Japanese Porcelain at its Finest
Imari Ware – The Ko-Kutani style (古九谷展)
It may be like carrying coals to Newcastle, if I was to explain that porcelain comes from the Far East. But that would only be true for those who have difficulties in telling China from Japan. In fact, Japan was a kind of “late bloomer” when it came to producing porcelain. Only as late as in the early 17th century (1616, to be precise) were the first kilns built in Japan’s westernmost main island of Kyūshū (九州 / きゅうしゅう) in the area located in today’s prefecture of Saga (佐賀県 / さがけん). And all the initial knowledge about porcelain came – via Korea – from China (where porcelain had been produced for already a thousand years). It is said that not all of the Korean potters that worked there in the early years did so on their free will. Hence, one could say, in Japan the fine art of porcelain came from the Near West.
Still, it was about a century before the first bone china was produced in Europe – which also explains why in these early days of Japanese porcelain a large portion of the country’s kilns were smoking for export production, filling the gap in supply unrest in China caused.
Under the title “The First 100 Years of Japanese Porcelain”, the Toguri Museum of Art (戸栗美術館 / とぐりびじゅつかん), a private museum in Shibuya’s Shōtō district, founded in 1987, that is solely dedicated to porcelain, is presently showing a series of four special exhibitions:
- Early Imari Ware (初期伊万里展) (4 April 2015 – 21 June 2015)
- Imari Ware – The Ko-Kutani style (古九谷展) (4 July 2015 – 23 September 2015)
- Imari Ware – Masterpieces of the Kakiemon and Kinrande (柿右衛門・古伊万里金襴手展) (6 October 2015 – 23 December 2015)
- Masterpieces of Nabeshima Ware (鍋島焼展) (7 January 2016 – 21 March 2016)
Some pictures of the second of this series of exhibitions shall give you some idea what Japanese porcelain of those early days looks like.
But first some more words about the museum itself.
It was in the 1950s when Tōru Toguri (戸栗亨 / とぐりとうる), a business man (Nippon Coke & Engineering Co., Ltd.) from the prefecture of Yamanashi (山梨県 / やまなしけん), started to collect porcelain from Japan, Korea and China in order to protect this part of Oriental culture that seemed to be threatened by Western influences after World War II.
From this private collection the museum itself was founded in 1987 and the impressive building – a fine example to what one could call “bubble-economy style“ – which it houses, was opened. Today the collection encompasses approximately 7,000 fine works of porcelain art. The museum is highly acclaimed, not only in Japan, but in the world, as one of the most significant of its kind and the quality of old oriental porcelain it displays.
A few words of explanation regarding the early years of Japanese porcelain and the “Ko-Kutani style” in particular.
In the very early years Japanese china used to be very simple, the materials not very refined and the use of colour rather limited. Most of the production was what is called “sometsuke” (染付 / そめつけ), or a style of blue and white porcelain copied from China. Then in the 1640s new enamel overglaze paints were introduced, making more colourful designs possible. This early colourful style came to be called the “Ko-Kutani style”. The Ko-Kutani palette is easily recognized by its distinctive blue, green, purple and yellow shades. Black and red enamels, at that time, were less durable than these other colors, and were used mostly for outline and detail, usually covered by the other transparent colors to protect them from wear.
The term “Ko-Kutani style” (古九谷様式 / こくたにようしき) may require some further explanation, if you are interested in the Japanese history of porcelain making. Kutani (九谷 / くたに) is the name of a small city in the southern part of today’s Ishikawa prefecture (石川県 / いしかわけん). Kilns were active there for about 50 years but it’s not clear from records of the time what was produced. When Japanese scholars began studying Japanese porcelain systematically, in the 1920s and 30s, they categorized a broad range of high-quality 17th century works surviving in the area as “Old Kutani” (古九谷 / こくたに). But excavations in the area conducted in the 1970s, failed to turn up the numbers of shards that would have proved that works had actually been made there. On the other hand, excavations in Arita (有田 / ありた), in what is now Saga Prefecture, where the famous “Imari ware“ (伊万里焼 / いまりやき) was produced (named after the shipping port of Imari from where pottery from Arita and Karatsu (唐津 / からつ) were distributed), showed that it is most likely that also the “Old Kutani“ china didn’t actually originate in Kutani, but in Arita as well. Some people believe it may have found its way from Arita to Kutani by the close links between the two ruling houses of the two distant areas – the Nabeshima clan ( 鍋島氏 / なべしまし) in Arita and the Maeda clan (前田氏 / まえだし) in the province of Kaga, where Kutani was located. Hence, porcelain in the fashion that was typical for what was categorized as “Old Kutani“ is nowadays called “Old Kutani style“.
Please click on the miniatures below to enlarge and to learn more about the selected item.
Don’t get yourself confused by the fact that you see so many pictures of the exhibition here – photography is basically not permitted in the museum. But all the pictures were taken on the very special occasion of a guided tour given by Alice Gordenker (in cooperation with the “Deutsche Gesellschaft für Natur- und Völkerkunde” in Tōkyō) and the executive of the Toguri Museum of Art, Mr. Osamu Toguri (戸栗修 / とぐりおさむ) himself on 11 September 2015.
One of the highlights of this exclusive guided tour was an opportunity to view, touch and photograph up close rare museum-quality examples of Japanese porcelain from the Edo Period. The physical sensation of actually touching such old porcelain, feeling the little imperfections in their making, the texture created by applied colours and enamel and being able to recognise small details was really astonishing. Even though such an opportunity doesn’t come everyday – the museum is worthwhile seeing nevertheless.
Should all that have triggered some fascination for Japanese porcelain, have a look at the following, countinuing exhibitions at the Toguri Museum of Art:
Toguri Museum of Art (戸栗美術館) (Part 4)
– Japanese Porcelain at its Finest
– Imari Ware – The Beauty of Sometsuke (古伊万里 – 染付の美展)
Toguri Bijutsukan (Toguri Museum of Art)
1-11-3 Shōtō, Shibuya-ku
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Daily (except Mondays) from 10 am to 5 pm (last entry at 4:30 pm).
Should Monday be a national holiday, the museum stays closed the next day. Also closed during the preparation of new exhibitions and during the new year holidays.
Adults: 1,000 Yen
High school and university students: 700 Yen
Junior high school and elementary school students: 400 Yen
Discounts of 200 Yen per person for groups of 20 an more visitors
How to get there:
It is probably the easiest to approach the museum from Shibuya’s main station where various train lines and subway lines stop.
Take the “Hachikō Exit“ (ハチ公口 / あちこうぐち), cross the famous “Pedestrian Scramble“ (スクランブル交差点 / すくらんぶるこうさてん) and head north towards the just as famous department store “109“, leave it on your left side and walk towards the “Bunkamura“ (文化村 / ぶんかむら). Pass the Bunkamura on its south side and turn right at its southwestern corner. The museum is located in a rather residential area uphill. It will take you at least 15 minutes to get there from the station.