そばちょこ噺〜やきものづくりのまち有田〜 そばちょこ噺〜やきものづくりのまち有田〜

Sobachoko cups / Arita: A town known for its manufacture of ceramics Sobachoko cups / Arita: A town known for its manufacture of ceramics

Sobachoko cups could be fairly characterised as ceramic objects that give shape to the Japanese people, hard workers with characteristically small builds. That’s because you won’t find anything of similar proportion, shape, or use overseas.
Originally made to hold cuisine (when they were known as mukozuke cups), sobachoko began to play a useful role–a use which they continue to fulfil today–as dishes for holding dipping sauce as noodle cuisine became popular. In today’s era of mixing and matching Japanese and foreign influences, sobachoko are attracting a growing number of enthusiasts and collectors as an all-capable dish.
For this article, we invited four people involved in Arita’s ceramic community to bring a number of favourite sobachoko and participate in a small, intimate discussion. The conversation flowed freely, starting with the history of sobachoko and moving on to topics including current and historical uses of the cups, points of pride with regard to Arita sobachoko, and the secrets of the form’s enduring popularity.
Suzuta Yukio (59), director of The Kyushu Ceramic Museum, brought a number of exceptional sobachoko chosen from the museum’s Kashima Nabeshima Family Collection and Mr. and Mrs. Shibata Collection. We asked him to get the ball rolling by explaining the characteristics of those fine works.


Sobachoko cups emerged around 1700.

In terms of shape, sobachoko are defined by a flat bottom and straight sides. Initially, they were quite small, with a diameter of 7 or 8 centimetres. Over time, their shape changed gradually from a trapezoidal form to a cylindrical form, and they became somewhat larger.
The 18th century brought the popularisation and mass production of porcelain products, along with the emergence of simplified pattens, printing techniques such as konnayaku inban stamps, and stencilling. There was a blossoming of elements such as designs executed on the inner bottom of the cups, spurring people to collect them while enjoying viewing a variety of designs. An example of such designs is the plum motif known as a “five petal flower,” which boomed in popularity during the Edo period (1603-1868).

Starting during the middle of the 18th century, we see donut-shaped bottoms known as janome ōgata kōdai. The feature, which was created by a firing method that involved placing works in contact with kiln tools during firing to lift the bottom, allowed the part of the bottom that comes into contact with tables and trays, known as the tatamitsuki, to be glazed. As a result, cups could be placed on delicate surfaces such as lacquer without causing damage.

In a word, sobachoko exhibit a certain unity, as if different designs are being applied to the same shape. As a result, they are now, as they were in the past, collectors’ items with broad appeal. One aspect of their appeal is that as your collection grows, you can simply stack them together, making them convenient to store.
“If I could take just one item with me to a deserted island,” Suzuta said, “it would be a sobachoko, which I could also use as a measuring cup.”
The participants burst into smiles at Suzuta’s witty comment.




「無人島にひとつだけ持っていくものとしたら、わたしは計量カップにもなるそば猪口ですね」。 鈴田館長の奇想天外なユーモアに、どっと笑いが起こった。

The Japanese aesthetic as seen in sobachoko cups

Shinohara Yasutoshi (60) of Keizan Kiln realised the potential of the contemporary sobachoko boom early on. Upon visiting a wholesaler, he learned that the company was receiving a constant series of orders for sobachoko. He wasted no time in using a sobachoko dictionary to choose 100 of his favourite designs and painting them onto sobachoko, which he then featured in a show entitled “100 Selected Sobachoko Cups” at a hotel in Tokyo in 1983. That show sparked a boom in popularity that has continued unabated to this day. That popularity, which has been as stable over time as the style’s shape, even resists the effects of economic downturns.
As Shinohara puts it, “I was selling 3,000 cups a month at the time. These days it’s more like 4,000 a year, but sobachoko remain a product that sells reliably. There’s only one shape, which we call ‘drum-shaped,’ while it’s variety of design that determines each cup’s appeal.”
Contemporary sobachoko designs feature animals, flowers, and geometric patterns, some of which draw on the extensive designs seen in Ko-Imari. “Women like circle patterns,” notes Imamura Maki (37) of Imamura Porcelain Machiya , who went on to compare sobachoko to women's fashions.
“Ceramic wares don’t usually depict insects, but one can find sobachoko with patterns featuring insects like simplified butterflies and bees. It seems to me that such works exhibit the same sort of intentionally different look that you see in combinations of clothing. Like a skull serving as an accent in an otherwise cute outfit, I suspect adding a sobachoko whose design will take viewers aback to everyday tableware can broaden our enjoyment of ceramics.”


古伊万里の豊富な絵柄をヒントに生まれた、動物・花・幾何学文様が描かれた現代のそば猪口。「女性に人気なのは丸紋ですね」と語るのは、紅一点の『陶悦窯 町屋』の今村麻希さん。(37)彼女は女性のファッションにたとえてこう言う。

A certain looseness of style that evokes a sense of the craftsman’s playfulness is perfect for items that see everyday use. Additionally, incorporating classical things into modern life in a way that suits today’s lifestyles can create unexpected uses and living spaces. Recently, a lot of people use sobachoko as tea cups or coffee cups, and some customers even order saucers to match the cups’ designs. Some people use them for chilled sake, and one soba chef lets customers choose from a large selection of sobachoko so that they can enjoy their meal with a cup they like.
“With people who like Ko-Imari, you know at the beginning how they’re going to approach the world of ceramics,” explained Matsumoto Koji (37) of Kihara, a trading company that specialises in local ceramic products. “But for everyone else, instead of actual styles of Arita ware, such as the Kakiemon style, I show them designs that arrange those characteristics in a modern way. For me, sobachoko are like free-style T-shirts.”
The group expressed its approval of this apt comparison. sobachoko cups, which might appear to be glasses or general-use cups if you don’t know what they’re designed for, are to Japanese a traditional, all-capable vessel of tableware that fits snugly in the palm of one’s hand.


Surely it is the generosity of these cups, whose adorable appearance and ambiance welcome all comers, that accounts for their enduring status as best-selling products.