This is the first of a group of posts I’d like to make about the appreciation of Karatsu ceramics. There are some characteristics of Karatsu ware that are unique to them, primarily due to the local clays, but also due to other materials as well as techniques, and firing.
The first of these characteristics is ‘Shinsuisei’, roughly translated as ‘affinity for water’. There are two sides to the meaning of this word. First is the actual physical changes that occur. Karatsu ware, as well as some other Japanese wares, improves with age. For example, a new E-Karatsu (brush decorated) or Muji Karatsu (undecorated) teabowl is a relatively understated piece of pottery to say the least. It is only through years of use that this pot will acquire the patina and lanscape that will make it a truly remarkable piece. It is safe to say that all the most beautiful and interesting Karatsu ware is the result of the process not only of the potter initially creating the pot, but also the far longer process of the pot’s owner using it in daily life. So while the potter creates the vessel itself, the user is equally important in the process of creation, because in a sense, the vessel is continually growing to become a complex thing of simple beauty (if that makes sense).
From the technical side, shinsuisei is the result of clay, glaze and/or slip, and firing. Karatsu clay is very rough, large particle clay for the most part (there are exceptions), and even fired to maturity, often has a high absorbtion. Water, and subsequently the minerals in the water and tannins from the tea will penetrate the bowl through imperfections in the glaze such as crackle, pinholes or stone eruptions. Cracks in old bowls accelerate the process. Also the unglazed feet of Karatsu ware contribute to water penetrating the pot.
The second side of shinsuisei refers to the aesthetic of the ware, ware that is perfectly at home and matched to it’s intended use, which in this case is drinking. Karatsu is very famous among tea implements, and Karatsu guinomi are prized as sake drinking vessels. In both cases, the vessels complement and improve the drinking experience. The kanji for sake (酒) has the same reading as the kanji for water (水). Some aficionados like to point this out when the term ‘shinsuisei’ is mentioned, because it could be taken to mean ‘affinity for sake’, as well as ‘affinity for water’.
In both photos below, you can see where the water has penetrated the vessel and given it a unique character that did not exist when the pot was new. Although a pot for comparison is not pictured, the bare clay surfaces are quite a bit darker than they were when these particular pots came out of the kiln. The chipped surfaces of the top hanzutsu teabowl give a hint as to the original color of the clay. Both bowls are quite changed overall, with the crackle and pinholing accentuate by years of use. The cracks in the hanzutsu teabowl, rather than detracting from the beauty, as they would with a ‘clean’ porcelain piece, accentuate the ‘landscape’ and warmth of the bowl. This effect is called amamori ‘雨漏り’, meaning ‘rain leaking in’.