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Finding our cup of love in Japan

  • Teacups from the alleys of old Kyoto add dashes of history and philosophy to any brew they contain
  • Yakimono, as pottery is known, is as integral to Japanese culture as the better-known martial arts and cuisine

The path to Kiyomizudera temple. Photo: iStock
The path to Kiyomizudera temple. Photo: iStock

There was deliberation. Then there was a twinkle in my eyes.

“Don’t even think about it," said my wife, a smallish finger rising to curb my wicked instinct to flick one of the exquisite cups from a luxurious stay cation property near Dubai, where we live.

This had become a bit of a routine. We were barely a month into our marriage. Love was blooming, for each other and for all things that could make the house of our dreams beautiful. Sometimes, the love transitioned to greed. At the city’s urban chic warehouses-turned-bistros, she would first swoon over the speciality coffee and then over the ceramic cups in which it was served. Furtively, we would turn the cups over to check the brand names. In the very same bistros and cafés, stories were exchanged, of places, of friends, of families. Every once in a while, they delved deep into our family histories, going back generations. Her great-grandfather featured regularly—the only one in several generations to have visited Japan, where we were headed soon. All those decades ago, he had ventured on a voyage to set up an umbrella manufacturing unit in Japan. When he returned, he came back bearing beautiful Japanese ceramic ware as gifts. When our own visit came up a few months later, we understood why.

On a rainy day in Kyoto’s Higashiyama district, we entered a tiny shokudo (casual eatery) named Asuka, attracted by its charming, distinctively Japanese exterior with traditional red lanterns and wood-panelled doors half-hidden behind a noren (short fabric Japanese curtains). By the time we left, we had fallen for the 20-seater eatery’s elaborate array of elegant ceramic ware organized on shelves occupying an entire wall. In the following days, we saw this at every shokudo, izakaya, kaiten-sushi (different kinds of Japanese eateries). Every dish was a piece of art; requests to make them vegetarian were treated with care and precision, and the crockery in which they were served lived up to them. Earthenware (doki), stoneware (sekki), porcelain ware (jiki)—there were distinctive shapes, sizes and colours to suit each dish and drink.

‘Jiki’ arrayed for sale at a store in Kyoto; and the interiors of a café at Mt Koya. Photo: iStock
‘Jiki’ arrayed for sale at a store in Kyoto; and the interiors of a café at Mt Koya. Photo: iStock

The Japanese pottery arts aren’t just pretty, they have interesting histories and philosophies. Yakimono, as pottery is known, is as integral to Japanese culture as the better-known martial arts and cuisine. The art of earthenware in Japan is believed to date as far back as Neolithic times. And intricately designed Jōmon pottery, involving rope-like clay features around pots, has been found to be at least four-five millennia old. Over the last thousand years or so of Chinese and Korean influence, pottery styles have evolved to incorporate not just artistic inspirations, but philosophies like Buddhism as well. Foremost among these is the concept of wabi-sabi, which celebrates the imperfections and impermanence of all things and of life. This profound philosophy has influenced thinkers, poets and designers across the world, and is aesthetically evident in the ceramic ware found in Japan even today. Teacups and plates are often asymmetrical in shape, their colours far from sparkling, their borders irregular. Yet they’re attractive, making an impact on viewers without their even realizing it. It’s amazing how some of the latest trends in ceramics seem to embody this, consciously or unconsciously. Those erratically shaped salad plates you saw at the latest chic restaurant? That stoneware with rusted specks evoking a strong vintage guise? They’re blemished but beautiful, possessing a flawed beauty that is central to wabi-sabi.

In our desire to know more of Japanese Buddhism, we took a train to the hills of Koyasan, the headquarters of the Shingon sect. More than 117 temples and their lodgings line the main road at Mt Koya and its side alleys. The fading pink of the receding cherry blossom season contrasted with the pitch-black robes of the Shingon monks. In the cosy Bon On Shya café, we found the works of two local ceramicists, Mitsuboshi Yoshinari and Wada Naoki ( Cups, tea bowls, pots, vessels and vases in varying shapes and rustic, muddied colours lined the shelves. Each piece seemed sculpted with great consideration. Mitsuboshi has been making ceramics for 30 years. Wada, once a student of Mitsuboshi, is an accomplished artist in his own right. The café’s owner uses their creations, made with local mud and stones, with pride—his plates as classy as his wife’s home-made chocolate cake.

We had fallen for yet another café and its ceramics. But, this time, instead of greed, there was appreciation. Alas, the prices were steep, so upon our return to Kyoto, we launched a search for optimally priced ceramic ware for our home. It was while sauntering through some of the prettiest lanes of Kyoto’s old town that we found precisely the kinds we were pining for. Just a short distance from Gojozaka street, which hosts an annual pottery festival (, on the route that rises to the Kiyomizudera temple, we encountered store after store stocking the most dizzying array of ceramics. Some had sakura (cherry blossoms) painted on them, others were adorned with plum orchards, samurais and princesses, and numerous other patterns.

We chose from the simpler ones, opting for stoneware with a coarse grey lower half, topped by a brilliant teal glaze eddying around the contours of the cups and matching saucers. They were our own bit of wabi-sabi, bought from the charming alleys surrounding a temple dedicated to the Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva whose stories first originated around India. It was as if the ceramics hid a few stories within, an aide-mémoire of the wisdom of the Buddha that we brought back with us, and the legends of a grand old man who sailed decades before us and came back with his own favourites among those ceramics.

She has since stopped looking for brand names on the underside of ceramics in cafés. But, I’m still wondering if I should fill the ones we brought back with us with tea—or whether some stories over the years will be enough.

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