During our visit, last spring (2016) we took some time to get to know ceramic artist Kato Juunidai (the 12th generation in the history of the ceramist family) more closely. First, Kato Juunidai led us into a traditional Japanese room (washitsu), with a flooring made of rice straw mats (tatami), that can only be entered over a small step, and of course only without shoes. Accordingly, we sit there in front of a low table, kneeling on the floor. At this point, the artist’s 80-years-old mother appeared, greeted us discreetly, and served us Matcha. We admire the Matcha bowls: they clearly are very special pieces. And we notice that it must be older works, as their surface shows us.
Mr. Kato notices our amazed looks and our admiration for the old Matcha bowls, and he explains that they are from his grandfather, that is the 10th generation of the family. One can see that the bowls are characterised by certain traditional glazes. Yet, they were in some way modified in color, structure or decoration, or used for Matcha bowls whose shape enters into an extraordinary combination with the effect of the glazes. This does not mean a harsh break from tradition, but a subtle, very charming variation.
During our visit last year (2016), after drinking from the precious Matcha bowls, we dare to ask who created these works. It turns out they are works of Mr. Kato’s grandfather, that is, the 10th generation, who, especially in old age, devoted himself exclusively to creating special Matcha bowls. After the then about 60-years-old Mr. Kato notices with surprise that we are deeply interested in the older works of his grandfather, he invites us to come with him into another part of the building, in which there is also the pottery atelier. Arriving there, a small room is awaiting us, exclusively dedicated to the presentation of special and unique Matcha bowls. We feel very honoured when Kato Juunidai explains that he rarely brings guests to this room. In a way, it is also a room for commemorating his grandfather, because here there are mainly Matcha bowls from the 10th generation. Nevertheless, in a small shelve a few works from the 12th generation can be found as well. We kneel on the floor to look at his grandfather’s honourable Matcha bowls from close by.
One Matcha bowl especially catches our attention: It is a Matcha bowl with intentional cracks in the clay, which seems very unspectacular at first sight. The clay is light beige; the shape is designed in a way that directly above the foot, the radius immediately increases, and then it rises vertically not in a edgy, but in a slightly rounded form. The shape ends at the upper rim of the bowl with clear cracks in the contour, finishing with a slightly blueish glaze, which is applied only very gently. We had never seen anything like this. From Mr Kato we learn that it is a “Ofuke Chawan”, meaning a Matcha bowl in the Ofuke-style.
Back in the washitsu (Japanese room), where we sit down again for talking, Mr. Kato expresses that he would be very glad to cooperate with us. We emphasise that we are just as excited about his grandfather’s bowls as about his own bowls, and that we will definitely contact him. However, back in Germany, a mountain of daily work is waiting for us, and it takes us more than half a year to concretise our ideas and contact Mr. Kato. So, we are afraid that he maybe does not believe anymore that we will ever contact him. Talking with him, we dare to get back to the topic of his grandfather’s old Ofuke Matcha bowls. Kato Juunidai is surprised that we could not forget his grandfather’s Matcha bowl until now; he is very happy about it, because more than his father, his grandfather was a teacher for the grandson. Grandfather Kato Juudai, who was born exactly in 1900, dedicated himself to this kind of Matcha bowls from an age of 77 years until old age, when he passed away 91-years-old. This inspired the grandson more than his father’s working-style, who rather dedicated himself to creating larger series, which he produced with the help of a whole group of personnel.
During our conversation, Kato Juunidai emphasizes that this Matcha bowl is exactly one of his grandfather’s works that he is very fascinated about as well. We start to talk about the possibility of creating a small series of Ofuke Matcha bowls, which the grandson could base on the style of his master – his grandfather. Kato Juunidai is enthusiastic about the idea, and much faster than we even hoped for, he emphasises that he will start the work right away. We are astonished about Mr. Kato’s openness for our idea. From other established families who are engaged in a craft or art for many generations, and gained fame and a good reputation in the course of the years, we are rather used to a distanced loftiness. And normally a proposal like this will inevitably be rejected – sharply but with a friendly smile. However, Mr. Kato rather connects his art and family history with artistic openness for new things, inspiration through the encounter with other cultures, and the readiness to react to art-lovers’ ideas, as we had the pleasure to experience ourselves.
In the end of 2016, this results into Kato Juunidai producing two small series for us with 25 pieces each, both of them an interpretation of one of his grandfather’s Matcha bowls. Of course, it is not 25 times the same bowl, as each single one of them was made by hand, and not pressed. The application of the glaze also clearly differs from one bowl to another, as one can easily see when looking at several bowls of the series. One of the series, an interpretation of the Ofuke Matcha bowl by his grandfather, the 10th generation of the ceramic artist family Kato, is not even made on a pottery wheel but shaped completely free with the hands. This is clear because the Ofuke Matcha bowl from the past century has intense cracks, as mentioned before, which are caused by shaping by hand with a technique that intentionally spreads the clay. The complete corpus of the match bowl is irregular as well, different than a bowl symmetrically formed on a potter’s wheel, but also different than a Matcha bowl that is formed on a potter’s wheel and then afterwards deformed. The surface of the Ofuke Matcha bowl rather seems like a mixture of tortoise shell and moon landscape.
The 25 pieces of the series of Ofuke Matcha bowls, which Mr. Kato of the 12th generation (Kato Juunidai) started in the end of 2016 and completed in the beginning of 2017, were deliberately not sent to Europe yet, after being finished in the beginning of March. We wished to have a chance to look at them in Japan, together with the artist.
“Aren’t they beautiful?”, Mr. Kato asks us when we visit him in the middle of April 2017. We answer: “They are incredible!”
Then we talk about whether the packing of the Ofuke Matcha bowls that Mr. Kato prepared is really 100 per cent safe for the transport to Europe. Because from our perspective, it would indeed be dramatic if one of his pieces was damaged. We see that everything is safely packed and that the Matcha bowls can start their journey. In the beginning of May, they will be available at a few according places.
And then, in the very end of this year’s meeting something happens that we had been waiting for a long time: Carefully and with an appropriate level of politeness and reserve, we ask if maybe there was any possibility to acquire his grandfather’s historical Ofuke Matcha bowl (Juudai no Ofuke Chawan). After Mr. Kato consulted with his mother, we are more than happy: the family releases this fantastic Matcha bowl for us. Luckily, we were able to withdraw an according amount of cash today morning, so that we can acquire this long awaited original work – indeed we had been waiting the whole year, and had been thinking again and again about this Matcha bowl.
(This blog entry was translated into English from the original text by A.M. GbR, that was published in German on teeraumdesigner.com)