian ware of the southern Song dynasty (1127-1279). Tenmoku is characterized by shapes that are simple yet bold. The ceramic glaze is the main emphasis of this particular style which produces several distinct effects. Some have an element of randomness that presents a philosophical appeal, influencing tea-masters who developed the tea ceremony to promote the aesthetic fundamentals of Tenmoku pottery.

The word Tenmoku took its name from the Tianmu Mountain temple in China where iron-glazed bowls were utilized for tea. The style became widespread and popular during the Song dynasty with the Chinese calling it Jian Zhan, meaning “Jian (tea)cup”.

Tenmoku bowl. Ofuke ware bowl, medium stoneware with rice-straw ash glaze, between 1700–1850.

Historical documentation from 1406 tells us that the Ming Dynasty Yongle Emperor (1360–1424) sent ten Jian ware bowls to the shōgun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408), who ruled over Japan during the Muromachi period. Japanese monks coming back home from the monasteries in China also brough back pieces of the particular style. Tenmoku soon became a valued part of tea ceremonies and more pieces were brought in from China where they became highly prized goods in Japan.

The Japanese term slowly replaced the original Chinese name for the general ware of the type. One of the renowned kilns that produced tenmoku is where Seto ware stems from. The glaze used for Tenmoku is still produced in Japan amongst a very limited circle of artists.

Tenmoku in its entirety, connotes the rich history of the oriental qualities of pottery being the oldest glazed type. It is now being used all around the world with five Tenmoku bowls designated as national treasures.