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I have slowly been trying to get all my trees into good quality pots. By good quality I mean Japanese, old chinese and or hand-made western potters pots.

When I started bonsai I couldn’t see the point of spending money on good pots. Australia is flooded with cheap pots that are made out of China and I couldn’t see why you would bother spending 3, 4, 5 or more times what a cheap chinese pot cost on a Japanese or other container.  I would much rather have spent the money on trees or tools. After all pot is a pot right? Not really, not all pots are created equal.

Take the two pots below. The first is a cheap Chinese pot i picked up a month or so ago. I needed a pot for a pine i was re-potting and didn’t have time to get anything of better quality. So I went to a local nursery that had a good range of cheap pots. Below is the pot I used. As you can see, after only a months use it is already weeping white ‘stuff’ from the clay.

A Cheap Chinese pot

If you compare it to a Japanese production pot such as the one below you will see that there is no issues with white ‘stuff’ on the Japanese one. These two pots are beside one another on the bench and both have Japanese black pines in them. If the white deposit was from the water I use it would be on all my pots but this cheap chinese pot is the only one showing these signs. What is most worrying is that this white stuff began weeping out of the pot during the first week of use. If it is on the outside of the pot I am sure it is also weeping through on the inside as well.

A production Japanese pot.

I talked to an importer at a local show about this issue. His family run pottery kilns in China and he imports their pots. He said there was a range of quality coming out of China at the moment. The best stuff goes to Japan and the rest goes to Europe, America and here. He said that to make the pots cheaper things are added to the clays to make them go further and reduce costs. Now im not a chemist, but……. I believe it’s these additives or impurities that you can see weeping out of the pot surface above.  The white deposit is definitely not something I want to see on my pots that is for sure.

But when it comes to pots, materials are only the beginning of the differences. There are many differences that in my mind make using better quality pots well worth while. Now I am not saying that every cheap or Chinese pot will give you issues. I have a few cheaper Chinese pots that I like a lot but there are definitely a lot of bad, poorly made pots out amongst the few good cheap ones.

Hopefully in the next couple of posts I can begin to show some of the other differences that make quality win out over a cheap price. It has taken me a while to appreciate good pots and hopefully I can share some of the things I have learnt along the way.

Below is a pot I picked up from Mr. Tanaka at Aichi-en in Nagoya. It is an antique pot and I think it is from the Nakawatari or middle crossing period.

I am by no means an expert on antique chinese pots (this is my first) but from what I have been explained Chinese antique pots are roughly divided into 3 categories. Huruwatari, Shinwatari, and Nakawatari. These correspond to periods of wars between Japan and China during which time many pots and other goods made their way to Japan.

Beautiful patina.

Ever since seeing the antique Chinese and Japanese bonsai pots in the  Kokufu exhibition catalogues I had wanted to own one. I was especially drawn to the white or cream containers that have become in some cases almost black from the layer upon layer of patina that builds up on them.

You can see the imperfect warped edges.

When I was pot shopping this last trip I had a rough list of pots that I was interested in buying. I had also made a deal with myself that I would buy usable sizes instead of falling in love with pots that would only ever be mantle piece ornaments like some of my previous purchases.

While visiting Aichi-en, Peter Tea and I searched the nursery for a pot that might fit my needs. We came up empty-handed after a 30 minute search. Peter then asked Mr. Tanaka if there was anything that might suit and he headed out to the piles of pots we had just searched only to return a minute later with the perfect pot in his hand.

A detail fo the glaze, patina and surface inperfections.

The pot I ended up buying was a good size for the bonsai I like to grow. I guess it would fit trees in the Chuhin range. Also being of this grey/ white colour I think it will go well with a range of different deciduous species.

The pot itself is full of imperfections and it is a little wonky. If you look along any one side you will notice that they are slightly off square and or bowed. I really like this. In most of the high-end Japanese pots the geometries are perfect so it is nice to own a pot that has some rustic character to it. I am very happy to own this pot and I hope to give it some use in the near future.

If anyone knows more than my basic understanding of Chinese antique pots or would like to make any corrections to my description please post in the comments. I am interested in learning more about these pots and the times that they came from so please comment if you know any more.

This last weekend I looked through some pots to find something suitable for an english elm clump that I will be re-potting in the coming months. I ended up choosing two pots. Both pots had a number of similarities and I thought that a post comparing them might be interesting.

The two pots were made by Yamafusa and Ina Genzou.


Yamafusa Hanko (signature)

I really like Yamafusa pots, especially the green glazes. They have a great speckling and richness of colour that varies subtly across the pot.

Ina Genzou

Ina Genzou Hanko (Signature)

This is a Ina Genzou pot, I don’t know a lot about his work and is the only pot of his that I have. I like the pot but the finish in a few areas seems a little rough in contrast to other areas of the pot which are more visible and have a nicer finish.

Both pots were glazed green and both of round shapes, one is a circular shape and the other an oval.

The Yamafusa pot from above

The Genzou pot from beneath.

Comparing the glazes is interesting. I am always fascinated by the vast differences in similar glazes. Both pots are green, both have speckles in their glazes yet both are very different. If you look closely at both pots you can see the influence the different clay colours have in the zones where the glaze thins out.

The Yamafusa glaze

I find that Yamafusa’s green glazes really glow. When you look closely you can see that the colour changes depending on its thickness. At the top of the pot’s rim, hints of the clay beneath sneak through changing its tone.

Ina Genzou's glaze.

Ina Genzou’s glaze on the other hand is similar yet has some subtle differences. It seems to have a bit more milkiness to it. It has speckles yet they are smaller and the rim has beautiful drips. Somehow the colour seems slightly duller and more uniform. the colour of the clay where is can be seen through the glaze gives a very different colour change to that of the Yamafusa.

As you have seen from the previous photos these two pots at least on the surface seem very similar. What sets them apart for me is the smaller details. In fact detail is what really makes the difference for me when it comes to pots. In the next two photos I will look at one area of the pots. The drainage holes. Drainage holes are rarely seen when a bonsai is planted in a pot but when ever I purchase a pot I always try to look at the finish of these areas to determine quality. These details don’t necessarily mean it is a good pot or that it is a bad pot but I think that a pot that has well finished details will often set itself apart.

Yamafusa's Detail (drainage hole)

The Yamafusa pot’s drainage holes have been finished with a bevel both inside and out. This makes the holes look well finished and considered. It may seem a small touch but it is the details like this that really show that whom ever made the pot took the time to finish it to a high standard.

Ina Genzou detail (Drainage Hole)

The Genzou pot’s drainage holes are a little rougher. it appears as if they were punched or cut through the pot’s base and then not cleaned up or finished. I am sure they will drain and function just as well as the yamafusa pot but the visual appearance of them looks a less refined.

Does this make it a worse pot? Probably not. Both pots will work very well as bonsai containers. But should you have to choose between two similar pots a detail like this might be the deciding factor.

In the case  of the elm clump I think I will actually use the Genzou pot due to its added depth but that decision will have to wait for a few more weeks when I begin re-potting.

Both pots are from the cheaper end of the spectrum but both have some great qualities that could really add to the image of your bonsai.

The below pot is one i was generously given as a wedding gift during my last trip to Japan. I was presented with a small wooden Kiri wood box with a hand written inscription on the front.

The pot and box wrapped in a furoshiki cloth to protect it during its trip to Australia.

Inside was a porcelain pot. I took it out of its box and began to turn it over in my hands. It was clear that it had not begun its life as a bonsai container, but most probably started out as an incense burner. The two drainage holes in the bottom of the pot were definitely done some time after the pot had begun its life.

The pot and its Kiri box.

The walls of the pot are extremely fine and the painted design has a free quality to it.

A detail of the painted design.

I started to do some reasearch on the pot and came up with a website which dates it between 1868-1912. This puts it at around the 100 year old or older mark.

The quote relating to the dating is below:

It is generally accepted that marks that includes “Dai Nippon” in Japanese characters on the whole date to the Meiji (1868-1912) period, reflecting the greatly increased nationalism of that period. However, in stamped versions it also occurred on mass-produced export wares well into the 1930s. (Taken from HERE)

The marking on the bottom. You can see some patina forming which hints to the pots age.

I then had my wife translate the inscription on the front of the box to give a clue to the maker. She translated it as follows:

Top line: えいらく よしごろう (Eiraku Yoshigou)

bottom line: Type of pot ’round’

The person whom gave me the pot showed me the makers entries in these two books. (ONE, TWO) I have the books at home so i will have to sit down one night and find the entries again and see what information they can add.

I feel very lucky to own this pot and it reminds me every time i look at it of the friend who gave it to me. It was a perfect wedding gift (at least for me) and i think it will out last any rice cooker or toaster.

I am a Landscape Architect and I am very lucky in that I work with many creative and talented people. One such colleague makes hand painted porcelain in her spare time. The first time I saw her work I immediately imagined how great it would work as a bonsai pot.

The pots shown below are a 3 pot set that i commissioned. I sent her some pictures that showed the pot shape I was after and then i chose carp motifs that I had seen on some of her other works.

When I received the finished products I couldn’t stop smiling. For a first try at bonsai pottery she had hit the nail on the head. They were exactly what I had wanted.

One of the pots.

Two pots from the 3 pot set.

The signature that appears on the base of each pot.

The detail in the painting is amazing.

Two of the 3 pots

I really like how the water has been represented in this pot.

These 3 pots are very welcome additions to my collection. Hopefully in the future I can encourage my friend to make some more.

The next big decision is what to grow in them. I am thinking a japanese flowering quince may work well. I think that the red flowers of ‘chojubai’ would go very well with these pots. Hopefully I can grow some worthy of the pots.

I spent the day today looking at some of the pots I have collected. Two of those pots are in the photo below. They were both made in Tokoname but by different potters. What jumped out at me today was the differences in the glazes.

They are both cream pots and from what I can tell, they would have both looked very similar in colour when they were brand new. Where the difference lies is that the Yamafusa pot has the beginnings of a really nice patina forming on it. Neither pot is particularly expensive but the patina that has started to form really starts to give the feeling of age to the Yamafusa pot.

Hattori (Left) and Yamafusa (right)

What is patina? As far as I can tell, patina is a build up of grime and oils that attach themselves to the surface of pots. Once on, it is a permanent reminder of its past. Patina tends to form at the base of the pot and slowly creep its way up to the rim.  If you look at the image above you can see how the patina is really starting to darken nicely along the bottom edge of the pot.

I asked about patina and pots when i was in Japan and it was explained to me that the pot you use for a tree should appear a similar age to the bonsai.  If you have a 100-year-old tree, then you should find a pot that also has the appearance of being 100 years old. An old tree with a brand new shiny pot just doesn’t look quite right.

If you look closely through old Japanese exhibition albums you will see that almost every pot in the show will have a rich patina. Sometimes this is so pronounced that pots that were once cream are dark grey and look truly ancient.

I think I will have to get these pots back out under the benches so they can continue ageing and perhaps one day they will be a nice shade of grey.

I have tried a few ways to artificially age pots but none have work very well to date. If anyone has any sneaky techniques to create patina please share them in the comments.

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