16 October 2023
Between Light and Darkness: The Subtle Artistry of Tableware
Once, a photographer from Musubi Kiln observed, "The images we present on our site boast a vibrant, bright atmosphere. That's partly because these are product photos designed to appeal to customers. Ideally, however, it would be nice if we could also capture the subtle beauty in the shadows, such as the faint reflection of light on black lacquerware in semi-darkness, as in the 'In Praise of Shadows.'"
"In Praise of Shadows," a literary masterpiece written by novelist Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965), is renowned for its insightful exploration of the aesthetic sensibility found in the subtleties of dim light, deeply rooted in the essence of Japanese culture. Contrasted with Western aesthetics, this book helps to unravel the distinct cultural sensitivity and aesthetic perception nurtured within Japanese culture. While still widely read in modern Japan, the book has permeated foreign societies in the post-war era and has been translated into many languages.
The book opens with the story of how our Japanese ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, gradually found beauty in shadows and, over time, began to incorporate them into their pursuit of beauty.
However, as you may know, Japanese lifestyle has significantly evolved since then. Rooms are now brightly illuminated, Western-style architecture and interiors have become more prevalent, and traditional Japanese houses have become less common. From personal experience, I found the houses I lived in while in England or America were often older, made ample use of indirect lighting, and were generally darker. From this perspective, it can be said that the Japanese affinity for dimness is not inherently strong. As Tanizaki pointed out, it might be more accurate to say that this sensibility was fostered more out of necessity, a result of historical and cultural constraints.
Nevertheless, the aesthetic consciousness depicted by Tanizaki continues to be passed down in various fields within Japan. It can be observed in design, film, painting, interior decoration, and particularly in traditional crafts, where this long-standing aesthetic sensibility is inherited and emphasized. Japanese tableware serves as a fitting example of this tradition, and Tanizaki himself repeatedly referenced the aesthetics of tableware and the beauty of shadows in his work, "In Praise of Shadows."
- Lacquerware Bowls: Japanese Art of Savoring
- Maki-e: Elegance from Darkness
- Kiyohide Glass: Art of Light Reflection
- Kinzan Kiln: Celadon for Twilight
Lacquerware Bowls: Japanese Art of Savoring
Boasting a depth of black and vermilion, a moist texture that seems to retain humidity, and a smooth gloss, lacquerware represents one of Japan's foremost crafts and was especially elaborated upon by Tanizaki in the realm of tableware. A course invariably presented in Japanese kaiseki cuisine known as "Wan-mono," or bowl dish, often confounds when the lid is lifted, as the deep hues of the lacquerware intermingle with the color of the soup.
"What lies within the darkness one cannot distinguish, but the palm senses the gentle movements of the liquid, vapor rises from forming droplets on the rim, and the fragrance carried upon the vapor brings a delicate anticipation," (Tanizaki, Junichiro. In Praise of Shadows, Vintage Classics, 2001, p. 20).
Tanizaki referred to this moment as a "moment of mystery, it might almost be called, a moment of trance." Considering that wan-mono is packed with umami components derived from dashi broth, it's not hard to imagine the entrancing feeling one might experience at this moment, as the dish offers a surprisingly rich taste that belies the opacity of its appearance.
During meals, particularly in dim lighting, there's a need for caution against burns when consuming hot dishes such as wan-mono. However, wooden bowls, even when filled with hot contents, don't become excessively hot.
When you hold these bowls, the warmth and the tactile, adhesive-like quality of the lacquer create a sense of security, making them comfortable to hold, and arguably enhancing the flavor of the soup. This could be one of the reasons why dishes like miso soup and clear soup might feel akin to soul food. The appeal is not merely the mysteriousness or the umami flavor, but also these unique attributes inherent to lacquer bowls.
Maki-e: Elegance from Darkness
Moreover, concerning lacquerware, particularly those adorned with gold such as maki-e or sinking gold, Tanizaki elucidated as follows:
"Lacquerware decorated in gold is not something to be seen in a brilliant light, to be taken in at a single glance; it should be left in the dark, a part here and a part there picked up by a faint light. Its florid patterns recede into the darkness, conjuring in their stead an inexpressible aura of depth and mystery, of overtones but partly suggested." (Tanizaki, Junichiro. "In Praise of Shadows", Vintage Classics, 2001, p. 19).
Lacquerware incorporating gold offers a distinctly resplendent impression, significantly more luxurious when compared to other Japanese tableware. Furthermore, with lacquer becoming increasingly valuable in modern times and fewer households utilizing it in daily life, lacquerware employing maki-e technique conjures images of use during celebratory occasions like New Year's. Under natural light, the contrast between the black and gold seems strikingly pronounced.
Yet, within dimmer surroundings, the way the gold captures and glows in faint light is remarkably elegant. Historically and culturally, Japan has extensively used gold in ornamentation. When considering that the use was primarily in darker interiors, one can make sense of the reasoning behind the seemingly flamboyant design.
When using lacquerware adorned with gold decorations, such as makie or sinking gold, for dinner, try a dimmer lighting setup than usual. By implementing indirect lighting or lighting candles, you're bound to notice a distinct charm that differs from the daytime experience.
From this point forward, we'd like to introduce some tableware that we at MUSUBI KILN believe would suit the shadows, pieces that aren't featured in "In Praise of Shadows."
Kiyohide Glass: Art of Light Reflection
Let us introduce Kiyohide Glass, a beautiful representation of the Edo Kiriko technique, that we believe suits the shadows perfectly.
Kiyohide Glass, with its meticulous cutting and gleaming facets, brings a brilliant sparkle when lit, setting the perfect tone for a relaxed evening with a drink. Its effect is akin to a kaleidoscope, illuminating the dining space with reflected light and creating a mesmerizing atmosphere.
Edo Kiriko, the technique used by Kiyohide Glass, is a testament to a deep understanding of light. The deep cuts refract light, while thin lines accumulate and reflect it. At times, the technique creates a frosted glass effect that softens the light. All these techniques reveal the maker's knowledge and ability to manipulate light to the most stunning effects.
Kinzan Kiln: Celadon for Twilight
This sake vessel series, created using the "Kinmori" technique that is a distinctive feature of Kinzan Kiln, is designed to complement dimly lit moments such as in the evening. Employing the technique of raising gold, these vessels showcase intricately crafted arabesque motifs that shine three-dimensionally, featuring a rounded decanter and cups.
Personally, I find that celadon encompasses several contrasting elements. It appears refreshing yet carries a sense of warmth, it seems clear and yet slightly cloudy, capturing a delicate and ambiguous quality that is difficult to put into words. Throughout the day, it is a vessel that harmonizes with the twilight, neither bright nor dark, creating its own unique charm.
When the time comes for heartfelt conversations with your cherished ones, which hour of the day do you typically choose? And what setting do you find most fitting? Reflecting on my own life, I often find that dinners have left a profound impact on my memories. These meals, bathed in gentle, dim light, emit a subtle radiance that adds a special charm to these precious moments. Incorporate such beautifully luminous tableware amidst the shadows and create experiences that will endure.
Writer and Editor in Chief of MUSUBI KILN. Previously, she was involved in writing about pop music and fashion. She enjoys going to music festivals in nature, and traveling. Her passion for food cultivated an affection for tableware.