With the exception of its raised base, this tea cup is covered in a jet-black glaze, over which silvery spots seem to float. In Japan today, tea cups (chawan, lit., “tea bowls”) decorated with this beautiful pattern are collectively known as yuteki tenmoku chawan. Yuteki literally means “oil drops,” a name that may have been inspired by the pattern, while tenmoku broadly refers to the form of the cup. In fact, during the Muromachi period (14th–16th century), they used to be simply known as yuteki or yuteki tenmoku. These cups originated in the Jian kilns, located in the town of Shuiji in northern Fujian, China.
Black-glazed tenmoku tea cups fired in the Jian kilns are known collectively in Japan as kensan 建盞, or “Jian tea cups.” They were considered the most prestigious of cups used to drink tea in China, and have appeared in Japanese texts from as early as the Kamakura period (12th–14th century). Different kinds of patterns tend to emerge from the black-glazed ground of these tea cups during the firing process. Some take the form of thin, short lines which the Japanese likened to rice grains (nogi); Jian tea cups with this design are thus sometimes referred to as nogime in Japanese. Yuteki, meanwhile, refers to Jian tea cups whereby the re-crystallization of minerals in the glaze has resulted in rounder, spot-like patterns.
We can get a glimpse of how Japanese people in the past viewed these imported Jian tea cups through how they wrote about them in books. One such book is the Kun taikan sōchō ki, a manual owned by the Muromachi shogunal family detailing how to decorate a reception room (zashiki). The first half of the book covers how to decorate the alcove (toko) in the reception room with paintings, and includes critical analysis about different painters and the themes with which they specialize in working. The second half of the book, which shifts the focus to the study room (shoin), talks about the use of imported Chinese objects (karamono) like tea caddies and tea cups as decorations. One of the categories of decorations mentioned is earthenware, to which non-porcelain tea cups, i.e. tenmoku tea cups, belong. According to this book, the most prized of tenmoku is a type known as yōhen, while yuteki comes in second.
The box in which this bowl came bears the words yuteki and tenmoku written on it in ink. The calligraphy of these words is attributed to either Sen no Rikyū or Furuta Oribe, both significant figures in the history of Japanese tea ceremonies. The bowl once passed through the hands of late-Edo-period feudal lord and tea practitioner Matsudaira Fumai. Its entry in the storehouse catalog (Unshū kurachō: daimyō butsubu) reads “Yuteki” followed by a list of names: “Koshoku; Doi Toshikatsu; Kinoshita Nagayasu, Fushimi-ya.” Of these, “Koshoku” 古織 was an alternative way of referring to Furuta Oribe 古田織部.
Though there are many cups of the yuteki tenmoku type, this particular object stands out for its exceptionally refined shape and patterning, to which it owes its fame.