This past Saturday I had the incredible good fortune to spot this Japanese porcelain tea set in the glass cabinet in the back of an antique store, surrounded by uninteresting white china and Victorian glassware. I rarely see traditional styles of Japanese or Chinese teaware in antique stores, and it seemed even less likely in this particular store which sells primarily mid-nineteenth century to 1930s American furniture, jewelry and china. Even more surprising to me was that the set bore a price for the entire set of less than twenty dollars, an astonishingly low price for such an exceptionally well-crafted set of porcelain teaware.
The set is quite interesting, with incredible detailing in the hand-painted cherry tree motif and gilding. Each piece has a rectangular section with beautifully delicate calligraphy, which I lament my inability to read. The cups are unusually large for a set of this type, but the yokode kyuusu (side-handled tea pot) holds more liquid than it appears to and can brew enough tea to fill each of the cylindrical cups half way, which I don’t expect to appear strange. The kyuusu has a nice feel to it and has a sasame (an integrated porcelain strainer on the inside, before the spout). I haven’t brewed any tea in it yet but it pours smoothly. Based on the style, I would guess it was made in the thirties or forties, and it was definitely not made for the export market. (Japanese porcelain tea sets made for export are in a standard European configuration: teapot, creamer, sugar bowl and handled cups with saucers, and they are quite commonly found in antique shops.)
Before the owner of the antique shop began carefully wrapping up the individual pieces in tissue paper for me, he stepped into the back room and emerged with three additional matching porcelain pieces, which he included with the set for no additional charge. He said that he did not know anything about the other pieces and that clearly there was at least one part missing. The additional pieces were a tall narrow yunomi (tea cup) and two lids. After I got home and unwrapped everything to examine the pieces I saw that the two lids were of slightly different sizes. The smaller of the two fit over the top of the yunomi and the larger one apparently had fit onto a slightly larger yunomi, which was missing. This indicated to me that the three pieces were the components of a meoto yunomi (夫婦湯呑み) set – a pair of marriage tea cups.
Meoto Yunomi are popular in Japan. As one might guess they are often given as wedding presents. The sets always match in overall design, but they can differ from each other by color or by decoration and they always vary in size. I don’t think there’s really much of a dramatic difference in liquid capacity of the two yunomi in a set, but they display a clear visual message about the hierarchy of power between husband and wife, as it is the husband’s cup which is the larger of the two.
I feel terribly lucky to have been in the right place at the right time to have found this set. I suspect that these sorts of traditional sets of teaware might have less of a market among antique china collectors that would be likely to visit this particular shop. My acquisition of the set was the result of an arbitrary decision to step into this particular store on a whim. As a general rule I don’t intentionally go shopping for antique teawares of any variety. My cabinets are already protesting my ability to find wonderful things.
Pottery and Ceramics Japan (Trad Meister Club) has a pretty good list of japanese pottery terms.
The full set of photographs of this set can be viewed in the Japanese tea photo gallery on our Facebook page.