Suzuki Morihisa Tetsubin

Taking Their Tea, and Past, Seriously
Teapot makers use age-old methods to create functional objets d’art.
LOS ANGELES TIMES
August 02, 2001|VALERIE REITMAN

MORIOKA, Japan — When Shiiko Kumagai’s grandfather, a legendary craftsman who made exquisite handmade cast-iron teapots, died, she was making jewelry in Tokyo, a few hundred miles and light-years away.

A few years later, her father died, and the family teapot-making business, which had survived for 15 generations, was in danger of collapse. “This family has a long history,” she says. “Someone had to take over.”

And so, 12 years ago, Kumagai, a petite woman with delicate features, adopted the business name of her grandfather and those before him: Morihisa Suzuki. She donned work clothes and repaired to the primitive workshop tucked just behind the family’s storefront and home, where as a child she would watch her grandfather pour molten iron into molds for the teakettles that had won him the government’s prized designation as a “living national treasure.”

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Kushime Tetsubin Small 櫛目丸形鉄瓶 1.0 Liter
Prime Minister Book Prize

The techniques of Kumagai, now 54, remain much the same as her grandfather’s–and, for that matter, differ little from those of her 17th century ancestors. Her forefathers were vassals making household goods for the daimyo, or lord, who ruled an area, then known as Nambu, on the northern part of Japan’s main island.

She was skeptical that the other dozen or so men who still make teapots in Morioka–many of them also descendants of 17th century craftsmen–would accept and respect a woman in this small city renowned for its cast-iron wares. Their solid, heavy pots with a dull luster convey a feeling of strength and substance, and many feature a raised-knob pattern.

“It’s not a matter if you’re a man or a woman, but this is really heavy physical work,” says Takahiro Koizumi, a male Morioka teapot maker.

But with help from the two craftsmen who worked for her grandfather, she has managed not only to keep the business afloat, but also to win the respect and admiration of her peers with the delicate shapes of her teapots.

One lovely creation, which retails for about $600, is shaped somewhat like a rounded version of Cinderella’s coach, with vertical lines delicately enveloping the orb’s sides. She created the pot by painstakingly etching a pattern into a sand-and-clay mold, into which iron is poured.

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“Women are more imaginative, creative than men,” says her male counterpart, Tomoyuki Maeda, who also makes teapots in a craft village on the city’s fringe. “Her works are very sensitive. She can draw very thin drawings like hair–the kind of thing men can never imagine or think about doing.”

Turning their Nanbu tetsubin , as the teapots are called in Japanese, into more objets d’art than kettles is one way these traditional craftspeople are trying to keep their livelihoods intact.

The challenge for Morioka’s dozen or so tetsubin makers is to keep their traditional cast-iron tea ceremony vessels and tetsubin alive and relevant in an era in which electric hot-water heaters are the norm and a lingering economic decline has tightened pocketbooks.

Teapot maker Koizumi, for example, is advertising on the Internet and also sells ceramics in his store. Others, such as Nobuho Miya, have tried to find more contemporary uses for cast iron, rendering it into fashionable casserole dishes with wooden handles and trivets, to supplement teapot sales.

Until a recent resurgence, the use of once-requisite tetsubin –usually perched on a charcoal-burning hibachi inside the home–had been declining for decades. The iron teapots are no longer a necessity for daily life, thanks first to the advent of propane burners, then gas stoves and now the electric thermos-like water heaters that are omnipresent in Japanese homes these days. The thermoses provide a ready supply of hot water to make ocha, Japanese green or brown tea.

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The electric thermoses are far easier to use than the iron pots, from which water must be dumped immediately or rust will form. And they’re far less expensive than the handmade tetsubin, which start at about $200 and can cost 10 to 20 times as much. The similar cast-iron pots used for boiling water in the refined Japanese tea ceremony can easily cost several thousand dollars.

The pots last forever if well cared for, so there’s little demand for replacements. “Ironware is too strong,” tetsubin- maker Koizumi says jokingly. “We need to sell something that’s easily broken.”

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And the handmade pots are also being supplanted by sales of machine-made tetsubin, some of which are manufactured in Southeast Asia. Others are made right in Morioka by the huge Iwachu factory.

The factory, which makes handsome cast-iron pots, pans, skillets, woks and decorative ware, exports brightly colored cast-iron teapots with raised knobs that can be seen in department stores from France to Los Angeles. The pots exported to the U.S. have an enamel surface, to prevent rusting, an Iwachu spokesman says.

While also making them rust-proof, the enamel coating eliminates one of the key factors that have helped the handmade pots enjoy a resurgence in Japan in recent years: Water boiled in the tetsubin is infused with iron, purportedly helping to counteract widespread anemia in Japan. Water boiled in the pots also tastes sweeter, somehow eliminating the chlorine-taste of city water.

Those who do use tetsubin often combine old and new, boiling the water in the teapots, then dumping it into the thermos to keep it warm throughout the day.

It’s a wonder the tetsubin craft has survived at all. The beautiful pots made before World War II are scarce because the tetsubin- makers were required to donate any pots in their stores to the war effort, and the pots were melted down to make ammunition. Kumagai has just two pots that were made by her grandfather.

Craftsmen were endangered during the war as well because the Japanese government required most men to serve in the war. But some craftsmen successfully petitioned the government to spare them from having to serve, while also allowing them to make a few pots annually to preserve their skills. Koizumi’s family, for example, was allowed to make 20 pots annually, a coup because making the pots also consumed precious fuel.

Museums and books show the beauty of the old teapots–some in shapes such as Mt. Fuji, others with flowers or wild horses in relief. Among the most prized were silvery kettles formed from the sand-iron panned from local river beds–a kind of material known as a phantom metal said to possess extraordinary qualities. Today, however, most of the pots contain iron imported from Brazil and elsewhere.

Making the pots is still painstaking. The molds contain an inner core on which sand and clay are laid and then patterns–ranging from sprays of flowers to thousands of dots that form knobs of sorts on the exterior–are etched or punched by hand.

Shape is also important. It’s said that the sound the teapot makes when it boils should sound like the wind blowing through pine trees. The lid should rise up and click slightly when the water is boiling.

The inner mold for the teapots is contained within two outer pieces that fit together and resemble an old cask. The molds are filled with molten iron, then delicately opened, and imperfections are hammered out. (The molds can be reused if they remain intact; they are easily broken when the iron is poured or when the mold is opened.)

The pots are then oven-fired to remove the carbon and burnished with a lacquer made from pine-tree ash and a mixture of brown rust, vinegar and green tea.

The teapot-makers’ workshops–usually located behind their shops and adjacent to their homes in downtown, urban Morioka, resemble ancient blacksmiths’ quarters, with lots of old-fashioned tools and no modern machinery.

They are a study in browns, with the cask-like moldings piled high on dirt or sand floors.

Miya, whose grandfather founded his store a century ago, has developed a technique to help prevent–or, more accurately, disguise–rusting: He melts rusted Japanese cast-iron items such as tubs and pots, then reuses the iron in his very expensive tea-ceremony kettles. The pots take on an attractive, burnished-red finish that essentially is already rusted so won’t show any more rust.

Some Japanese are willing to shell out thousands of dollars for these items. “People need something to depend on mentally, and they have started getting tired of mass-produced items,” Miya says.

On a recent day, Nobuyoshi Tanabe, 72, and his wife, Ichii, 73, traveled five hours north to Morioka to buy a tea-ceremony pot, known as a chagama, at Maeda’s shop. The couple–who met for the first time on their wedding day in an arranged marriage–were looking for a tea-ceremony pot to commemorate their 55th wedding anniversary next year.

On their 45th anniversary, Nobuyoshi Tanabe drew a family tree that took 15 years to research–but would be gone instantly in a fire, he notes. For their 50th anniversary, they went to a hot spring, inviting many friends and relatives along. When that was over too, nothing remained, he said. “This time,” he says, “I wanted to have something that will remain forever with our name on it.”

The couple settled on a custom-made pot on which Maeda’s shop will put the kanji characters for their names, along with “55th wedding anniversary.” And they settled on a price: about $1,600.

They’ll particularly savor it, Nobuyoshi Tanabe says, because they live in a farmhouse with a traditional wood-burning irori hearth, where they can boil the water and perform the tea ceremony along with their son, daughter-in-law, grandson and his new wife in the house they all share.

“As I became older, I wanted to drink tea longer, and water boiled in Nambu ware is superior–it’s different than in an electric pot,” he says. “I want to boil water over charcoal. I want to really taste the tea.”

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Morihisa Iron Studio, Moriawake