This site has limited support for your browser. We recommend switching to Edge, Chrome, Safari, or Firefox.

Christmas Sale: All Items are Free Shipping; Buy 2 Items With 15% OFF.

Shopping Cart

Your cart is empty

Continue Shopping

The Way Of Tea In Japan

Beatrice Hobenegger

TEA WAS PRAISED BY CHINESE DAOISTS as an elixir of immortality and has long been a revered beverage in spiritual practices. This is especially true in Japan where tea has had a central role in religious, cultural, and artistic pursuits, as well as in everyday life, for more than a thousand years. Tea first entered Japan, along with Buddhism, during the early Heian period (794-1185). It was introduced by monks who traveled to China to study Chan (Zen) Buddhism, sect that had developed as a fusion of Mahayana Buddhism and Daoism (p.33).

Hie patriarch of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma. or Daruma, as he is known in Japan (figs, 11.1-11.5), was born an Indian prince. He traveled to China in the sixth century to teach the wordless dharma, or the discipline of achieving; enlightenment not dirough the study of sutras but through meditation - the Japanese word "zen" corresponds to the Chinese which is in turn derived from the Sanskrit "dhyana," meaning "eliminating distracting thoughts," or "meditation." Legend has it that while Daruma was in the course of a nine-year meditation, be fell asleep. When he woke up he was so angry at having broken his meditative state that he cut off his eyelids and threw them away; Where they touched the ground, a tea plant grew. Tea, thereafter, became the inseparable companion of monks and an invaluable aid in helping them to stay awake during meditation. Historically, of course, evidence exists that tea was used by Daoist monks long before Bodhidharma reached China.

When it arrived in Japan, tea - most likely in the form of dancha, the compressed tea common in China at the time - was consumed in some aristocratic circles and at the imperial court. Records indicate that tea was served at the court of Emperor Saga (786—842). This initial contact was followed by a period of general indifference toward tea, during which its use was limited to Buddhist temples and religious ceremonies at court. It was not until the end of the twelfth century that interest in tea was renewed, when the Buddhist priest Eisai (1141-1215) brought back to Japan the powdered tea (known in Japan as matchd) then popular in Song China (960-1279).This has been called "the most important event in the history of tea drinking in Japan" (Varley and Isao 1989,7). Eisai wrote a treatise, the Kissa yojoki, extolling the medicinal benefits of tea according to Daoist principles, which contributed to the spread of tea consumption in Japan, During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries tea drinking became more common as tea cultivation expanded - in Togano northwest of Kyoto and later in the Uji district near Kyoto (fig. 11.6) - which, in turn, made it possible for the Japanese pastime of tea-tasting contests (tocha) to emerge. These were different from the Chinese tasting contests where the frothiest tea was the best; in Japan the required skill was the ability to compare and distinguish teas on the basis of their provenance.

Tea drinking also spread among the military aristocracy, along with an increasing appreciation of Chinese art and craft objects (karamono) and especially tea utensils, which were considered valuable status symbols (see fig, 2,7, p, 82). At the same time, the warrior-aristocrats were attracted to the rigors of Zen discipline and often had Zen priests as advisers. These priests brought with them not only Buddhist precepts but also expertise in tea utensils and settings as well as specific rules (sarei) regarding tea drinking as it was practiced in their temples. Within the context of tea, the association between warrior elite and Zen priests produced one of the early forms of chanoyu (lit., "hot water for tea"), known in the West as the Japanese tea ceremony: In time, this type of sboin tea—thus called in reference to the large, shoin-style reception rooms used for the gatherings - evolved into a lavish type of tea party in which aesthetic and decorative aspects, as well as connoisseurship of precious Chinese objects, became more important than the initial Daoist and Buddhist ideas underlying tea-drinking practice.

Toward the end of the fifteenth century, a reaction against this type of excess began to grow in the form of the "way of tea" (chado), a path to enlightenment through the everyday gestures of preparing and serving tea in harmony with nature and fellow humans and in mindful awareness of the present moment. The focus moved away from the splendor and opulence of shoin rooms and karamono objects and toward the aesthetics of wain - the appreciation of essence in the beauty of imperfection, impermanence, and austerity - which favored the small, simple soan (hut) tea room as a retreat from the mundane, as well as rustic Korean (koraimono) and Japanese (wamono) tea objects (see fig. 2.8, p. 82; fig. n.7) and wooden and bamboo utensils. The wabi tea room was generally small - four-and-a-half mats, or even two mats (the size of a standard mat is about 3 x 6 feet)—with the main space for serving the tea and an alcove (tokonoma) for the display of flowers or scrolls (figs. 11.10.—11.12). The resulting form of chanoyu was wabicha, the tea of simplicity and sincerity of heart, which evolved during the sixteenth century through the contributions of three main figures: Murata Juko (1421-1502), Takeno Joo (1502-1555), and especially Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591), who is considered to have been Japan's foremost tea master (sado) and who "most clearly defined the parameters and concerns of chanoyu as a way" (Hirota, 1995,36), The essay by Dennis Hirota in this volume offers a lucid and profound explanation of Buddhist thought as the foundation of the "way of tea" (see also Hirota 1995).

During the seventeenth century chanoyu as formalized by Sen no Rikyu reached the height of its popularity. Rikyu's heirs and successors founded the three main sch0ols of tea that are still in existence today - Urasenke, Omotesenke, and Mushanokojisenke - and chanoyu became a national art form and a highly refined pastime practiced by courtiers, feudal lords and wealthy merchants. This expansion in turn, greatly filtered domestic ceramic production and the evolution of the unique Japanese pottery style and design. Yet, toward the end of the century, chanoyu itself came under increasing criticism, not only for its restrictive rules and etiquette and the exclusionary control exercised by the iemoto (grand masters) die schools but also for the loss of underlying meaning and the corruption of the foundational values of wabicha, With regard to the latter point, the commentary by historian William McNeill is particularly incisive:

Yet no matter how earnestly it has been renounced, the world has a way of creeping in by the back door, Innumerable saints and would-be saints of every religious persuasion have discovered that self-denial can turn into egotistical self-indulgence simply by exciting too much admiration from from Similarly, monks who renounce all personal possessions in order to become collectively wealthy are recaptured by the world through the very excess of their virtue. The ambivalences surrounding wabi and other key concepts of the way of tea therefore keep company with comparable ambiguities pervading full-blown ascetic traditions, [Varley and Isao 1989,255].

In part as a result of this state of things, a different of tea" began to take shape: senchado, the "way of sencha tea." Grown not only as an alternative to chmoyu formalities but also as a rejection of the social strictures of a cultural environment controlled by military elites, sencha tea found its found in the Chinese literati-style tea and made use of steeped loose-leaf tea common in Ming China (1368-1644), as opposed to the powdered matcha (popular in Song China) used in chanoyu. Sencha tea drinking was done in a relaxed way while discussing poetry and the arts in the style of the geatle-man-scholar and was often favored by artists and intellectuals as well as people who did not approve of the excessive worldly power of Zen masters. In the West the sencha tradition is not as well known as chanoyu, and Patricia Graham's essay in this volume represents a thoroughgoing and much-needed introduction to it.

The second half of the Edo period (1615-1868) saw the celebration of tea drinking expand beyond spiritual practice or privileged pastima, with tea utensils appearing as frequent motifs on dress and household objects - as can be seen in the netsuke (figs. 11.13-11.21) and bed cover (fig. 11.22) - a widespread practice unique to Japan. The second, and significant, expansion of tea took place with the inclusion of women as students and practitioners of the tea ceremony, an almost exclusively male domain until the late Edo period. A major impact was given by the inclusion of chanoyu in womens school curricula, in an attempt to preserve Japanese cultural traditions against the massive Westernization of the Meiji period (1868-1912; Varley and Isao 1989,188; figs 11.23-11.29). Reiko Tanimura's essay in this section traces this development firom the almost nonexistent role of women in tea during the Muromachi period (1392-1568) to the overwhelming presence of women in tea today, analyzing the varying positions of women through the ages in the context of tea practice, from members of a privileged aristocratic class, to iconoclasts, to high-ranking courtesans and teahouse pleasure women, to social climbers in search of style and etiquette. This is a fascinating and vastly underresearched topic that certainly merits further attention; it is my hope that Tanimura as well as other scholars will use this essay as a stimulus to delve more deeply into the multilayered themes included in it.