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NIPPONIA No.36 March 15, 2006

Special Feature*
Tempting Arts: Tableware and Food Presentation
A visitor to a Japanese home will see members of the family using their own bowls and their own chopsticks. They hold small bowls of food in the hand and bring them close to the mouth for the chopsticks to do their job. Bowls, plates and cups come in different shapes and sizes, and the food is arranged in a certain way. These dinner table customs are, in fact, closely related to one other.
Written by Otani Hiromi, food journalist
Photos by Kawada Masahiro
Collaboration and other photo credits: Kikunoi Restaurant (Kyoto), and Murata Yoshihiro

Bowls and cups cradled in culture
The small bowl or plate is held in the left hand, the chopsticks in the right. This custom is rarely seen in other parts of the world. And the tableware comes in different shapes and sizes, and different materials. Why? “It's because for century after century the Japanese sat not on chairs but on the floor, even to eat,” explains Murata Yoshihiro, the owner of Kikunoi, a first-rate traditional restaurant in Kyoto.
This style of teacup is designed to be grasped by the whole hand. Sizes vary with hand size and gender. Porcelain cups are preferred in summer, pottery in the winter.
One striking thing about the small plates and bowls is that they are shaped to fit the hand, Murata says. “In the old days, meals were eaten on the floor. If the bowl or small plate were not held in the hand, the chopsticks would have to travel a long way. It is easier for the palm and fingers to cradle the bowl, close to the mouth. And since men generally have larger hands than women, the bowls are chosen to match the hand size of the user. We can say that this is how Japan's tableware culture began.”
Rice is a staple, so we will take rice bowls as an example. Using old units of length, the standard for men is a bowl diameter of 4 sun (about 12 cm), for women 3 sun 8 bu (11 cm). Because of differences in individual hand sizes, bowl sizes may vary slightly from these two standards.
Handle-less teacups are also cradled in the hand, and they too are differentiated by gender. The standard diameter for men is 2 sun 6 bu (about 8 cm), for women 2 sun 4 bu (7 cm).
Each member of the family generally has his or her own personal rice bowl, chopsticks and teacup. It would be considered unusual for the father, for example, to use his wife's or children's rice bowls or chopsticks. What is the right size for one person may be the wrong size for another. Not surprisingly, it became customary to buy children a new set of chopsticks every year.
Another tableware fact is that individual pieces may be pottery, porcelain, lacquer ware, wood or glass—the material is matched to the occasion. In summer the fingers may want a smooth surface with a cooling effect, and porcelain can give this. In winter, the warm touch of pottery is preferred.
The custom of cradling a bowl or teacup in the hand has brought an awareness of touch and texture, and has given us the wide variety in tableware today.

Bowls used at Kikunoi, a first-rate traditional restaurant in Kyoto. When arranging food in them, the idea is to leave enough space at the top to accentuate some of the artwork.
Above and below left: Pottery by Kitaoji Rosanjin (rim diameters, 20 cm [above] and 21 cm). Bottom right: Porcelain by Sawamura Tosai (rim diameter, 20 cm).


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