Dear beloved blog readers,
I’m a teapot collector. While some of those more near and dear to me might say that I’m a teapot hoarder, to admit to this would be to admit that I somehow indiscriminately gather and stockpile. While I may have lost count after my thirtieth (I now own an amount I cannot recall), each one is imbued with a specific function, style, and past. None so more than the humble little kyusu teapot crafted by the late Edo-early Meiji Buddhist nun, poetess, calligrapher, and ceramicist Ōtagaki Rengetsu.
My connection with this piece is rather recent: I was wandering through an antiques store in San Francisco with a girlfriend of mine and low-and-behold I came across this small, white-glazed side-handle teapot. Covered in a bit of dust and shoved in a corner of a small, cluttered vitrine, I inquired as to its provenance and price. The salesperson only knew that it had been found in an antique store in Ise (a coastal town in Mie Prefecture, in the Kansai region of Japan) and that he had been using as an informal teapot he kept by his bathtub while he bathed. The price: a song (a really inexpensive song).
There was something about the teapot that made the decision to take it home obvious (much to the chagrin of my then girlfriend… who knew all too well how many teapots I had at the time). Its shape was organic, its undulating features were that of a curled lotus leaf, and upon its surface seemed to be some sort of inscription, but its unctuous glaze had filled much of it in to the point of illegibility. In short, the little kyusu (急須), no larger than a small persimmon, was a mystery.
Having found this early on in my time as a graduate student studying Japanese pre-modern history, I used what I could to conduct research on the teapot. Soon I found a surprising link: the pot was most possibly handmade by the (aforementioned) Ōtagaki Rengetsu.
Ōtagaki Rengetsu, born in 1791 as the illegitimate daughter of a high-ranking samurai and a geisha in the pleasure quarters of Kyoto, her natural father had her adopted by Ōtagaki Teruhisa, a lay priest of the Pure Land Buddhist sect. During her childhood, she was trained in naginata and jujutsu martial arts, as well as calligraphy, poetry, and the game of go. By the age of 33, she had married twice, had five children, and had lost her first three children and two husbands to disease. In 1824, the noted beauty shaved her head and joined the Pure Land sect. By the age of 41, her remaining two children and her adoptive father had all died. Turning inward, she focused the remainder of her life on producing works of calligraphy, painting, poetry, and ceramics as a means to contemplate on the nature of existence.
By Rengetsu’s time, chanoyu had become the orthodox practice of making tea, collecting with it the various traditions of Japanese arts that had flourished since the Sengoku period up through the Edo period. Within these traditions were the various kilns, both famous and amateur, spawning provincial kilns and workshops of independent potters, including nuns like Rengetsu. As part of what is called amayaki (nun ware), Rengetsu was part of a long tradition of amateur, religious-based women who took to pottery and incorporated her own forms, originally tea bowls, of which she inscribed with her own waka poetry.
However, Rengetsu’s ceramic product straddled a period of change in Japanese tea fashion. With the overthrow of the Ming imperial line by the Manchu (establishing the Qing dynasty in 1644), countless Chinese Chan (in Japanese “Zen”) monks immigrated to Japan, founding the Ōbaku Zen sect. From this came various literati forms that had their origins in China, of which was the practice of steeping whole leaf tea using a small earthenware teapot (the practice of gong fu cha).
Early practitioners of Ōbaku Zen in Japan came from the ranks of disenfranchised intellectuals (both samurai and commoners). They preferred things in the more eccentric intellectual forms, from the traditions of Chinese literati to the notion of the wandering hermit and a rustic lifestyle. Popularized by founding figures like Baisaō (the “Old Tea Seller”, Kō Yūgai, 1675-1763), sencha (or roasted whole leaf tea) became not only a new method of producing tea but also a new way to express one’s connection to this intellectual leaning.
By the time of Rengetsu, sencha had evolved into a formal tea service, with its own forms of etiquette and utensils. However, compared with chanoyu, senchadō retained the informality that came with its connections to the literati, and, because of this, it remained close to the literati arts such as the composing of waka poetry. The intellectual luminary Ueda Akinari (1734-1809) probably taught Rengetsu waka poetry when she was a teenager and may have instilled to her some of the styles and forms he had developed for tea ware. Similarly, literati painter and sencha master Yamamoto Baiitsu (1783-1856), who was renown for his paintings of simple tea ware accompanied by poems reflecting the enjoyment of sencha, may have influenced Rengetsu, both as a poet and as a ceramicist.
The production of this particular kyusu would have been one of many she made during her lifetime. As a prolific potter, she made a variety of wares from sake cups and beekers (tokkuri), to flower vases, tea bowls, plates, and incense holders (kōgō). Due to the unique nature of her style and the strength of her poetry it was inscribed with, she became wildly famous in her lifetime and her works highly sought after by sencha enthusiasts and collectors alike. Her work kept her busy and constantly moving, reportedly never staying in one place for more than a month’s time. As a result, her forms remained untethered to one particular ceramic tradition, instead allowing her more room for experimentation and originality.
As she produced tea ware, Rengetsu had a profound influence on tea. Her small pots and accompanying cups were often formed in the shapes of seasonal fruits, vegetables, and, most commonly for her teapots, in the form of wrinkled lotus leaves. Rengetsu’s techniques replicated the natural textures of the lotus plant with the roughness of their stem giving way to the soft and billowy forms of their wrapped leaves, emulated by the smooth surface of the often white or grey opaque glaze she covered them in. So loved were these wares that Rengetsu may have even popularized the use of the yuzamashi (water cooler), which she had been making specifically for the enjoyment of gyokuro (a finer grade of green tea that requires water at a lower temperature to produce a deeper flavor). These yuzamashi, too, were often made in the form of a curled lotus leaf.
This particular teapot, typical of much of her work, was created by hand rather than on a wheel. The faint impressions of her fingertips are evident, as are the marks of her rudimentary tools. As with every piece she produced, this teapot is inscribed with a waka poem. While many of the poems Rengetsu wrote onto her wares were singular to the piece (each piece potentially representing the only existent record of the poem she wrote), the poem on this piece is obscured by the pooling glaze. There is a chance that this poem remains unread from the day it was first written. History still contains a mystery under the layers of vitrified material.
For those interested in learning more about Ōtagaki Rengetsu, her life and her work, I highly recommend these sources (as I used them in the writing of this entry)
Rengetsu, Melanie Eastburn, Lucie Folan, Robyn J. Maxwell, and Rengetsu. Black Robe, White Mist: Art of the Japanese Buddhist Nun Rengetsu. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2007.
Rengetsu, and John Stevens. Lotus Moon: The Poetry of the Buddhist Nun Rengetsu. Buffalo, NY: White Pine, 2005.
“BachmannEckenstein | JapaneseArt.” BachmannEckenstein | JapaneseArt. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Aug. 2016. http://www.bachmanneckenstein.com