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Regarding your new antique pots

Umanome Platter Tokugawa Period

The other day, through a friend, I acquired a couple very old ceramic pieces. The acquisition may really take a long time, years probably, to fully accomplish – still, for now, the new platter and bowl are sitting on my kitchen table and are like new companions, new creatures in the house. In the evening in the kitchen I glance over, mid-spoonful, and there they are, watching.

I am watching them too. They are not rare. The piece above, the platter, is Japanese umanome from the late Edo period. Probably produced in the Seto region, these platters, I am learning as I read online, were in prolific use along the Tokaido Road. Yanagi Soetsu cited them as an inspiring example of robust, brisk, ‘honest’ ceramics during the folk art revival of the ‘twenties in Japan – the Mingei Movement. Umanome means horse eyes. That’s what the circles are supposed to be, arranged around the perimeter of the form. Typically these platters have six…my platter has seven. During my first few evenings with my new ceramic pieces a favorite feature of the platter is…I have to say…not the eyes…the six small rough dots closer to the center. These were not made with the brush. I think these are scars in the glaze surface from wads that lifted the next platter up a bit in the kiln.

Putting down my spoon I reach for the platter and flip it upside down. Its foot is wide and low, just right for arranging on top of the wads placed on the platter below it – in the days before kiln shelves, the chamber was sometimes filled with pots that were designed to stack easily one on top of another, separated and kept from fusing together as the glaze surfaces melted by the use of little refractory pellets – wads. I look closely at the unglazed foot – yes, sure enough, there are the small rough dots. I picture my platter taking its place in the stack, the tall column of ware in the kiln. It was neither at the top, nor at the bottom.

My friend sent a follow-up email after I got the pieces. “Regarding your new antique pots,” he started, and helped me understand them by describing their histories a little, and, importantly, where & when it was that he acquired them himself, some sixty years ago. “Those aren’t horse eyes,” he said also. “Those are clouds.”

Sung Dynasty celadon

The second piece here on the table with me now is smaller, more delicate, higher-fired, and older. It is a Song Dynasty bowl probably made in south-east China & exported to Indonesia. Like bowls generally, as compared to platters, a more overt and prosaic flat form, this particular bowl is more graceful and ethereal. Bowls often have a hidden quality that platters lack – a shifting, musical, essence that you can’t see but feel. Bowls are more mysterious and cosmic – you use them more every day, though. No iron brushwork on this bowl, as the umanome platter has – instead, under the greenish crackly glaze, some sweeping, quickly-rendered, loopy designs. “Those are lotus flowers,” my friend said.

You can feel the motion of the potter’s hand, holding some short thin stick and trailing it through the still-wet clay, as you hold the bowl now. Better hold it with both hands – better stop eating and put the spoon down again, slow down and just look for a second.

Night, when I return to the kitchen and check on my new pieces a last time before sleep, it is the bowl I am glancing at as I switch the light over the kitchen table off, and as, from the window over the sink, moonlight fills the room.