Chapter 6: Momiji-gari and unkin patterns

UnkinOne of the patterns used on Japanese pottery is unkin (cloud brocade). Unkin refers to overglaze enamels depicting momiji (maple) leaves and sakura in an imitation of the Rimpa-school style of painting. This pattern features the Japanese people’s much-loved sakura and momiji, which are symbols of spring and autumn, respectively. It is an extremely handy pattern to have as it can be used any time of the year, regardless of the season.

The design’s treatment of the sakura as clouds and the maple leaves as brocade is what gives it its name. Behind all this, however, we can read the emotional landscape of the Japanese people: a hint of loneliness in the appearance of these scattered maple leaves; the Japanese sentiment of yearning for the cherry blossoms to come.

Autumn is the season for momiji-gari (viewing the autumn leaves, lit. maple-leave hunting) in Japan. With news about the autumn leaves coming in from all over the country, this is truly the season for outings and picnics. The aristocrats of the Heian Period (794-1185) used to go into the hills and fields for hunting. After some time, these excursions shifted from hunting to catch wild birds and small animals to hunting in the sense of plucking fruits and nuts from trees. This is the reason we still say “ichigo-gari” and “budo-gari” in Japanese when we talk about strawberry picking and grape picking.

During the Edo period, (1603-1868), the commoners also started to take part in momiji-gari. Wealthy merchants developed a passion for bento boxes and bowls used during their “hunts.” Viewing works such as the Edo-period potter Ogata Kenzan’s famous bowls with momiji leaf patterns gives us a feel for the gaiety of the era.

Tableware plays an important role in the life of the Japanese people, who love nature and pay attention to the shifting of the seasons. So why not try changing your tableware when the seasons change? Or serving vegetables or stewed dishes in a largeish unkin-patterned bowl from time to time? These are just a couple of ideas to add a bit of spice to our everyday lives.