Museum Dictionary

About Tea Kettles

Have you ever hear the story of the "Bunbuku Tea Kettle?" There are many different versions. In one, a tanuki (wild raccoon-dog) is helped by a poor man, so in return, he turns into a tea kettle and earns money for the man by walking on a tightrope. In another, a priest tries to catch the tanuki to have it for dinner, but the tanuki tries to escape by turning into a tea kettle. The priest takes the kettle home, but when he puts it on the hot fire, the tea kettle starts to sprout arms, legs, nose and ears, and soon it has turned back into a tanuki!

The "Bunbuku Tea Kettle" stories are not as interesting if you do not know what tanukis and tea kettles look like. Japanese people think of tanukis as having big, round bellies sticking out in front. It just so happens that Japanese tea kettles also have rounded middles.

  • Kotenmyo Skirted Tea Kettle
    Kotenmyo Skirted Tea Kettle (Private Collection)

This shape looks just enough like a tanuki's belly to make you believe... Well, anyway, lots of people thought that tanukis and tea kettles were similar enough to make a good story. Thus the "Bunbuku Tea Kettle" tale became one of the most popular stories of the Edo period (1600-1868 A.D.) and was the plot of many picture books. This story was very popular because, unlike children today, Japanese children in the Edo period still used tea kettles in their everyday lives.

The kind of tea kettle we are talking about here doesn't actually hold tea but instead is used to boil water for the Japanese tea ceremony. When do you think that these kettles were first made? Actually, kettles like this were used widely at least as long ago as the Kamakura Period (1185-1333 A.D.), but at that time they were used not only for boiling water for tea, but for boiling hot water for cooking, bathing, and other purposes. Back then, there was no hot running water like we have today!

Until the Muromachi period (1333-1573), tea was considered to be an important medicine. After a Zen priest named Eisai brought matcha tea (the strong, green tea powder used in the tea ceremony today) from China to Japan, however, tea began to have other functions in Japanese society, as seen by the new popularity of the tea-related guessing game "Tocha." This taste contest, in which the drinker tried to guess the origin of each variety of tea, was one example of a new trend of drinking tea for fun. With the growing interest in the tea ceremony, kettles began to be made especially for boiling tea water. The tea ceremony gained rapid popularity in the 16th century, from the late Muromachi period through the Momoyama period. Samurai and merchant classes in cities such as Kyoto, Sakai (Osaka Port), and in castle towns in the provinces began to compete among one another by holding lavish tea ceremonies. With this, the orders for tea kettles came rolling in to the famous kettle-making regions.

Many kettles were made from the 15th-16th centuries in such regions as Ashiya (today's Ashiya Town, Fukuoka Prefecture), Tenmyo (present-day Sano City, Tochigi Prefecture) and Kyoto. The craftspeople in these regions were regarded as the best in Japan at that time, and still are today.

Look at the photo below:

  • Ashiya Shinari Tea Kettle with Hailstone Ground and Deer and Maple Patterns
    Ashiya Shinari Tea Kettle with Hailstone Ground and Deer and Maple Patterns
    (Private Collection)

This kettle shape is called the "true shape" (shinnari kama in Japanese). It is round and originally had a rim like a belt running around its lower half. Such kettles were made in the tradition of kettles of the past. In the Edo period, many new and different kettle shapes were created, but the "true shape" remained the most popular and common. I bet that the tanuki in the "Bunbuku Tea Kettle" story turned into a kettle of this shape!

The tea ceremonies in which these kettles were used were huge, expensive events with many guests and the finest tea bowls and utensils. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who ruled Japan in the 16th Century, once had a Tea Ceremony in a Golden Tea Room using all golden bowls and utensils! One of the most powerful merchants of the time was a man named Chaya Shirojiro, whose estate was next to the present-day Prefectural Government seat in Kyoto. All kinds of beautiful and luxurious tea bowls and utensils have been excavated from his estate, proving that he spent a huge amount of money on the tea ceremony. However, the tea ceremony was not only for rich people. In recent years, tea utensils have been excavated from all over the country. In large cities, where the tea ceremony was especially popular, numerous "true shape" kettles made of clay instead of iron have been excavated from former middle-class and lower-class neighborhoods. These excavations prove that the Way of Tea has been enjoyed in different ways by people of different classes over the years.
The Bunbuku Tea Kettle story became popular at a time when the tea kettle was still an important part of daily life in Japan. If you ever get a chance to see one in real life, take a good look at it and remember the people who made and used tea kettles every day in old Japan.

Text by Tomoyasu Kubo, Department of Archives
English translation by Melissa M. Rinne, Department of Archives

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