About Antique Japanese Tea Sets

Written by gail cohen
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For a culture that has made an art of brewing, sipping and serving tea, it was inevitable that Japan would also become a nation of people fascinated by the beauty of the pot in which it is served. Despite not being the innovator of tea drinking (the honour goes to China), once Japan adopted the drink as its own, a remarkable history of teapot design was launched that continues to this day. Epicentres of teapot design and production grew as the drink became the nation's preferred beverage and eventually, teapots became status symbols. Today, antique Japanese teapots are prized collectibles, more suited to display on a safe shelf than as a repository of boiling water and tea leaves.


The tradition of tea preparation and consumption began in China around 200 B.C. It took over 900 years for the drink to travel to Japan. Had a book about the magic of tea not found its way into the hands of Zen Buddhist missionaries, tea might never have been introduced to Japanese culture. Like most innovations from other lands, tea drinking didn't become popular overnight. It took the Imperial Japanese court's fascination with Chinese tea ceremonies to ignite the imagination of society. Before long, tea took on a position of prominence in Japanese culture. So, too did teapot design and manufacture.


The Japanese word for teapot is dobin. The oldest dobin designs on record featured globelike bodies accented with disk-shaped lids and sturdy handles. A knob attached to the lid gave the water-pourer access to the interior. Some pots were designed with two handles. These are called kyusu and originated in a pottery-making region south of Nagoya. To set this area's teapot styles apart from other regions, the pots were finished with a red burnish to identify their place of origin.


Other regions of Japan became artistic centres for teapot design. Japan was home to a rich variety of clays and local studios began applying designs popular in their regions to establish distinct designs, colour variations, incised and excised features, unusual handles and embellishments unique to the area. One type of popular dobin used exclusively to prepare green tea was made from heavily glazed white ceramic materials that, over time, changed the colour of the pot to a bright green. Pots were made of materials that conducted heat so well, they could be held with the bare hands. Others were crafted to look and feel delicate and fragile, so cloths and other protection were required to hold them.


Over time, dobin became symbols of status and social position and artisans found new ways to create markets for pots. When clay-based models became commonplace, a new material was introduced to the Japanese teapot legacy: the Tetsubin. This teapot was manufactured of cast iron, offering a flame-resistant exterior and enamel interior. The enamel protected the tea from acquiring a metallic taste when brewed. Tetsubin teapots were lavishly decorated on the vessel's right-facing side since Japanese etiquette called for pouring with the left hand as a sign of respect. Tetsubin offered yet another benefit to its owner: When not used to brew tea, it could hang over the hearth and generate a soothing, therapeutic steam.


Finding a Japanese teapot for one's antique collection requires several resources: A well-written guide, patience (it could take a while to find the pot you are seeking) and a talent for negotiation. Peruse a variety of Internet sites and flea markets and you will find huge disparities in prices and conditions. For instance, Dragonware, a Japanese teapot style popular with collectors, may cost £152 if bought from one seller and £32 from another. Knowing the value range of the style you seek will give you a better feel for the right price. If you are willing to accept flaws, you may find a true bargain. We strongly recommend having the ear of a reputable appraiser. Guidebook prices are set at the time of publication, thus supply and demand could conceivably push a rare teapot into the stratosphere in a relatively short time span. Consult a professional appraiser with a good track record if you are uncertain about the price of a teapot you would like to purchase. You'll get a knowledgeable opinion that could make owning your teapot even more enjoyable.

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