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A private tour of the Toguri Museum of porcelain

Seven thousand pieces of antique Japanese porcelain. About one hundred on display at any time. A surprisingly humorous journey into the past.

Well, it surprised and amused me. When I think of antiques, I think of very serious boffins ponderously pontificating on the authenticity of some hideous objet d'art that reminds me rather ominously of the three flying ducks on my grandmother's sitting room wall. It was next to a brass relief of a Cape buffalo. The room also had a riempiesbank and a jonkmanskas and a stinkwood table and other stuff that we thought were uncomfortable and old-fashioned, but were, in fact, quite valuable (eventually) because it was so old.

Imari, Edo period, first half of the 18th century

Anyway. Antiques sound a bit, umm, dusty, so it was a delightful surprise to discover that old equals funny. Serious, beautiful, fascinating, all of that, but also funny: lopsided early pieces full of dirty bits when Japan was still taking baby steps in porcelain production, a fingerprint left in clay, a flop tea cup pragmatically squashed into a water dropper for calligraphy.



I saw these objects, and learned about their history, at the Toguri Museum of Art in Shibuya when I attended a talk delivered by AliceGordenker, who's well-known for her articles in The Japan Times.

I was unaware of this museum, which has one of the best Japanese porcelain collections in the world. I was equally ignorant of the suburb that surrounds the museum, Shōtō (松濤), which is apparently one of the most upmarket in Tokyo. It's only ten minutes from the insanity that is Shibuya Station, but it's a different universe.

I felt right at home. Immediately.

No no no. I'm the exact opposite of upmarket, but … phew! … huge houses with 6-foot garden walls, massive gates, electrified fences and security cameras. Glimpses of German logos in 3-car garages. Architecture that confirms an international truth: money and good taste aren't necessarily happily married. It felt just like Sandton in Johannesburg. The only things that were missing were Armed Guard Response warnings and Rottweilers with rabies.

Imari, Edo period, 17th century. Have you noticed the strings that hold the porcelain in place?
Earthquake country ...

Anyway. Porcelain. I can't do this as well as Alice does, so I'm simply going to quote from an article she wrote (link): 
Businessman Toru Toguri (1926-2007) started collecting Japanese antiques in the 1960s in response to what he saw as an overwhelming influx of Western culture into postwar Japan. Concerned that the country's indigenous culture would be irrevocably lost, he sought to preserve for future generations what their ancestors had achieved. In the process, he developed a particular interest in old porcelain. By 1987, he had amassed so many fine pieces that he decided to open a museum. The Toguri Museum of Art focuses on Edo-era Japanese porcelain; its collection now amounts to nearly 7,000 pieces of which about 100 are on display at any one time … As the museum does not lend or borrow, all the pieces you'll see can't be seen anywhere else.
 Porcelain is a type of ceramic made with special clay and fired at very hot temperatures. Japan was a latecomer to porcelain manufacturing, compared to China and Korea, because it initially lacked the right clay and necessary know-how. But in the 1610s, using technology introduced from Korea, porcelain manufacturing started in and around Arita …
 Now under the direction of the founder's son, Osamu Toguri, the museum is making an effort to become better known outside of Japan. Captions for all works include basic information in English, and while the explanatory panels in the exhibits are in Japanese only, you can pick up a handout in English at the ticket counter that summarizes the current exhibition and points out a few highlights. The museum recently started guided tours in English, which are free with museum admission. The next scheduled tours are November 22 and December 13. For details, please see the museum's website.
 If you're interested in English tours, you can get in touch with Alice via her blog.
  
Guests who attended Alice's private tour were allowed to take as many photos as they wanted, of whatever they wanted. I'm going to stop talking now, and simply show you photos.

Thank you, Alice, and another thanks to the man from Tabriz and Shahrud. He knows why.

This is the clay that porcelain is made of.


See how lopsided it is, and the impurities in the porcelain? This is a very early piece.


Can you see the impurities in this early dish? See the explanation below.


Nabeshima porcelain. Read more about it here.

The high stand (foot, base, whatever you prefer to call it) is characteristic of Nabeshima porcelain.
It's called mokuhai-gata in Japanese.

This water jar from the early 17th century is unusual because its lid survived. That's very rare.

Cute started early. See? Cute rabbits above and below.


I'm including this one because it's called 瑠璃, ruri, lapis lazuli. It was an early Japanese word
for blue, and it happens to be the name I've given myself in Japan: Ruri. Blue eyes
and all that. It's partly where Rurousha comes from: Ru Ru Ru.


More humour in an early piece: if you look closely, you can see fingerprints top and bottom.

A hand probably slipped and caused that little oops.

The garden at Toguri Museum

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