In Japanese, the word for bowl is chawan, and most Japanese people use chawan every day to eat rice. The word chawan, however, does not mean “rice bowl,” but “teabowl.” This is because such bowls were originally used, not for rice, but for tea!
We do not know exactly when the custom of drinking tea came to Japan, but an early book called the Nihon Koki says that a priest named Eichu made tea for the Saga Emperor, telling us that tea had already come to Japan by the beginning of the Heian Period (794-1185). At that time, however, tea was not drunk by all Japanese alike. Only the imperial family, aristocrats and some priests were able to drink the new beverage!
By the middle ages (Kamakura and Muromachi Periods), however, the custom of drinking tea had spread among the Japanese people. At that time, the kind of bowl used for tea drinking was the tenmoku teabowl, imported from China. These black-glazed teabowls were first brought back to Japan by Japanese priests, who admired them at a temple on Mt. Tianmu (Tenmoku in Japanese) in China. We still call them by their Japanese name tenmoku today.
All the teabowls pictured here are called tenmoku teabowls, but can you see how they differ in color and shape? Some widen at the mouth, while some taper. Some have straight sides while some have rounded. Some are all black while some have designs. You can see how many different kinds of tenmoku teabowls were brought into Japan from China in the middle ages!
By the end of the Kamakura Period, however, the custom of drinking tea had spread, and the number of people who wanted to own tenmoku teabowls grew. From that time on, these bowls were not only imported from China, the Japanese began to make tenmoku teabowls of their own. This doesn't mean that tenmoku teabowls were made all over Japan. At that time, the only place that made glazed ceramics was the Seto region (in present day Aichi Prefecture), so naturally Seto was the only place that could make the black-glazed tenmoku teabowls.
The tenmoku teabowls made in Seto were excellent copies of the original Chinese bowls. However, the Japanese-made bowls had one special characteristic: though the Chinese bowls came in many different shapes, the Japanese particularly liked the bowls with tapered mouths, so almost all the Seto-made bowls had this tapered shape. Another difference between the Japanese and the Chinese bowls was the clay. The most famous production center in China for tenmoku teabowls was the Jian kiln, in present day Fujian Province. If you compare the unglazed section, the foot, of a Jian-ware teabowl (Chinese) with a Seto-ware (Japanese) bowl, you will see that the color of the clay is very different. This is because of the difference in the amount of iron. Clay from the Seto region has very little iron so it is whitish. In order to make the unglazed feet of the bowls turn black instead of white (and thus look more like Jian ware), some Seto potters even coated the feet of their teabowls in an iron-rich mineral powder! That is how much the Japanese of the day admired Chinese tenmoku teabowls!
These days, the number of high-quality manufactured products made in Japan has increased, so there the Japanese don't necessarily think that all Japanese-made products are cheap and all foreign imports are high-quality anymore. Nevertheless, the luxury images of European cars such as Rolls Royce and Mercedes don't die quickly. Perhaps to the Japanese of the middle ages, owning an imported, Chinese tenmoku teabowl had the same appeal as owning a Mercedes Benz does to some people today!