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See the art of Rosanjin Kitaoji, the patron saint of washoku

Rosanjin Mitsui

The man born Fusajiro Kitaoji in 1883, but known to the world by his pseudonym Rosanjin, was a jack of all trades and master of many – a renowned ceramic artist, sculptor, calligrapher, engraver, painter, gourmet critic and restaurateur. This Showa-era Renaissance man spearheaded the revival of traditional Japanese tableware and elevated washoku to the heights it enjoys today. To commemorate UNESCO’s 2014 addition of Japanese cuisine to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list, the Mitsui Memorial Museum has unveiled a major exhibition dedicated to the man who no doubt influenced that decision. 

While running his Kyobashi antique shop-cum-art gallery Taigo, founded in 1917, Rosanjin came up with the idea of actually serving food on the ceramics he was buying and selling. This led to the establishment, in 1921, of Bishoku Kurabu (The Gourmet Club) on the second floor of the gallery. An exclusive members-only restaurant that catered to the gourmet elite of Tokyo, Bishoku Kurabu became very successful, later relocating to Nagatacho under the name Hoshigaoka Saryo and making Rosanjin its resident celebrity chef – long before said term was even invented.

Such circumstances later drove our multi-talent to establish the Seikoyo kiln in northern Kamakura. Aiming to supply original tableware to his eatery, he also had another, more personal motivation behind this venture. Since the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 had destroyed a great deal of Rosanjin’s antique ceramics, he decided to take up pottery himself in order to nourish his famished collection.

The Mitsui Museum's display showcases the prolific output of Rosanjin the artist, who reinterpreted the classic patterns and designs of Shigaraki, Mino and Kutani ceramics with his characteristic playfulness. His creations are housed in individual, illuminated displays, consistent with Rosanjin’s view of tableware as objects of art. Considering the meticulous craftsmanship of the ceramics, paintings, scroll calligraphy and sculptures exhibited in the expansive rooms, this claim certainly isn't without merit.

However, we did find the exhibition lacking in one respect. For Rosanjin, tableware was the ‘kimono of food’, playing both a functional and aesthetic role in the presentation of edibles. With this in mind, the lack of food accompanying the pieces on display renders everything rather bare. In all fairness, it’s difficult to say what the curators could have done about it – stopped by Kappabashi and picked up a bunch of plastic food samples for decoration? There's some food for thought...

Photos by Satomi Saruwatari