The Noble Arts of Saké-drinking

Tokkuri saké bottle, e-karatsu ware, Momoyama period, early 17th century; Karatsu-ware saké-cup, Momoyama period, early 17th century; Imari-ware mamezara porcelain dish, mid-Edo period, circa 18th century; Negoro lacquer tray, Edo period, 17th/18th century. Photograph courtesy of Kimiko Ohno

WHILE EXPLORING Japan’s traditional arts it does not take long to realise that the Tea-ceremony and its utensils are central; epitomising the expression of Zen ideals in every-day life and providing a milieu for profound artistic exploration that owes much to the country’s rich nature for inspiration. Demonstrating a punctilio uncannily similar to that of the Catholic Mass (and there is compelling evidence to suspect that the ceremonial aspects derived from the religious ceremony when it was codified by Sen no Rikyu in the late 16th century), it presents the new-comer with a rather self-conscious whiff of the pious that can be just a little discouraging. Who can fail to be nervous at their first Tea-gathering, trying to remember all the moves and say the right words while struggling to ignore one’s legs going to sleep? Most remember a rather trying experience that seems to negate the event’s purpose of being a convivial get-together.

Of course further exploration reveals that true Tea is an art of hospitality, and a genuine master (rare these days when what was known as beauty born of poverty has been subsumed into cult-like commercial enterprises), will quickly recognise the level of proficiency – or lack of it – in his guests and diffuse whatever might be forbidding in the mood to make everyone feel at ease. A longer Tea-gathering includes delicacies and saké so that everyone feels light-hearted, if not light-headed, for enjoying the seasonal theme of the occasion. Yet more study will reveal that just as much thought and connoisseurship goes into the utensils of saké-drinking, as into those of Tea that are far more celebrated. The arts of drinking saké in Japan are obviously worth looking at more closely and will definitely prove rewarding.

One of the highly-civilised delights awaiting any visitor to Japan is to be offered a tray of saké-cups at the beginning of a meal so that one can select something that most suits one’s mood of the moment. For most of the year there will be one or two porcelain saké-cups together with others made of sturdier stoneware, while crystal glass cups will be included during the summer to suggest a cool feeling in the oppressive heat. Some will be perfectly formed, symmetrical and finely made while others made of stoneware will be thicker and irregularly shaped, revealing the gestural expression of the potter. Something in fact for everyone.
Just about all Japanese ceramic artists make them, and along with Tea utensils are considered by connoisseurs to best reveal the potter’s skill. As a result, tea-bowls and guinomi command far higher prices than what to Japanese eyes are more prosaic objects such as plates or dishes. (Guinomi are small vessels that can also be used for serving small delicacies but are often chosen for drinking saké. Sakazuki are small cups used specifically for saké. Guinomi are usually slightly larger and are often chosen by more dedicated saké-drinkers as they need refilling less frequently). Such attention demonstrates well the multi-dimensionality of Japanese applied arts where the craftsman considers not only how something appears but also how it touches other senses: the feeling of weight and texture in the hand and how the clear, liquid sake will play with the colours and surfaces of the cup. Quite rightly such details are important components of the mystique and pleasure of drinking.

Odes abound on these pleasures and often blur between the objective and subjective. Some years ago, while trying to decipher a Japanese text on the ceramic wares of North Kyushu I found almost none of the factual information I was looking for, but instead a lengthy lyrical description of how, for the writer, aesthetic ecstasy was to be found soaking in an outdoor hot spring on an autumn evening while gazing at the full moon reflected in his cup of saké. The only link between this reverie and the ceramics I was trying to research was a brief mention that the saké-cup inspiring the writer’s muse was an early example of Arita porcelain, slightly mis-formed, with the barest whimsical smudge of under-glaze blue, typical of that time when technical mastery was still in its infancy and cobalt blue was a rare, difficult-to-find import. I had to look elsewhere for the boring but necessary facts I had been searching for, now long forgotten, but the writer’s words certainly had a profound influence on my subsequent appreciation of saké utensils and led to a very pleasurable path of discovery.

As with tea utensils, saké aficionados make much over the toriawase – the selection and grouping of objects – chosen so that textures and colours can compliment or game with each other for aesthetic delight. Perfectly-presentable objects can be found in any flea market but rare examples are naturally expensive and some Japanese antique dealers specialise in these saké utensils almost exclusively. Just about all studio potters in Japan today make guinomi for display in their career-promoting exhibitions and these are usually the entry-level purchases for budding collectors of contemporary ceramics. And even if they do not turn out to be the hoped-for investment, at least one can enjoy using them.

The tokkuri, or saké-bottle, holding one go (180 millilitres) of liquid is the standard for one or two imbibers, (re-filled, of course, as needed), a form that perhaps reveals the craftsman’s ceramic-making ability and expression more than that of other vessels while larger vessels are employed for gatherings. One usually comes across tokkuri made of stoneware or porcelain but there are exceptions. In spring, a segment of freshly-cut green bamboo might be used as a one-time-only saké-pourer during cherry-blossom-viewing, (an annual rite of spring inseparable from drinking), while glass is often chosen for summer utensils; the play of light on the condensation formed by cool saké in a crystal tokkuri being particularly admired. More rarely we see saké-pourers made of lacquer and – rarer still – of precious metals: gold for New Year celebrations and silver for summer use.

For many Japanese connoisseurs, the most highly prized tokkuri are late-16th to early 17th-century examples from the Bizen kilns near Okayama in West Japan. The sticky, thick clay of the area often deforms attractively while being fired in the kiln and the unglazed surface picks up any flying debris in the fire to make attractive ‘scenery’ that lends itself to a drinker’s idle contemplation. Ideally coupled with this would be an early 17th-century guinomi from the Shino kilns in the Mino-Seto area near present-day Nagoya, with its creamy ‘citron-skin’ glaze (formed as tiny bubbles burst on the surface while being fired) and perhaps a simple abstract decoration of underglaze red or black. Both tokkuri and guinomi being best displayed on a Muromachi-period (15th and 16th centuries) Negoro tray, the dark under-layer of black lacquer revealing itself through over-layers of red in an abstract design after centuries of use.

Of course, this ideal would not come cheaply, but one’s own personal taste is really the only important consideration in making an interesting toriawase and for those who enjoy the hunt there are endless opportunities. Even a modest collection of a few guinomi, a couple of tokkuri and one or two mamezara (small dishes for appetisers) can be combined in countless delightful ways to compliment food, saké, occasion and season. And with just a little knowledge of one’s companions’ taste – easily clarified by observing what they pick when offered a selection – what could make for a better gift?

As with Tea utensils, Japanese will often look abroad for particularly interesting objects that can be included in a toriawase. Usually such objects are small and often overlooked as relatively insignificant where they are made. Korean tokkuri dating from the Koryo dynasty (918-1392) and Yi dynasty ( (1392–1910) are especially sought-after as are Chinese, three-colour-glazed guinomi from the Tang dynasty (618-906) if they are just the right size. Japanese connoisseurs are particularly choosy about these matters and interest will fade if an object is too large or too small – even by a centimeter. If one’s ideals are slightly less rigid, it is well to be aware of this as bargains are be found in Japan among utensils for food and drink, and containers for flower-arrangements.

The tray too is an important component in any toriawase arrangement and is almost always made of wood, bamboo, or some lacquered material. To underscore a rustic setting, even a small, old plank of wood would be perfectly appropriate. In Japan, ceramic objects are never placed on anything made of metal, stone or glass out of considerations of possible damage and the rather disturbing sound made by contact. A mamezara holding appetisers – shrimp or two, or a couple of bright green beans – would complete the ensemble and promise for a pleasant hour or two.

Collecting a few accoutrements of saké-drinking is a pleasant diversion in itself and gives focus to hunting through Japan’s many dealers and antique markets. Such is the variety available that very personal collection can be put together in a short time and will provide endless delight in making toriawase for every occasion. As one of the Zen-inspired aesthetic perceptions in Japan is the appreciation of beauty born of use – in this case the handling of these small, beautiful objects – one can pour the sake immediately without waiting for the full moon.