My all-time favorite color is blue, especially deep cobalt blue. Put it together with white and I’m a happy girl. Put them together on porcelain or ceramic and I’m an even happier girl. Whenever I’m in Japan I’m like a kid in a candy store as blue & white remains a popular color motif for everything from dishes to clothes to household items.
Japan began producing its own blue and white porcelain (somestsuke) in the 17th century, using techniques that were developed in China in centuries before. Some of the oldest Japanese kilns producing blue & white, based in Arita on the southern island of Kyushu, are still operating today. Blue and white though can be found everywhere in Japan, from old to new, from the humblest chopstick rest to museum-quality pieces of Arita and Imari porcelain.
I collected our pieces of blue & white during our two navy tours in Japan. Some I found in antique stores, some at area shrine sales, and others at the monthly bazaar held at the Camp Zama army base. I’ve blogged about my collection of blue & white porcelain jubako (stacking food boxes), but below are some other pieces from around our house and outside. Although we sold or gave away a few pieces before we moved, most of our collection made the move over to Hawai’i with us.
Three of our four remaining blue Arita hibachis sit out on our lanai and hold plants. With no central heating, and no fireplaces, porcelain hibachis were used inside Japanese homes to warm hands and sometimes heat teakettles. Hibachis came in various sizes, and besides porcelain were also made of wood (lined with metal). Hibachis would be filled with sand with a few hot coals set on the sand. A grate could be set over the coals to warm a teakettle, if desired. I found all of our hibachis at Tokyo shrine sales, large antique bazaars held once a month at various Shinto shrines around the city. The designs on each of our outdoor hibachi were stenciled, and then finished by hand with indented designs, stamps and colors.
The large (and heavy) Arita hibachi pictured above was purchased at a small neighborhood antique sale held during our first Japan tour, in 1981, back when the dollar to yen exchange rate was amazing and pieces like this were affordable. We don’t know exactly how old it is, but it’s more than 100 years. It has both stenciled and hand-painted designs. We’ve moved this hibachi all over the place with us ever since, often in a specially built crate to keep it safe. I found the hand-painted plate several months after I bought the hibachi, and discovered it fit perfectly in the hibachi’s opening. We had a large custom glass top and flat wooden stand made, and for many years the glass-topped hibachi served as our coffee table. Before our move though we had legs added to the stand, and the glass recut, to use the hibachi as a side table. It doesn’t fit in our current living room though so it’s now Brett’s bedside table.
Although it looks like a tall vase, this hand-painted container is actually another type of hibachi, used as a portable, “personal” hand warmer. Sand would be poured into it and then topped with one or two pieces of burning charcoal so that one person warm their hands where ever they were. I love its bamboo shape and the tiger – Brett was born in a tiger year.
Our two hand-painted ceramic sake kegs were designed to look like large traditional wooden sake kegs – can you see the rope detail? I found one in an antique store, the other at the Zama bazaar. Before the advent of cars, trucks or trains, rural sake brewers needed a way to transport their product to the city, and they found the porcelain sake kegs could be safely carried on pack horses or sent on cask ships. Up until the 1940s the kegs were also used to dispense draft sake in shops. Customers would bring their own small ceramic bottles to the shop and have them refilled. Ceramic kegs are somewhat rare, so both were exciting finds.
The small plate above is hand-painted Imari, probably over 100 years old. It’s nothing very special but I love its simple design (and it was very affordable). I discovered the large teapot in a dusty corner of an antique shop for a ridiculously low price, probably because it was not very old or valuable. It’s a copy of a Chinese design, probably from the 1930s. I love the unique shape though. The little square cups in front are a drinking game. Participants throw the little cube in the center cup and then follow the instructions printed on each side. One side might tell them which size cup they have to drink (sake) from, another side might tell them to sing a song, or do a dance, or maybe drink twice! You can imagine the end result. The set is a reproduction – I bought it on a shopping trip to the pottery town of Seto around 25 years ago.
A couple of our pieces are valuable, but most are not – they just make me very, very happy. The colors not only feel peaceful, but the blue & white fits with everything, and always reminds me of Japan, and the when and where of finding each piece. I’m not actively collecting blue & white any more, but my heart still beats a little faster whenever I see it.