Do some things just look better if there are more than one of them?
With some items, I seem unable to be satisfied with just one. Like with my jubako (ceramic stacking boxes), or pottery, once I owned one tetsubin (iron teapot) I wanted more. They were addictive.
One of the highlights of living in the Atsugi area during our second tour in Japan (1989 – 1992) was our proximity to the monthly bazaar held at Camp Zama. It was both a shopping extravaganza and a primo social event. The first Saturday of every month, all sorts of local vendors – antique dealers, art galleries, paper sellers, dish stores, toy merchants, picture framers, nurseries, etc. – would bring their wares to the Camp Zama gymnasium. Savvy shoppers learned to be there before the doors opened at 9:00 am, especially to peruse what the antique dealers had brought along because they were set up out front. It was at one of these bazaars that I discovered my first affordable tetsubin, i.e. less than $10. I had seen the teapots in various antique stores out on the economy, but they were always too high-priced for my budget so I avoided them even though I admired their shapes and the craftsmanship. But once I bought my first one at the bazaar I began to keep my eyes peeled for the $10-or-less little black teapots.
It’s not known when tetsubin started showing up in Japan, but it’s guessed somewhere around the 18th century. The teapots began as objects of status versus functional kitchen items, and initially they were made of plain cast iron. In the 19th century they segued into more elaborately designed masterpieces, and many are signed by the artist that created them (none of mine are). One of the most interesting I’ve seen has a handprint imbedded in the side – it was probably carved by the artist, but it still looks very real. Because of all the variety of size and design, tetsubin became very popular with collectors, and prices have risen accordingly. Some these days are made with a color applied, but I prefer the flat, unglazed black iron.
None of the ones I bought is particularly fancy, or signed, but I love their humbleness and sometimes wonder about the people who owned them. One has a mismatched lid – apparently you were given a teapot if you participated in the 1950 census, and some household eventually combined the census lid with their old teapot. Designs on my other teapots include a classic hobnail, cherry blossoms, pine trees, and a persimmon. I splurged one month at the bazaar and bought the larger teapot in the classic “Mt. Fuji” shape – it was a lucky and affordable find.
New tetsubin are easy to come by these days, and can be found in both traditional and modern design. Many of the old ones have become quite expensive though and most are well out of my price range. In our Portland house the teapots were lined up on the mantle; here they sit in a woven basket in my bedroom. Hawaii’s humid air is getting to them, and I am beginning to find a few rust spots here and there. But, the natural aging process is one of the tetsubin’s charms, so I’m letting it go, and will continue to enjoy them as they transform.