TeaGuide: Reviews and Ramblings

February 6, 2015

Ramblings: Tea ware from Occupied Japan

Filed under: exotic tea,food,history,tea,teacups — by JanisB @ 2:45 pm
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Teacup and saucer made in occupied JapanDuring the post-World War II years, the USA spent a great deal of money and manpower to help our former enemies rebuild their economies. One of the projects in Japan was the re-establishment of the ceramics industry.

While Japan had a centuries-old tradition of ceramics (stoneware, china, porcelain) ranging from functional to decorative before the war, many factories were damaged during the fighting and skilled workers were in short supply. At war’s end, former factory workers and artisans started finding their way home and began to take up their jobs in the ceramics industry.

Americans back home were, at first, reluctant to buy products from Japan. The main outlet for them was the PX, or post exchange: the store on the base where military personnel and their families shopped. Our GIs felt that helping the Japanese rebuild their economies included being their customers. By about 1948 American ill will against the Japanese people had subsided enough that goods from Japan were once again welcomed in USA markets.

occupied-japan-ware

An Occupied Japan cup and saucer that I found in a local antiques shop several years ago.

Ceramics produced in Japan between 1945 and 1952 were identified as being made in occupied Japan. Most of the pieces bear markings of this period: Made in Occupied Japan, or just Occupied Japan. Because this period lasted less than seven years, many of the pieces created during the occupation have become rare and quite valuable.

Ceramics require two firings (baking in a super-hot oven called a kiln): the first, or bisque, firing that produces a solid, semi-porous object; followed by the glaze firing, in which a combination of minerals applied to the object and then heated become vitreous, thus rendering the object impervious to liquids.

The ceramics created in Occupied Japan were generally made of a white clay, or kaolin, which is used to produce porcelain. Most of the objects, however, were produced as china, which is fired at a lower temperature than porcelain.

While the majority of Occupied Japan china comprised figurines or other figural items (mugs, salt and pepper shakers, vases, and the like), a great number of tea wares were also produced. Many of these took the form of miniature tea sets and children’s tea sets. You can also find a few teapots and full-size tea sets. The majority of tea wares produced in Occupied Japan, however, were teacups – and some very beautiful ones at that.

Occupied Japan china can be found at antiques and collectibles shops, yard sales, and via online sellers, and vary widely in price. Be sure to look for the identifying marks stamped on the bottom. Although there have been some forgeries, most objects carrying the Occupied Japan stamp tend to be genuine. On the other hand, some Occupied Japan china is, unfortunately, not marked as such, and requires a ceramics expert to correctly identify it. There are also some specific factory names you can look for: Ucagco is one of these. Other pieces are signed by the individual artisan.

As with all fine collectibles, it’s up to you to decide whether it’s worth the asking price. Once you find a piece that you love, the answer will be “yes” and you’ll be adding a beautiful piece of history to your tea ware collection.

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December 11, 2014

Scents and scents-ability of tea

oolong tea leaves

Oolong tea leaves

The enjoyment of tea encourages us to engage all of our senses. Look at the shape and colour of the dry leaves, watch them unfurl and swirl in the hot water. Feel the cool smoothness of gyokuro leaves or the nubbly texture of a Buddha’s hand oolong leaf. Listen to the water boiling in the kettle, then as it’s poured from kettle to teapot to cup. Savour each sip, perceiving the range of tastes playing across your palate.

Our sense of smell may be the most important, and most varied, aspect of enjoying tea. Sniff the dry leaf in the sack or tin immediately after opening it to draw in the scent; again when you first pour hot water onto the leaves; and once more when bringing cup to lips. After the teapot is empty, lift the cover and take in the lingering bouquet graciously left by the tea on the interior of the pot.

To further enhance the olfactory appreciation of tea, in the mid-1900s the aroma cup was created in Taiwan. Also called a fragrance or smelling cup, this is a small cylindrical cup (wen xiang bei) paired with a small drinking cup (cha bei). Altho’ these were specifically designed to amplify the aromas of fragrant Taiwan oolongs, you can of course try it with other types of teas.

Three aroma cup sets from my own collection.

Three aroma cup sets from my own collection: Decorative china with flange, celadon porcelain in a bulb shape, and a traditional partially glazed red clay.

Fresh-made tea is first poured into the tall cup and allowed to rest for a few moments, then emptied into the drinking cup. If you’re nimble, you can add some drama to this procedure by inverting the drinking cup over the aroma cup that has been filled with tea, lift the cups together with thumb and middle finger of one hand, and quickly flip them over to transfer the tea into the drinking cup. Otherwise, simply pour the tea from the aroma cup into the drinking cup.

The aroma cup is then raised toward the nose to smell the lingering tea fragrance, which is intensified by the cylindrical shape. Sniff … and ahhhh! Aromas last for about a minute, during which time they subtly change as the cup cools, offering multiple nuances of scent. Alternate smelling and drinking the tea from the two cups to fully enjoy this ritual.

It’s been said that smell is the most evocative of all the senses, that a mere hint of a familiar scent can draw us immediately to another time and place. Certainly this is true of the fragrances of tea. If you don’t already use an aroma cup to enhance your tea enjoyment, I highly recommend that you give it a try.

(Here is one source for aroma cup sets, altho’ there are many other vendors who sell these as sets or individual cups.)

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October 3, 2013

Tea for the birds: DIY teacup bird feeder

Autumn is here, and that means it’s time to start putting out food for our beautiful feathered friends. If you don’t have a bird feeder, or you’d like a prettier feeder (or two or more), or you’re looking for a useful do-it-yourself gift project, guest contributor Samantha Joyce shows you how to invite the birds to share tea with you.

bird feederWith a few odds and ends from a home improvement store you can make a mini platform bird feeder out of a cute cup and saucer. The teacup holds the bird feed while the saucer acts as a shield to prevent Mr. Squirrel from taking over the smorgasbord. Teacups are better suited than mugs since the cup and saucers are thin enough to drill through with a bit designed for porcelain.

Materials list:

  • teacup and saucer – from a thrift store or garage sale; the birds don’t mind mismatched or chipped!
  • wooden table leg – from a home improvement store, painted in the color of your choice
  • cordless drill – with Phillips head bit
  • spear point bit – with Tungsten carbide tip or similar
  • wood drill bit – smaller diameter than the wood screw
  • three (3) – plastic or rubber washers as cushions
  • one (1) – wood screw 1.5 inch to hold it together

Bird Feeder CollageFirst, find a stable surface. I have holes in my dining room table after one craft project that involved turning teapots into flowerpots. Do yourself a favor and use a magazine or phone book to prevent this kind of damage. Drill the bottom of the teacup slowly with a bit designed for porcelain, ceramic, and glass. I like to drill the teacup as it sits upside down for easier access. The hole should be centered but it does not need to be even. Be careful not to apply too much downward pressure. Let the drill do the work for you. Repeat this step with the saucer. Set aside.

bird feeder finishedA wooden table leg comes with a long pre-threaded section to attach it to various table surfaces. In this case we turn things upside down: the threaded end becomes a very sturdy spike to plant the bird feeder into the ground. Use the wood drill bit to pre-drill a starter hole for the wood screw on what used to be the bottom of the table leg. It does not have to be as large as your wood screw and only as deep as the wood screw. This is now the top of the bird feeder post.

The three rubber washers are used to insure that the teacup and saucer do not fracture under stress when you snug things up with the cordless drill and Phillips head bit. Have a friend hold the table leg, with the spike end down and the starter hole up. Balance a washer, then the saucer, an additional washer, the teacup, and the final washer. Carefully center the wood screw and use the cordless drill with Phillips head bit to slowly unite the layers at once.

Voilà! This is a quick and easy project once you get the hang of it. You can do it yourself, but it is always nice to have an extra set of hands. And a cup of tea! These make excellent homemade gifts and look charming in multiples around the yard. If you do not have a yard, they also look terrific set into a large potted plant.

For notes on selecting the right kind of bird feed, bird feeder placement and other common bird feeding questions see The Great Backyard Bird Count.

Samantha Joyce is a writer for Seattle Coffee Gear and enjoys sharing her knowledge of all things coffee and tea. She has made many, many teacup bird feeders — and you can too!

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