Raku ware (楽焼, raku-yaki) is a famous type of Japanese pottery ranked above all others, followed by Hagi and then Karatsu ware.
A true art form, it was highly appreciated by tea masters for its purity and unpretentiousness. With a history stretching back to the 16th century, Raku ware remains today the most sought after of Japanese ceramics, and an unparalleled example of wabi-sabi aesthetics.
Raku ware’s history is strictly linked to Sasaki Chōjirō, the first producer of the ware back in the Momoyama period in the mid 16th century. Under the encouragement of his close friend, tea master Sen no Rikyū, he crafted a style of bowl which was mostly monochrome black or red and devoid of any decoration or sense of movement, in sharp contrast with the colorful Chinese-influenced ceramics of the time. Chōjirō strived to produce wares that embodied Rikyū's philosophy of wabi-cha, upon which tea ceremony is attached to simplicity and quiet appreciation. His creations were either entirely red or entirely black glazed soft pottery, or earthenware, simple and without decoration. As Chōjirō was a roof tiler at the Jurakudai in Kyoto, the residential palace of warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, his earthenware came to be called “Jurakuyaki” (Juraku ware). Eventually the name was abbreviated to “Raku” (楽), meaning "pleasure,": as Chōjirō’s creations so pleased Toyotomi Hideyoshi, his successor received a golden emblem with the kanji character for raku, thus officially establishing the Raku dynasty of potters. Now in its 15th generation, the Raku family is still active today, having become majorly influential in Japanese culture and throughout the world.
Hand-molded lead-glazed earthenware, Raku ware is quite distinct from wares that preceded it, pursuing a transcendental order of beauty through the cultivation of the simple and the imperfect. The shape of the vessels is extremely simple: a wide, straight-sided bowl set on a narrow base. Because raku wares are molded entirely by hand rather than thrown on a wheel, each piece clearly expresses the individuality of the maker’s hand, and pieces tend to be unique creations. The glaze colors include dark brown, light orange-red, straw color, green, and cream. Japanese raku tea bowls are either black or red:
Red Raku Made from red earthenware clay, Red raku is fired at a lower temperature of around 500-650°C. The iron and other minerals in the clay give the tea bowl its warm orange-red color.
Black Raku Fired at higher temperatures of 1220-1255°C, Black Raku is glazed with a hand-crafted glaze made from pulverized stone (in the case of the Raku family, pebbles from Kyoto’s Kamo River).