Lets talk ceramics in this post! Since there is so much to say about ceramics in Bonsai, it’s difficult to find a good place to start. After much thought, I decided to start with a certain glazed style that I love called Namako. Usually when people in the bonsai community sees a pot in this glaze, they will refer to them as a Namako pots or containers. In Japan, Namako actually means Sea cucumber and in many ways share the same pattern and color as the glaze. There are varying degrees of blues, white, yellow and brown mixed together making each pot very unique. In this post, I’m going to share some detailed pictures of Namako pots from the past to the present, both Chinese and Japanese and talk about some way to distinguish them from one another.
A Rocky Start
Before I came to Japan, I did not like Namako pots. I talked to Mr. Tanaka and he said, “Really???” It turns out that my experience with Namako has been the poor quality types that were mass produced. Once Mr. Tanaka showed me a couple of Chinese Antique Namako pots, I quickly fell in love with them and wanted to collect more. Perhaps the biggest reason why this type of glaze is now my favorite is because I dismissed it so quickly in the past and feel a bit guilty for my ignorance. Now all I want to do is collect them and share them with people so they too can enjoy the beauty of them.
Chinese Antique Namako (100-150 years ago) Naka-watari
Lets start with the highest level of Namako pottery. I can’t say for certain that it was used earlier in the past, but in terms of Bonsai, they first appeared about 100-150 years ago. They were produced in China with great care and quality and shipped to Japan about 100-150 years ago. Ceramic pots that were produced in China 100-150 years ago are also known as Naka-watari. There are also Chinese Antique pots that were produced 200-300 years ago known as Ko-watari, but I’ve yet to see one that has this glazed. Chinese Antique pots in this post are all Naka-watari. Current value of Naka-watari Namako pots range from 300 – 5,000 US Dollars depending on size and shape.
Here is a Namako suiban with a very large lip! (You know I had to start with this one ;op). For those that are unfamiliar with Suibans, they are ceramic containers that can either hold water or sand with a viewing stone. This suiban is Chinese Antique and looks brand new! It has never been used and was protected in a wood box since it was made over 100 years ago.
The underside. One easy way to tell that it’s a suiban is that there are no holes, but I’m sure you already figured that one out. Sometimes, people will drill holes into suibans so they can used for Bonsai. I’m not sure if I’d ever do that to this pot though!
Lets get down to the details. Many Chinese Antique Namako pots tend to have thick beads of glaze at the bottom of the pot. They will also tend to have a clean line under the bead and show the clay underneath. On this suiban, the bead dripped passed the line a bit but for the most part is pretty straight.
Here’s a close up of the clay. Though the picture can’t replace the pot being in hand, it can give you an idea of the type of clay used 100-150 years ago. Though this is not the only clay type that was used, it is a common type and a good indicator of its age.
Here’s an example of the straight line at the bottom of the pot that Namako’s tend to have. In this instant, a glaze bead ran over the line. Accidental or intentional? Personally, I think the thick beads that pass the line gives the suiban so much more character.
Here is a close up of the drain hole. This is another good indication that it’s a Chinese Antique pot. The holes are normally punched from the inside of the pot, leaving a raised outline on the bottom. Many Chinese Antique pots have this raised outline on the drainage holes.
Here is a close up of the glaze itself. A very different feel then the previous pots. I talked to Mr. Tanaka about this pot and he confirms that it’s a Chinese Antique pots because of the clay type, drain holes and quality of the pot itself. The glaze patterns are clean and detailed but more random.
Chinese Namako pots during the 70’s
During the early half of the 1900’s, the ceramic quality for Bonsai pots dropped significantly and the rise of Japanese ceramic pottery took hold. During the 1970’s though, there was a big push in China to produced high quality hand made ceramics that resembled the antiques. Unfortunately they never quite reached the quality levels of the antiques and are considered second class to them. These Chinese pots are known as Shinto pots. The current value for Shinto Namako pots range from 80 – 400 US Dollars depending on shape and size. Lets see what they’re all about.
Here is a look at the glaze. Though the picture can’t show it, the texture of the glaze is rough and thin whereas the antiques are much thicker and smoother. Also, the glaze quality is somewhat flat, not as clear or detailed.
Here is another example of a Shinto Namako pot, though there could be some debate about it. This pot was made during that borderline period between Shinto and Shin Shinto. Shin Shinto are the much more modern pots made during the late 80’s to the present. Lets take a closer look at this pot.
Here is a closer look at the glaze. Overall, it’s pretty nice but it lacks depth and clarity when compared to the antiques. To be quite honest about it, these pots are the reason why I didn’t like Namako in the first place. :o( Also, there is a chop on the bottom of the pot that says, “Made in China.” Again, the pot does have it uses but I probably wouldn’t use it in a show.
Shin Shinto Namako
Recently, Mr. Tanaka purchaced two new Chinese Namako pots and I would have to say that they are pretty nice. Though they are still mass produced and made in molds, the glazes are very interesting to look at and the quality has increased significantly compared to the last two decades. Though not all new Chinese pots are very well made, I believe these are the exceptions, which is probably why Mr. Tanaka bought them.
Here is a look at the lip of the pot. Glaze is nice and thick. For the most part, I’m not too interested in the current Chinese ceramics because of the mass production feel to them, but this one definitely caught my attention. Now I want one!
Japanese Antique and Modern Namako
Japanese Antique glazed pots tended to be much more rough in style, whereas the more modern glazes are much more refined. This has led to the modern ceramics costing much more then the antiques! The antiques do have their own characteristics though and I would not be so quick to dismiss them. Here is an examples of an antique vs. a modern pot.
The end of the lip tends to be black. It must be the different chemicals they use for the glaze. So overall, a pretty nice pot. The clay itself is of lower quality but the glaze isn’t too bad. In Japan, people either like them, or hate them. Personally, I like them for their rough characteristics and the fact that they’ve survived for over 100 years without breaking.
So What Tree Can I Put In These Pots?
Since Namako has many colors, it can be very attention grabbing. So much so that people focus in on the pot more then the tree itself. Namako pots tend to go well with trees that are just as attention grabbing to balance everything out. Deciduous trees such as Trident Maples, Korean Hornbeams, Japanese Quince and rough bark type elms look very nice in these pots, because of the roughness and details of the trunk and branches. Many root over rock deciduous trees also tend to look very nice in these pots.
I hope that this post gave you some insight not just about Namako pots, but the different country origins and time period they came from. Perhaps you have a Namako pot that you weren’t so sure about before and more a better idea where it came from. So have you decided which type of Namako you like? All of them? None of them?
There is so many different types of pottery and makers that it can be a full blown hobby and profession in itself. For me, it’s hard to love Bonsai and not love the ceramics as well. The right combination of tree and container can really bring out the best in both. Trying new shapes, colors and sizes can be very fun and exciting during the repotting season. The container in Bonsai is fundamental. It’s the, “Bon,” in Bonsai!
Thanks for reading.
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