T.A. sends me this simple elegant heating and cooking utensil called a Hibachi. Most Americans associate Hibachi stoves, ovens, grills, cooking vessels – of which there are many, for different usages in Japan – with the cooktop, knife-flashing hot-iron cook surfaces featuring theatrical chefs in restaurants such as Benihana, my little brother’s favorite restaurant. Our family sat around that iron scalding-hot surface, on which the chef cooks your order, and, for our amusement, tossed steak, fire, hot oil and knives around. The culinary display, if I remember, culminated in the massive steaming Vesuvius of onion rings. That style is not technically Hibachi, but Teppanyaki style. What T.A. from Santa Barbara has sent me is an actual Soma Ware Hibachi ceramic vessel.
This is a little stoneware brazier, used at one time to contain sifted askes and bits of unburned coal from the larger stove in a Japanese kitchen. To heat a simple pot of hot water, the family might light the brazier instead of the stove; the vessel then is called a shichirin. To aerate the coals, the cook might hold a bamboo straw in his mouth. Some such vessels, which are plainer and not ceremonial like T.A.’s, were contained in a wooden cabinet in the kitchen. The tools for using the hibachi, unlike those used by the flashy chefs at Benihana, are sparse, bamboo, and hung over the hibachi in a simple rack. Japanese aesthetic meant that if the family didn’t use the object daily, it wasn't necessary.
When a brazier becomes an artistic focal point, the vessel was meant to heat an indoor room in a fine Japanese house, or exhibiting more important philosophically based designs and compositions, may have been used in a tea ceremony. Early 1800’s ceramic hibachis such as T.A.’s were used by the samurai and aristocratic classes, but simple braziers and hibachi were used until World War II to warm with heated coals everywhere in Japan, until replaced by oil heaters in public waiting rooms and train stations. Some of these are as simple as a metal tray in a hollowed-out section of a tree.
Since T.A.’s is so delightfully decorative, hers must have been used in the tea ceremony, originally begun in the 9th century by Buddhist monks bringing tea back from China. By the 13th century the taking of tea in a social group became a status symbol. With the revitalization of “Zen” in the 15th century, the Japanese tea service developed the aesthetic of “Wabi,” which roughly means ‘inner spiritual life’, represented in T.A.’s bowl by its asymmetrical and simple design in which the ceramic of the bowl is more important aesthetically to the composition than the horse or the glaze. Witness the ceramic clay showing through the holes in the surface; the holes are for cooling the surface, but also become a philosophic statement. Wabi principles emphasized naturalism and a simple unpolished affect.
The “Way of Tea” spoke of four elements: harmony, respect, purity and tranquility, cemented in the 16th century with the philosophy of “chanoyu” (the ceremony) as a spiritual practice. As drinking tea is social, the philosophy teaches the host to value the guests: each time two people meet, the occasion is unique. So is the season: T.A.’s decorative floor-top vessel might have been used, according to chanyu history, in the warmer months of May to October; a sunken heater in the floor reigned during the winter months.
T.A.’s bowl features images of horses on a special type of pottery called Soma Ware, characterized by the light blue-green glaze with cracks (cracqueleur) on the surface of the glaze, with multiple layers of clay to keep the outside of the vessel cool. Soma Ware includes images of horses; in fact, the ‘ma’ in Soma means horse. The center of Soma-yaki pottery was unfortunately Fukushima, the site of the 2011 nuclear disaster. A 300-year old tradition in the little village near Fukushima meant all the potters had to flee the area. A small soma tea bowl, not as elegant or important as T.A.’s sold at Skinner’s in Boston for $700.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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