Day 4: Tokyo – Chiyoda & The Imperial Palace

A wee bit of culture today.

First stop was the Museum of Modern Art for an exhibition on raku tea bowls.

For those of you following “The Great Pottery Throwdown”, you think you might know what Raku is. We thought we did and  that was based upon N being a keen potter. Well, it turns out that you probably know what western raku is and here’s where things get controversial.

On the BBC2 show, raku pottery is produced when the pots are biscuit fired and then the glaze is fired in an oxygen free environment accompanied by a selections of combustibles to give a spectacular glazed effect. This transpires however to be the western technique, as developed by Paul Soldner in the USA in the 60s.

It turns out that this isn’t true Japanese raku, where the effect is achieved by removing the pots from the kiln at high temperature and letting them cool in the open air. This produces a much more subtle effect.

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N’s favourite Raku tea bowl, named Rika and from 1998

It is the reduction chamber where the pot is placed post-firing in western style raku that is controversial as it differs from the Japanese technique, driven mostly by the modern need to approximate the effect of the early Japanese kilns by using electricity or gas.

This was where paths diverged. According to wikipedia:

In a craft conference in Kyoto in 1979, a heated debate sprang up between Western raku artists Paul Soldner and the youngest in the dynastic raku succession, Kichiemon, (of the fourteenth generation of the “Raku” family of potters) concerning the right to use the title “raku”. The Japanese artists maintain that any work by other craftsman should hold their own name, (i.e., Soldner-ware, Hirsh-ware), as that was how “raku” was intended.

The exhibition at the Tokyo Museum of Modern Art was called “The Cosmos in a Tea Bowl: Transmitting a Secret Art across Generations of the Raku Family”. The tea bowls are those that are used to prepare rather than drink the green tea.

And this is where Raku with a capital R comes in, tracing the development of the traditional Kyoto tea bowl from the 16th century to the present day, across generations of the Raku family. Members of the family were cast out, politics ensued and one generation even started engraving the bowls (although that appeared to have been quickly knocked out of him). It was a dynastic history that Kurosawa or Scorsese could have captured on film:

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a potter

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A variety of modern day Raku bowls

The bowls were beautiful but the development was glacial. The most modern bowls were very subtle descendants of the original bowls, all created within effectively the same family business. The glazes were mostly dark, the bowls generally slightly inelegant with more thickly  formed sides than one might expect. The bowls all had individual names, which was a nice touch. Not a lot changed over a 600 year period.

The bowls just cried out to be touched, lifted and used. The fact that they were non-symmetrical (I won’t use imperfect) made you want to pick them up even more as they didn’t appear to be items to be used purely for display purposes, which obviously they weren’t. They had a purpose.It was all quite zen like really.

However I do feel like I’ve seen all I need to see about Kyoto tea bowls, which is unfortunate as we heading there in a few days time. There was enough beauty on display to get Keith Brymer Jones in floods of tears though.


We then moved on to the rest of the rooms which contained examples of modern Japanese art. We did our “which one would you have in your living room game” and these two came out on top.

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“Bathing”, a lino print by Kanae Yamamoto (1882-1946)
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“A Cherry” by Yolo Hamaguchi from 1962
The rest of the exhibition contained their collection of Western Art – A Picasso here, a Miro there etc. It didn’t quite stick together cohesively which was further emphasised by the sense that the modern Japanese art was struggling for a sense of identity too.


A few more fun things:

There was a small exhibition of Marcel Breuer’s furniture. I had a knock off version of the Wasily chair that I bought from Greenwich Market and lasted about 12 months. They gave you the opportunity to recreate this iconic image.

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I didn’t bother with the skirt but here’s my attempt at it:

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They also had a sculpture where they invited to shape your hand as per the subject – hold your ring and index finger straight together, bring your thumb forward and push your remaining two fingers back whilst bending them. All of this whilst trying not to get cramp (which I couldn’t manage). My daughter though has hyper-mobility and is ultra-flexible hence her better effort (me on the right obviously):


We crossed over the road and entered the gardens of the Imperial Palace for the last hour that they were open. They are very well ordered but ultimately not dramatically beautiful public gardens.

We are slightly behind the “blossom curve”. It is has been a cold and wet few weeks and consequently the trees aren’t quite blooming as forecast. That doesn’t stop the Japanese getting their sakura fix in, as this photo illustrates:

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