Most people with an interest in collecting Japanese ceramics have come across chawan tea bowls. For that matter, anyone with a passing interest in traditional Japanese life has probably come into contact with these humble but useful pieces of yakimono history. They’re really quite ubiquitous.

A chawan is a bowl that’s used for the preparation and enjoyment of tea. They’re largely known for their involvement in tea ceremonies, but people naturally use them from drinking tea casually as well. Both powdered matcha tea and Chinese style tea work equally as well in a chawan. Styles of tea have enjoyed varying degrees of popularity over the years, though this doesn’t directly seem to have a great deal of influence on pottery.

Glazed Japanese chawan tea bowl

Chawan are not perfectly shaped, nor do they need to be. Potters have long valued organic lines that suggest harmony with nature.

Numerous regional styles of chawan pieces have evolved over the years. These pieces are generally classified by where they came from, what shape they’re molded in, what color the glaze was finished in and what sorts of materials were used to make them. Different bowls might fit any number of categories. Some categories of bowls actually originated outside of Japan.

Karamono bowls are originally from China. Seiji karamono chawan pieces have a very distinctive celadon appearance that’s hard to miss. Celadon pottery originally came out of Zhejiang in China, and must have looked extremely exotic to Japanese collectors of earlier eras.

Koraimono is another initially foreign style that entered the pages of Japanese yakimono history. These pieces originated in Korea, and were initially small rice bowls that Japanese importers used for tea. For that matter, imported Chinese oil bottles found new lives as tea caddies. Koraimono pieces inspired Japanese sculptors, and numerous indigenous Japanese versions were made. Chanoyu expert Sen no Rikyu often favored Koraimono pieces because of how simple they were.

Wamono can technically refer to anything that’s traditionally made in Japan, but in terms of chawan it refers to purely indigenous styles. Collectors generally divide wamono chawan by their kilns and the area made them in. Satsuma, Shino, Oribe, Shigaraki, Seto, Setoguro, Izumo, Hagi, Asahi and Karatsu all have individual regional styles.

Paying close attention to the way that raku ware is used in the world of tea ceremonies is important for yakimono enthusiasts. Many tea bowls were actually hand shaped as opposed to thrown on a wheel. They were somewhat porous because they were fired at lower temperatures than one might expect.

Japanese chawan tea bowl piece

Sizes vary among individual chawan yakimono pieces, but they are almost always small enough to be comfortably held in the hand.

While people might not think it safe to do so today, potters usually applied lead glazes to raku-yaki pieces. They removed them from the kiln while they were still red hot. Ceramics experts generally allowed the chawan to cool off either in an open-air environment or in some sort of box filled with various types of combustible material.

Since modern potters have modified raku-yaki techniques, there are a wide variety of tea bowls on the market today. Some newer pieces made by established artists will actually fetch more money than antiques. A few potters even have a following among fine art collectors. These potters produce truly exquisite pieces that few people would ever actually think of using as tea bowls.