Despite being the capital of a nation obsessed with ceramics and contemporary design, Tokyo hosts surprisingly few shops that specialize in contemporary ceramic ware made by artists who, rather than following a time-honored aesthetic tradition, have developed their own distinctive style.
So, it is always a joy to visit Utsuwa Kenshin, a small store located halfway between Shibuya and Omotesando in Tokyo. Here, the owner, Kenshin Sato, displays a carefully curated selection of handcrafted ceramics by artists whom he has come to know and respect over his many years in the trade.
As the name of the shop suggests (utsuwa in Japanese refers to a container or vessel, particularly those used for eating and drinking) Utsuwa Kenshin is all about ceramic ware for the dining room.
But unlike many stores that sell tableware, Utsuwa Kenshin operates almost like a gallery, with several exhibitions a year produced around a specific theme. At other times, the work of the 30 or so ceramic artists whom Mr Sato represents is on display for sale at the shop.
A recent show featured sake utensils – ochoko, or tiny sake cups, sakazuki, which are more like small, shallow bowls used for drinking sake on more formal occasions; tokkuri sake flasks; and katakuchi, or spouted sake-serving vessels.
Mr Sato, who spent his early career buying Japanese traditional washoku tableware for a rental company, has built an impressive network of ceramic artists whom he features quite regularly at his store and at other locations, such as Sumeshi-ya, a sushi restaurant in Edogawabashi, western Tokyo.
Some of his favorite artists have gained an enthusiastic following among ceramics lovers, becoming veritable “idols” whose work gets snapped up on the first day of a show, Mr Sato says.
The wares on display at Utsuwa Kenshin come from all over Japan and, considering they are handcrafted works of art, are affordably priced – from several thousand yen for a small piece, such as a sake cup, to around Y10,000 for a large dish.
For the time being, Mr Sato is only showing work by artists with whom he has built a relationship over the years, and whose aesthetic sensibility jives with his own.
Among the ceramic artists regularly displayed at Utsuwa Kenshin are Shinobu Hashimoto who works in Hokkaido, Japan’s northern island; Kazuhiro Katase, who studied in Okinawa but now works in Aichi prefecture in central Japan; Kazunori Ohnaka, who lives and works in Yamaguchi in western Japan;and Taketoshi Ito who is based in Mashiko.
In addition to ceramic ware, Utsuwa Kenshin also sells glasswork by artists such as the husband and wife team at Glass Atelier Emuni; woodwork by artists including Ikuko Kato from Shizuoka; and lacquer ware by Tomoaki Nakano, who hails from Sabae, Fukui Prefecture.
What these artists have in common is their dedication to pursuing their own original style that resonates with the contemporary aesthetic. As such, they are paving the way for the future of traditional handcrafts in Japan.