On the birth of the tea ceremony

The sadô 茶道 or chanoyû 茶の湯, in other words, the tea ceremony, is quite certainly one of the most sophisticated, complete forms of artistic expression in Japan.

The tea ceremony was initiated by Murata Jukô 村田珠光 (1422-1502), who was taught by the famous monk Ikkyû 一休 and who instilled the spirit of zen into tea. He said: 月も雲間のなきは嫌にて候, “The moon can be admired only through the clouds.” In other words, perfection is not the best thing. This is the best description of the spirit of sadô. Until then, tea had been drunk in the large spaces of the shôin-zukuri-style homes of warriors, and in the presence of many guests. Jukô created the tea room (chashitsu 茶室) with an area of 4.5 tatamis. He also simplified the decor and reduced the number of guests. The tea ceremony spread among the rich merchants of the port town of Sakai 堺, away from political pressure. Takeno Jôô 武野紹鴎 (1502-1555) then transmitted and refined its spirit. Keen lovers of tea accessories and the tea room, those steeped in this milieu were called sukisha 数寄者. The gardens surrounding the tea rooms in Sakai made it possible to feel the ambiance of the mountain even though one was still in the city.

The most influential person was undoubtedly Sen no Rikyû千利休 (1522-1591). A merchant in Sakai, he was also a student of Takeno Jôô, and quickly became highly respected for his skill in expert appraisal of famous tea accessories, known as meibutsu 名物. He became the tea master of Oda Nobunaga 織田信長himself. After Nobunaga’s death en 1582, Rikyû served Toyotomi Hideyoshi 豊臣秀吉. Finally, for reasons that remain obscure, the latter forced Rikyû to commit suicide in 1591.

Rikyû further reduced the size of the tea room, and simplified its architecture to an extreme. He also introduced very humble, rustic objects as tea ceremony accessories. They were initially imported from Korea but were later made in Japan. Until then, everyone had sought luxurious, pretentious meibutsu from China. The famous raku-yaki 楽焼 pottery was initiated at Rikyû’s order by a tile maker named Chôjirô 長次郎.

The spirit of this form of sadô is called wabi-cha 侘び茶 (sober tea).

With Rikyû, the tea ceremony took on its more or less final form.

The three sons of Rikyû’s grandson formed the three major tea schools: Omote-senke 表千家, Ura-senke 裏千家, and Mushanokôji-senke 武者小路千家.

Famous disciples include the warrior Furuta Oribe 古田織部 (1544-1615), who originated the Oribe style of ceramics. He was succeeded by another warrior, Kobori Enshû 小堀遠州 (1579-1647), who was at the beginning of a style of sadô marked by a degree of refinement attractive to the warrior class: kirei-sabi 奇麗さび.

While there is no doubt that tea appeared with Eisai, and that the tea culture related to the tea ceremony remained the empire of monasteries and very privileged classes (warriors and rich merchants), it is also certain that tea was drunk by the rest of the people in the countryside. Of course, they did not drink matcha, but probably more simple products, for example, leaves that were just dried in the sun and then boiled for a long time. A wide range of manufacturing methods were employed, and the way tea was consumed varied. However, some teas, for example, banchas, have come down to us today from the countryside.

Categories: History

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