Ceramic or clay, a tall yunomi, or a wide chawan – here’s your guide to the types of Japanese tea cups for a flavor explosion the Nihon way.
The clear, rich, and smooth flavor of afternoon sencha, your favorite nutty brew of genmaicha, or the frothy goodness of ceremonial-grade matcha — your green tea deserves a special vessel.
Whether for a special occasion or as a daily driver, the Japanese drink their refreshing brew with style. It’s not only that most types of Japanese tea cups don’t have handles, there’s more to it. The tea cup, chawan, comes in many shapes and sizes, sculpted and crafted in different techniques, tailored for specific qualities.
There’s a lot to know about the types of Japanese tea cups — so here’s a guide to help you choose the cup that will enhance your tea-sipping experience and help you serve ocha to your guests the Japanese way (here’s what you need for the full set).
From a Food Bowl to Revered Teacup
Monks brought green tea to Japan around the 8th century, but at first people only drank it as medicine. It was only after the 12th century that tea became a daily beverage, and one deserving of its own special vessel. Imitating the shape of Chinese and Korean food bowls, Japanese kilns started producing local tea wares. So, we got the chawan (茶碗) – the Japanese tea bowl (literally translated).
Soon enough, the role of tea in Japanese society reached new heights.
A great figure in Japanese tea history, Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591), is credited with creating the Japanese tea ceremony – a formal gathering hosted by a tea master. Appreciation for the delicate flavors and carefully selected utensils (that reflect the season or occasion) is key to the ceremony.
Sen no Rikyu’s tea ceremony, still practiced today, places high value on wabi-sabi, the simple aesthetic of the imperfect. He also played a key role in establishing Japan’s tea culture and many of Japan’s still burning kilns for ceramic production.
Japanese tea cups come in various materials, shapes, and styles.
We can determine types of Japanese tea cups by pottery style – different types of ceramics and introduce a few of the famous Japanese teacup-making techniques.
Shape matters, too. Japanese tea cups come both wide and tall, with straight or rounded sides, each perfect for a different use.
Finally, Japanese tea sets vary across styles, ranging from the imperfectly beautiful wabi-sabi undecorated stoneware to intricately painted and brightly colored Kutani porcelain.
Materials in Japanese Tea Cups
Ceramics is a wide term – earthenware, stoneware, and even porcelain are all ceramics. They all come from some version of clay, but the final result depends on the purity of raw materials and the heat at which the kiln fires your bowls.
In a nutshell, the higher the heat, the less porous the material becomes.
- Earthenware is porous, even soft. When you clink it, it doesn’t ring in a high tone; it lets out a thud. Cups made this way are often glazed to make them better for tea, and to make washing easier. Holding an earthenware cup is a unique experience: it’s light, yet robust.
- Stoneware is fired at high temperatures, so the material particles start to fuse. The result is a dense material, still a bit porous but with a naturally smooth finish. Stoneware comes both unglazed and glazed. Though stoneware is heavier, its texture usually gives you good grip - and is interesting to the touch.
- Crank that heat up further (and use quality materials) to get porcelain.
Most traditional Japanese tea cups fall somewhere between earthenware and stoneware.
The main benefit is their high heat retention – getting yourself a thick stoneware cup means your fingers won’t get burned and your tea won’t go cold. This property lets you cuddle the chawan with your fingers and appreciate the tea’s warmth, safely.
You might think that a porous cup is not good, but green tea lovers disagree. Just like a well-seasoned cast iron pan would, a well-used porous tea cup collects flavor over time. If you maintain it well (and avoid dish soap), it will enhance the aroma of your tea with the collective flavor of your previous teas.
In addition to enriching its taste and keeping warmth better, earthenware and stoneware cups fit the Japanese wabi-sabi philosophy, central to the Japanese tea ceremony, which values simplicity above all. The fact that stoneware may get discolored over time is yet another reason to appreciate the dish, according to wabi-sabi principles.
If you see a pure white or intricately painted tea cup, it’s likely made of porcelain – a type of ceramic material fired at highest heat. Porcelain tea cups used to be a famous export from China, but Japan flaunts a few well-known porcelain teaware makers too.
Burnt at heat so high the clay material gets vitrified (becomes like glass), porcelain has a sophisticated look, dense material, and a smooth texture. It’s a cherished material for eating and tea utensils.
Porcelain cups look neat, and they’re lightweight and durable. Because the material is not porous, they’re easy to wash - no color stains or odors stick around.
A set of Japanese porcelain tea cups is a good choice for any home. Porcelain is especially good for a summer cup of tea – as it doesn’t insulate warmth well, your tea will cool down quickly in a porcelain cup.
Glass is rather modern and rarely used for tea. Japanese tea cups don’t have handles, and it’d be hard to hold a glass cup of hot water. However, glass teacups are a popular choice for cold tea!
Beyond Craft: The Japanese Pottery Styles for Tea Cups
Historically, bowls and cups imported from China and Korea (named Karamono and Kouraimono respectively) were revered types of tea utensils, available only to the rich. After Sen no Rikyu popularized tea ceremony in the 16th century, domestic production of tea wares started to blossom and expand.
Several famous kilns established local pottery traditions that persevere to this day.
There’s the recognizable cobalt blue porcelain from Arita, famous glazing techniques of Seto, Ishikawa’s bold-colored Kutani-yaki, clear white Amakusa porcelain, the earthy Bizen-yaki of Okayama, Gifu’s dotted Mino stoneware, and so much more.
But there’s a famous Japanese saying that picks out three pottery techniques best esteemed for the tea ceremony:
Raku first, Hagi second, and Karatsu third.
Let’s take a look at what makes these pottery styles so special they remained relevant centuries later.
Raku Ware (Raku-yaki, 楽焼)
Raku ware, the most esteemed among teaware crafting styles, embodies the spirit of wabi-sabi.
The first matcha bowls made in the Raku kiln (then called Jurakudai) were ordered by none other than Sen no Rikyu, the famous tea master. This Kyoto kiln was also the first in Japan to use stamp seals to label their creations.
Raku wares are hand-molded earthenware creations. The glazed bowls go through a process of lower temperature firing and rapid cooling, resulting in a lightweight and porous cup. Following tea ceremony ideal, the cups are glazed but not painted, imperfectly molded by hand rather than on a potter’s wheel.
Colored naturally by the material and natural glaze, raku comes in black, red, and white.
A 17th-century black Raku tea cup – they didn’t change much.
Hagi Ware (Hagi-yaki, 萩焼)
The Hagi pottery from Yamaguchi prefecture is earthenware of unique cracked texture, milky white glaze, and high levels of tea flavor-enhancing iron in the clay. It was developed based on Korean pottery.
The natural browns and beiges of Hagi ware complement the bright green of matcha splendidly. It’s further enriched by the delicate web of cracks on the cup’s glaze. But looks are not the only reason Hagi pottery is revered among tea ceremony goers.
Being fairly porous earthenware, tea slowly penetrates the cracks of Hagi cups, giving them a seasoning over time. The process stains the cup too, making its color change over time. Japanese people value this process, calling it the cup’s “seven transformations” (萩の七化け).
Karatsu Ware (Karatsu-yaki, 唐津焼)
Karatsu Ware is a type of stoneware based on old Korean potting techniques and made in the Saga and Nagasaki prefectures.
It’s a type of glazed stoneware (or sometimes porcelain) that finds the right balance between the rawness of clay and the delicate art of glaze decoration.
Most Karatsu-ware is made with iron-based glazes, an addition that enhances the flavor of green tea.
Imari and Kutani Ware (伊万里焼, 九谷焼)
Imari was a trans-shipment port and an international name for clay teacups and pottery shipped from there, once a famous Japanese export. It famously traded in Imari and Kutani porcelain bowls and cups.
If you’re looking for quality white porcelain from Japan, Kutani ware might just be it. Intricately designed and beautifully painted, Kutani ware is known for its quality and durability, along with its layered paint that belongs in a gallery.
The legacy of these porcelain kilns lives on. Get your own genuine Kutani tea cups from our friends at Musubi Kiln.
The Many Shapes of Japanese Tea Cups
All kinds of Japanese tea cups share the same basic features – a simple design without handles, and a round elevated foot at the bottom. But there’s still a surprising array of differences.
Kumi-dashi (汲み出し) – Wide Bowls
A chawan (tea bowl) is normally used for formal tea gatherings - it’s the tea ceremony matcha bowl. Chawan can be described as Kumi-dashi or kumide. They’re the wide-brim, low-profile cups you’ll see the tea master whisk matcha in.
A kumi-dashi is great for matcha as it’s the appropriate size for whisking, but also because its wide brim lets you appreciate the color and fragrance of the tea better. This is the best choice if you want to serve tea to guests (they’re good for sencha and gyokuro tea too).
Kumidashi chawan also come in slight shape variations, including the half-cylindrical hantsutsu-gata (半筒形) typical for Raku ware, well-shaped ido-gata (井戸形) popular in Hagi style, and the summer chawan with its flat profile that lets tea cool down quickly.
The summer tea cup has a wide opening – to let the tea cool quickly.
Yunomi (湯呑み) – Straight, Tall Teacups
If you’re drinking green tea on your own (and I highly recommend you do so), you don’t want it to get cold quickly. And if you use a tea ceremony chawan, it will.
That’s why the Japanese have another category of tea cups – yunomi – perfect for sipping the green goodness at your leisure. This type of cup is upright and tall, usually larger than a kumi-dashi (they’re still small cups compared to western standards), and without a wide opening that would let warmth escape too fast.
It’s not the first choice to serve tea to guests, but it’s absolutely fabulous at not allowing your tea to cool down before you get to drink the tea. You’ll get a yunomi-style cup of bancha or hojicha tea in many sushi restaurants.
Soba-choko (そば猪口) – Cups with Tapered Sides
Soba-choko is technically not a tea cup. But, it’s often used as one.
The humble dish is used to dip soba noodles in, but its tapered shape is just perfect for a little sip of sencha tea. If you’re not a big tea drinker, soba-choko can also be used as a sake cup. It usually holds about 3 oz of liquid, just right for a warming sip of sake or tea.
The Right Cup for Your Soul-Warming Beverage
Green tea is so good I could drink it from a paper cup. But the beverage (and all of the rituals around it) deserves its own, special vessel that can enhance its healthful and tasty properties.
Energize your afternoon with a warm gulp of sencha tea from your own stoneware yunomi cups, serve your guests ceremonial-grade matcha tea in stylish Raku ware chawan, or enjoy some quick tea from your soba-choko with friends – this way, you’ll always have the perfect Japanese tea cup for any occasion.
For the ultimate experience, get one of the traditional Japanese teapots for any type of tea other than matcha.
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Are you a tea lover or shopping for a special gift? Find the best Japanese tea cups at Musubi Kiln. Musubi Kiln features different shapes and styles of traditional Japanese teacups. Shop their beautiful selection of yunomi tea cups, yunomi chawan, porcelain yunomi, mino ware, arita yaki, and more!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dunja Djuragic Dugandzic
Dunja believes simple, straightforward, a little cheeky, and very informative writing can change the world. From teenage years, her fascination with the Japanese way of life continues to grow - and so does her research. Since 2015, she writes content about Japan, travel, world cultures and heritage, crafts and art, printing technologies, and a variety of digital products.