Collections: Tetsubin

Do some things just look better if there are more than one of them?

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I collected seven of them in the three and a half years we were in Japan for our last tour

With some items, I seem unable to be satisfied with just one. Like with my jubako (ceramic stacking boxes), or pottery, once I owned one tetsubin (iron teapot) I wanted more. They were addictive.

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This tetsubin has a pine tree design and a small pine cone for the knob

One of the highlights of living in the Atsugi area during our second tour in Japan (1989 – 1992) was our proximity to the monthly bazaar held at Camp Zama. It was both a shopping extravaganza and a primo social event. The first Saturday of every month, all sorts of local vendors – antique dealers, art galleries, paper sellers, dish stores, toy merchants, picture framers, nurseries, etc. – would bring their wares to the Camp Zama gymnasium. Savvy shoppers learned to be there before the doors opened at 9:00 am, especially to peruse what the antique dealers had brought along because they were set up out front. It was at one of these bazaars that I discovered my first affordable tetsubin, i.e. less than $10. I had seen the teapots in various antique stores out on the economy, but they were always too high-priced for my budget so I avoided them even though I admired their shapes and the craftsmanship. But once I bought my first one at the bazaar I began to keep my eyes peeled for the $10-or-less little black teapots.

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My classic hobnail pot was a gift from a student; it’s beginning to rust in the humid air here

It’s not known when tetsubin started showing up in Japan, but it’s guessed somewhere around the 18th century. The teapots began as objects of status versus functional kitchen items, and initially they were made of plain cast iron. In the 19th century they segued into more elaborately designed masterpieces, and many are signed by the artist that created them (none of mine are). One of the most interesting I’ve seen has a handprint imbedded in the side – it was probably carved by the artist, but it still looks very real. Because of all the variety of size and design, tetsubin became very popular with collectors, and prices have risen accordingly. Some these days are made with a color applied, but I prefer the flat, unglazed black iron.

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A unique, but disturbing design (red-hot iron + human hand print)

None of the ones I bought is particularly fancy, or signed, but I love their humbleness and sometimes wonder about the people who owned them. One has a mismatched lid – apparently you were given a teapot if you participated in the 1950 census, and some household eventually combined the census lid with their old teapot. Designs on my other teapots include a classic hobnail, cherry blossoms, pine trees, and a persimmon. I splurged one month at the bazaar and bought the larger teapot in the classic “Mt. Fuji” shape – it was a lucky and affordable find.

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My one big pot, in the classic Mt. Fuji shape

New tetsubin are easy to come by these days, and can be found in both traditional and modern design. Many of the old ones have become quite expensive though and most are well out of my price range. In our Portland house the teapots were lined up on the mantle; here they sit in a woven basket in my bedroom. Hawaii’s humid air is getting to them, and I am beginning to find a few rust spots here and there. But, the natural aging process is one of the tetsubin’s charms, so I’m letting it go, and will continue to enjoy them as they transform.

8 thoughts on “Collections: Tetsubin

    • Laura says:

      The color is a new thing, and I can’t remember seeing it much in Japan, although I’m sure it’s there. In my opinion (and I could be wrong), I think it’s more done for export. Tetsubin are only used for boiling water; the tea is actually brewed in a separate ceramic pot. If you can brew tea in it (interior is glazed) then it’s not actually a tetsubin. If your pot is made of iron though, it was made in Japan.

      No, I’m not much of a tea drinker although I like tea. And I love teapots!

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  1. Tahoe girl says:

    These are so wabi-sabi. where would you recommend I find one? eBay? I don’t do thrift stores too much anymore, can’t stand the hoarders and the eBay resellers loading up their carts.

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    • Laura says:

      I never thought about the wabi-sabi aspect, although I have a few pictures of tetsubin on my Wabi-Sabi board on Pinterest. Their simple elegance (shibui) is what appealed to me.

      I think eBay would be a good place to start looking for them. Some are going to be outrageously expensive, but I’ll bet you can find some good deals. I’ve also seen them in antique stores here in the U.S. but they tend to be marked up rather high.

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      • Tahoe girl says:

        Yes, Shibui fits better. I did look on ebay and found a lovely dragonfly one for a good price.The shipping was outrageous, so I emailed the seller to ask if he could just put in flat rate box.??? he wanted to charge 35 for shipping. Have I mentioned my daughters name is Sachiko? I wanted to name my son Ryokan but ended up with Zephyr which fits him very well. I do love ‘old ‘ Japan..

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