Unpacking the marvelous harmony of Japanese tableware

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The Japanese often say, “Me de taberu” (“You eat with your eyes”), something I truly understood the first time I stayed at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese-style inn.

It was there that I was served a multi-course meal in an array of delicate, immaculately plated courses served on gorgeous ceramics of all shapes and sizes. The experience left an impression, and, as a result, researching and collecting Japanese tableware has since become a passion of mine.

Japanese artist and chef Kitaoji Rosanjin once likened tableware to a “kimono for food,” and the care that goes into moritsuke (plating) takes into consideration the food that’s served as well as the choice of plates, bowls and cups, and how they are placed.

Moritsuke is governed by a number of aesthetics, including a preference for odd numbers (seven patterns, five colors, three arrangement styles), contrast and the aim of re-creating elements of nature on a plate. The concept of ma (negative space) applies to Japanese plating as well as calligraphy, architecture and the arts, and at least 30% of the plate should be left empty.

According to Japanese culinary expert and cookbook author Elizabeth Andoh, moritsuke considers the color, shape, seasonality, materials and textures of both foods and their serveware. Each vessel is chosen with careful attention to textural nuances, shape, and mouthfeel.

The manner in which food is arranged is carefully executed to showcase the chef’s skill and to present food in the most attractive way, including showing off the patterns or textures of chosen tableware. Unlike Western convention, the dishes used are rarely from a single kiln or artist, and part of the joy of Japanese place settings is the creativity this grants to mix and match different shapes, textures, heights and colors, as well as add seasonal accents.

A cute appetizer set featuring a collection of small bowls placed in a lacquer box | MUSABI KILN

As sourcing and choosing high-quality Japanese tableware can be overwhelming, particularly for overseas customers, a new company has taken the guesswork out of table arrangements and thoughtfully explains the history and various styles of Japanese ceramics, lacquerware and other accent pieces.

Musubi Lab, founded by brothers Mototsugu and Takatsugu Fusada, is headquartered in Setagaya’s Denen Mansion, which was formerly used as a calculation center for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

The brothers’ love of traditional Japanese tableware came at an early age. The Fusada family relocated from Kobe to Ehime, where their father took the brothers to the Tobe ware kiln to make their own rice bowls. As adults, they realized that the traditional tableware culture they were familiar with was gradually disappearing and that it was difficult to find authentic tableware despite the popularity of Japanese food overseas, so they decided to connect — musubi — Japan and other countries.

Musubi Lab started a store specializing in Kutani ware called Japan Kutani Shop in May 2020. In June 2021, Musubi Lab launched Musubi Kiln, an online shop geared toward English-speaking countries that specializes in Kutani ware and other traditional ceramics and lacquerware. Musubi Kiln introduces traditional Japanese tableware and food culture for an international audience, including specialized webpages for restauranteurs, retail owners and cooking experts. The two shops have had more than 10,000 customers since opening.

In addition to highlighting various manufacturers and major Japanese ceramics styles (see sidebar), the website also profiles the artisans and techniques behind the works. By sharing the stories behind its pieces, Musubi Kiln helps its customers gain a deeper appreciation for traditional tableware and encourages a more meaningful dining experience. The store has been featured on a number of popular Japan-themed blogs and websites, including JNTO, Just One Cookbook and Marc Matsumoto’s No Recipes as well as New York Magazine.

Part of Musubi Kiln’s mission is to reverse the decades-old decline of Japanese tableware sales. Compared to other manufacturing industries, the percentage of older workers is high in the ceramics industry, including traditional Japanese tableware studios, and sales of Japanese tableware have declined 75% over the past 20 years. Aging artisans, shrinking domestic demand and the fact that more and more kilns go out of business every year have all played a role.

However, in cooperation with the Kutani Ware Cooperative and the Japanese Chamber of Commerce, Musubi Lab hopes to pass on traditional techniques to a new generation of craftspeople, preserve traditional ceramics for future generations and stimulate interest in Japanese tableware that will reverse the drop in demand.

Icihiju sansai dining is a simplified form of honzen ryori, the highly ritualized banquet-style dining of the samurai nobility of the Muromachi Period (1392-1573). | MUSABI KILN
Icihiju sansai dining is a simplified form of honzen ryori, the highly ritualized banquet-style dining of the samurai nobility of the Muromachi Period (1392-1573). | MUSABI KILN

For those new to collecting Japanese place settings, Musubi Kiln recommends this authentic ichiju sansai (one soup and three sides) set. Icihiju sansai dining is a simplified form of honzen ryori, the highly ritualized banquet-style dining of the samurai nobility of the Muromachi Period (1392-1573).

A typical ichiju sansai place setting includes a rice bowl (chawan), soup bowl (shiruwan), medium plates for main dishes, small plates for side dishes and tiny plates for soy sauce, sauces, garnishes and seasonings. Depending on the type of meal being served, this may also include a mushiwan for steamed custards, a ramen bowl or a rectangular plate for grilled fish, sushi or sashimi.

In addition to its website, Musubi Kiln sends out informative digital newsletters and recently started an online group on Facebook dedicated to Japanese tableware.

To make it easier to start using Japanese tableware, its website also offers artfully curated tableware settings, recipes and tips for a wide range of holidays and celebratory events, including New Year’s festivities, Mother’s Day, seasonal themes, and traditional Japanese food and sake pairings, along with a convenient listing of all featured products, taking the guesswork out of pairing various elements in complementary styles and colors. The range of price points, worldwide shipping and wide selection of traditional and modern place settings means that customers can be assured of finding the perfect match.

By incorporating Musubi Kiln’s beautiful ceramics and lacquerware, the company envisions that each of us can create our own little world on our dining room tables. Musubi Kiln wants to share with people around the world a way of enjoying life unique to Japan — the more people who share their passion for traditional Japanese tableware, the stronger the power to support artisans and the traditional craft industry will be.


A primer on Japan’s traditional pottery through the ages

The production of Japanese pottery dates back 12,000 years to the prehistoric Jomon Period (10,000-200 B.C.). Japanese pottery continued to evolve over the next several centuries, with the first examples of Japanese porcelain dating to the 1600s.

Examples of Mino ware | MUSUBI KILN
Examples of Mino ware | MUSUBI KILN

Mino ware

Mino ware ceramics have been produced for more than 1,300 years. Mino ware is produced mainly in eastern Gifu Prefecture and currently accounts for around 50% of the total production of ceramics in Japan. There are more than 15 styles of Mino ware that have developed.

Examples of Hasami ware | MUSUBI KILN
Examples of Hasami ware | MUSUBI KILN

Hasami ware

Hasami ware dates back to the Japanese invasion of the Korean Peninsula more than 400 years ago. Production is centered in northwestern Kyushu around the town of Hasami in Nagasaki. In 1978, Hasami ware was designated as a Traditional Japanese Craft by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

Examples of Kutani ware | MUSUBI KILN
Examples of Kutani ware | MUSUBI KILN

Kutani ware

Kutani ware pottery was established in 1655 by Toshiharu Maeda, the first daimyo of the Maeda clan in Kaga, Ishikawa Prefecture. It gained worldwide recognition at the 1873 World Exposition, where it was exhibited as “Japan Kutani.” Kutani ware is notable for its use of five colors (red, yellow, green, purple and Prussian blue), referred as Kutani gosai (the five Kutani colors).

Arita ware

Arita ware was first made in the 17th century, when raw porcelain material was discovered in Arita, Saga Prefecture. Since Arita was not located near the sea, exports were made from the nearest seaport, Imari, which is why Arita ware is known as Imari ware overseas. Major styles include Ko-Imari, Kakiemon and Nabeshima.

A Yamanaka lacquer three-tiered jubako box | MUSUBI KILN
A Yamanaka lacquer three-tiered jubako box | MUSUBI KILN

Japanese lacquerware

The tradition of Japanese lacquerware dates back to around 5,000 B.C. Wood is coated with a natural lacquer made from poison oak sap (urushi) that originates from the Japanese lacquer tree. The maki-e technique of sprinkling gold or silver dust on the lacquer surface was developed during the Heian Period (794-1185), and lacquerware became widely used in architectural elements in addition to tableware and stationary items.

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