Photo/IllutrationA Yohen Tenmoku tea bowl owned by the Fujita Museum (Provided by the Nara National Museum)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Each of them is only 12 centimeters across, but inside is a galaxy aglow with stars.

The only three existing centuries-old Yohen Tenmoku tea bowls in Japan will go on display separately at exhibitions in Tokyo, Shiga and Nara prefectures this spring.

Under the right lighting conditions, the characteristic spots veiled in an aurora-like pattern glimmer against the black surface to a mysterious effect.

As the artifacts are usually kept from public viewing, the trio of exhibitions present a special opportunity--perhaps the last--to see the exquisite ceramics on display around the same time.

The bowls are believed to have been produced in “Jian-yao” kilns in China’s Fujian province before being brought to Japan between the 12th and 13th centuries during the Southern Song period (1127-1279).

The iridescent patterns and lapis lazuli spots were created while the bowls were being fired in kilns. The manner in which they were created remains unknown, but they are thought to be not reproducible.

In Japan, since the Muromachi Period (1338-1573), the Yohen Tenmoku bowls have been regarded as the highest grade of Tenmoku ware, whose predecessors are said to be tea bowls brought to Japan by a Zen monk who received training at Tianmu (Tenmoku in Japanese) Mountain in China's coastal Zhejiang province. There is a theory that the name “yohen” came from how the glistening patterns transform with light.

The three national treasures are housed at Fujita Museum in Osaka, Seikado Bunko Art Museum in Tokyo and Daitokuji temple’s Ryokoin subtemple in Kyoto, with each bowl featuring different iridescent colors. The three artifacts will be put on display at different exhibitions from March to June.

Fujita Museum houses the Yohen Tenmoku bowl which was given to the Mito Tokugawa family by the Tokugawa Shogunate.

It will be featured at “Masterpieces from the Fujita Museum: A Brilliant Universe Reflected in a National Treasure Yohen Tenmoku Tea Bowl and Buddhist Art.” Co-hosted by the national museum, The Asahi Shimbun and other organizations, the special exhibition will be held at Nara National Museum from April 13 to June 9.

“We’d like visitors to enjoy the mystery of the tea bowl,” Fujita Museum director Kiyoshi Fujita said. “We can clearly see the iridescent patterns now thanks to the development of lighting technology. In the past it would not have been as clear. We also want visitors to imagine how wielders of power who previously possessed it had appreciated the ware.”

The Yohen Tenmoku bowl owned by Seikado Bunko Art Museum is also called Inaba Tenmoku, as it was given to the ruling Inaba family of the Yodo Domain by the Tokugawa Shogunate. The artifact, which features the most distinct luster patterns of all three bowls, will be put on display in a lounge space outside the venue of the “Bizen Swords--The Flower of Japanese Swords" exhibition to be held at the museum from April 13 to June 2.

“We think visitors can enjoy the light-induced differences (in the patterns) occurring moment to moment under natural light coming through the windows,” curator Masaki Yamada said.

The Ryokoin subtemple at Daitokuji, which owns the third piece, is not open to the public, meaning that the bowl is seen less frequently than the other two. The ware was originally obtained by Kogetsu Sogan (1574-1643), the offspring of a tea master for warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) and the founder of Daitokuji, before it was handed down by priests and other figures for generations.

The bowl will be featured at the special exhibition “Kokuho Yohen Tenmoku to Hasoai” (National treasure Yohen Tenmoku and torn straw sandals) from March 21 to May 19 at Miho Museum in Koga, Shiga Prefecture.

“We make use of LED lights in a way that visitors can get a good look at the luster patterns,” said Akiyoshi Hatanaka, chief curator of the museum.

As large crowds are expected, an exclusive exhibition room will be set up for the bowl.