O Genki Benki…Antique Blue & White Porcelain Potties

So, if a picture paints a thousand words, what does this one paint for you? Do you see antique blue and white porcelain umbrella stands and plant holders? Or do you see three squatty potties and two urinals? If you chose the latter, then you have chosen correctly. Antique blue and white toilets called benki were popular in the late Meiji and Showa periods, often installed in fine ryokan (inns) or wealthier people’s homes. Fairly rare as singletons, to see an entire collection of five all together is almost unheard of, but this dealer at Kawagoe shrine sale last month bucked the odds. I assume he salvaged them all at one place, perhaps as an old building was being torn down.

Most of these painted pieces are in the Seto style, my favorite, although some seem to be Imari as well. And they were definitely produced on some kind of large organized scale as I have noticed there are only a few basic shapes and patterns that are repeated in all the ones I have seen.  The toilets tend to be rectangular, with a squared off front or oval, with a rounded front. The rims always have a tiny detailed painted pattern, quite often traditional karakusa (scrolling arabesque), while the under hood area has a large bunch of flowers.

The urinals fall into one of two categories, either the more tubular umbrella stand shape on the right or the more cornucopia shaped one laying on the ground on the left. Older examples, both of the toilet and the urinals, like the one I saw before here, are hand painted, while the later versions are often more heavily transfer printed.

Somushi Tea House in Kyoto looks as if it has been around for ever, but actually was renovated to look old. To give it that Meiji feel they installed vintage bathroom fixtures. If you were at all confused about how this functioned as a toilet, here’s your answer. And note how similar this one is to two of the toilets above.

On the left is the urinal at Somushi which is more of a cornucopia shape and looks like an earlier hand painted Seto piece. The photo on the right is not as finely painted and looks to be Imari, but it is quite similar to the one laying on the left in the Kawagoe photo above. Umbrella stands seem to be the standard use du jour of retired urinals. The toilets make good planters and I have even seen one turned vertically and used as a garden fountain.

Now for those of you who don’t know, there is complicated toilet etiquette in Japan. In addition to taking off your shoes upon entering any home and putting on slippers, there are special separate toilet slippers kept inside the bathroom. Normally these are ordinary slippers, but I have actually seen painted porcelain ones on a few occasions, out in the markets that is, not in someone’s home. Were these really worn? Or are they just ornamental? I’m not sure, but I didn’t buy this pair last May because their condition wasn’t great. I think they’d make a witty addition to a vignette.

I have seen a few other pairs in my travels and they have always been similar to these, with that distinct feathery Seto style painting.

Without any formal knowledge on the subject, my instincts tell me that the idea for the painted fixtures comes straight from the West. It was not unusual to have painted and transfer printed toilets in the 19th century, like these Victorian versions from Great Britain. There was a tremendous amount of cross-fertilization in the porcelain industry going on in the late 19th century, with ideas, motifs and techniques (such as transfer printing) winging their way back and forth.

And the title of this post? It roughly translates as “feels good toilet,” but maybe “looks good toilet” would be even better. And I know my Japanese grammar isn’t actually correct, but I couldn’t resist the rhyme…

Related Posts:
Made for Export and in My Basement…Seto Porcelain Garden Stool
Shop Talk…Discovering Antique Treasures in Nishi-Ogikubo

So Long Summer…Vignettes and Views Around the House

As always, a bittersweet moment as we depart one home for another. This post is really for me, to remind myself that while I didn’t do anywhere near as much work on the house as I’d planned, I did get some things accomplished in addition to finishing the bathroom (almost). And as I head back to Tokyo, I know I’ll need little reminders of our beach house goodness for sustenance.

First up, the Sonoma bookcase all filled up (mostly). I have never been as happy with a mass retailer/catalog item as I have been with this one from Ballard Designs. And I am not the only one liking it as yet again I have spotted a pair of them in a high-end design, this time the Nate Berkus designed brownstone for Katie Lee. They really are versatile and great value for the money.

My girls scoured the attic for my gardening books and we added a few other vintage wooden delivery boxes gleaned here and there. And I still cannot believe the way the television fits – as if it was custom made for it.

Ballard Designs Sonoma bookcase

The bottom section has been filled out since my post on hiding all the cords and the electronic components are basically unnoticeable. I need a few more good coffee table size books which I may have to steal from my shelves in Tokyo this winter.

The top is filled with pretties, gardening books and good reads.

Added some special Japanese details to the downstairs bath, including fishing floats…

…and a big collection of kashigata that look like coral patterns on the ledge above the built-ins.

Didn’t hang any of my lovely Japanese hanga (modern woodblock prints) above the sideboard, but the longer they stayed leaning there, the more I liked them just like that. And I had planned to have the big wire basket full of dried hydrangeas by now, but no matter what I did, I failed on that front. If anyone out there knows the trick to drying them, please let me in on the secret!

I tried early in the summer and filled it with blooms, but they just shriveled and rotted – no drying! So sad, because they were so pretty!

Close-up you can see my $2.50 William Yeoward-esque decanter – garage sales were very very good to me this summer.

You’ll notice you never heard anything about the kitchen. The truth is that with kids and constant house guests the DIYs are hard to get to.  But my palette of cream and white, with texture and mixed metals remains unchanged. Tried the water technique for drying hydrangeas too, but it didn’t work much better.

I always find the stained glass door in the dining room ironic, because I had already picked the color palette based in some part on my Aesthetic Movement transferware even before seeing it, and it could not have been more perfect. Most of the stained glass in houses around town is combinations of bright red, blue and yellow. Obviously this was my destiny house.

A few gifts and trips to the Ladies Auxiliary book sale filled out this little bookshelf at the top of the stairs. The larger artwork is a 19th century Japanese land contract that I bought for the equivalent of a dollar at the Tomioka Hachiman shrine sale and framed. Sharp eyes will recognize a few other Tokyo treasures.

Little girls grow up so fast…

…the bigger girls too. So luckily both of their rooms are close to complete.

The search for master bedroom night tables continues. I had seen some cute scalloped ones here and here, so I picked up this pair for $50, thinking I would paint them. But they are still too low and very blocky and square - the lamp on the stacked books looks cute for styling, but is actually like that for night time reading practicality. The only real decorating mistake of the summer.

More etched mirrors made their way to the wall…

…the Louis XVI-style oval from the bathroom has a great new spot, better suited than its old one, mimicking a favorite Charlotte Moss dresser and mirror combo. As for the lack of lampshades here and in other photos, still waiting on my custom ones after a year, but that is its own story. Just try to imagining one on this lamp made with green marbelized paper, meant to look like malachite…

…and the French chaise found its perfect fabric – a European style ikat from Lee Jofa called Lambelet Stripe, picked up here for a song.

Nothing big changed in the guest room, just a sweet little chair…

…and some sweet little welcoming details, like these vintage wooden shoe lasts and child’s slate.

And someone wrote to ask about the upstairs hall bath which I never mention, because it came to me pretty spot on. Just a coat or two of Farrow & Ball Chinese Blue and it was good to go! Maybe some artwork needed?

Well goodbye New Jersey summer! Hello Tokyo! I can hear the shrine sales beckoning…

Tokyo Jinja

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