Collections: Japanese Blue & White Ceramics

This stenciled plate sits on our coffee table
This large stenciled plate sits on our coffee table

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.

Mt. Fuji shopping bag and Japanese small plates
The modern small blue & white Japanese plates were a gift from my daughter-in-law. Each has a traditional Japanese design motif: waves, rice, Mt. Fuji, cherry blossom, and gourds. (She also gave me the blue & white Mt. Fuji tote bag)

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.

Close up view of the stenciled design.
Close up view of the stenciled design.

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 porcelain hibachis sit out on the lanai and hold plants.
Antique hibachis are most often used these days as jardiniere or planters. The pale blue background is a  feature of Arita hibachis.
The main designs were often done with stencils, with additional indented design elements added and colored.
Although it looks hand-painted, this design was stenciled as well.

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.

This big hibachi is currently serving as Brett’s bedside table.
This hand-painted plate that sits inside the big hibachi is my favorite piece of blue and white. Under glass, it stays well protected.

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.

This unique container is actually another style of hibachi.

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.

This hand-painted sake keg sits in our living room. One of the girls snapped off the cork years ago.
We had this smaller keg made into a lamp; it’s currently my bedside reading lamp. The backs of both kegs have information about the shop where the sake was sold.

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.

These three blue & white items sit in our living room tansu: a small Imari plate, a large teapot, and a ceramic drinking game.

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.


9 thoughts on “Collections: Japanese Blue & White Ceramics

  1. I just love your collections. i love all things japanese and would love to visit someday. Your expertise has been great. I especially loved the tea pots.


    1. Thanks! I am very grateful that we had the opportunity to live in Japan twice, and afford to collect, although what we bought was nothing compared to others, and as I said, not very valuable. They’re just things, but they bring us a lot of happiness, and are a wonderful way to remember our time in Japan. I can remember when and where I purchased each item.


  2. You have such wonderful collections. The funny shaped teapot does not look very practical but it is beautiful. Love the bedside table too.


    1. We feel very fortunate to own the hibachi that make the bedside table. The exchange rate was such our first tour that a piece like this was affordable. By our second tour it would have been too expense. We also feel fortunate that it’s survived so many moves.

      The teapot may actually be Chinese. I got it for very little (<$35) in a Japanese antique store but someone told me once it was worth a LOT so who knows?


    1. Thanks! I love the modern blue & white as well, and have had to restrain myself at times – we don’t need more dishes. The little plates are handy though. I had posted a picture of them to Pinterest, and when my D-I-L saw them in a store there, she got them for me. She knows my style/tastes/likes very well!

      I used to keep curly willow branches in the tiger hibachi, but haven’t seen anything like that here so it remains empty for the time being.


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