Friday, December 20, 2013

Memories of Japan: History of the Tea Ceremony

The character for cha, tea, comes from China.
Today is Friday, December 20, 2013. 

I took several courses on Japanese history and culture while in university, and it stood me in good stead when I went to Japan, because I was able to understand a lot more about what I was viewing or witnessing.  The history of Japan seems very long to those of us in the United States or even in Europe, but compared with the history of China, the Japanese are positively upstarts.  The history of the tea ceremony illustrates this point pretty well, I think.  

Tea plants came to Japan from China sometime during the Tang dynasty of China, between 618-907 A.D.  This was when the relationship between the countries was at its peak, and there were many types of cultural exchanges going on.  The Chinese even had a character for "tea" as far back as the 8th century, B.C., and of course they had been drinking tea long before that.  It's no surprise, then, that the Japanese word for tea (as well as the Chinese character used) is the same: cha.

Tea host with implements for making tea
It wasn't until a couple hundred years later that tea-drinking involved a formal ceremony in Japan, and those who study tea say that the "ceremony" back in those days probably had little in common with the ceremony as it is performed today.  A Chinese Buddhist priest wrote a book called Cha Ching about the proper method of brewing tea, and it is said that this book heavily influenced the way tea is prepared in Japan.  And why, you ask, didn't a Japanese priest write a book like this?  Because until the sixth century, the Japanese language had no writing system of its own, and it only borrowed from Chinese. 

Tea plants were grown in Japan during their historical period called the Nara period (710-794), but tea was mainly drunk by priests and noblemen as a form of medicine.  Back in China, during this same time period, tea was undergoing a transformation from medicine to beverage.  This also happened in Japan, but much later.  Why? Because relations between China and Japan were deteriorating, and there wasn't as much communication going on.  This is when the Japanese began to form their own traditions and culture around tea, rather than simply imitating what the Chinese did.  Because tea plants were not indigenous to Japan, the plants – and the tea made from them – were very rare, and thus, valuable.  If tea had been readily available, a whole ceremony would probably not have been created around it.

In Japan, tea leaves are ground into a fine powder before adding water to them, and a bamboo whisk is used to stir the tea into a froth.  This preparation distinguishes matcha tea, the kind used in formal tea ceremonies, from tea as it was prepared in other countries. (Tea from tea leaves that have not been ground up into powder is called sencha.)   

Tea began to be consumed by the samurai class of people, who seemed to embrace a great many elements of Chinese culture.   Later, a type of guessing game was invented, where a number of bowls full of tea were passed around to guests to see who could tell the name of the tea and where it came from  This may be where the custom of sharing a tea bowl came from.  

Vintage 1950s postcard from Japan
During the Muromachi period (1337 to 1573), the elements of formal teahouses and tearooms were standardized.   These included the placement of the door and ceremonial tokonoma alcove, the placement of the hearth for heating the water, and the arrangement of tatami mats in the room. 

Two Japanese American women demonstrate a
tea ceremony.  This photo shows just how small a
two-mat teahouse really is.  Photo by uzushio.
At some point, people of other classes of society started having tea gatherings in smaller and less lavish rooms appropriate to their status.  This is how the small tearoom called kakoi came into existence. 

A Buddhist monk demonstrates how to hold the tea bowl
when drinking tea at a formal tea ceremony.  The bowl
is held on the side with one hand, and on the bottom
with the other hand.
A Zen priest named Murata Shukou (1423-1502) designed tearooms and established etiquette for ceremonies.   He is now known in Japan as the "father of the tea ceremony."   The Zen influence on the aesthetics of the modern tea ceremony is felt even today.  Aesthetics, in general, means a world view or set of values.  The values celebrated in the tea ceremony include simplicity and harmony in all things, in particular, harmony with nature.  This concept is known in Japan as wabi-sabi.  Japanese find beauty in things that are imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.  They find beauty in simple things, humble surroundings, and the unconventional or unusual. 

The Taian teahouse in Kyoto, a two-mat room
designed by tea master Sen no Rikyu is
one of three teahouses in Japan designated
as a National Treasure.  There is a
hanging scroll in the tokonoma.
Another man who had a profound influence on the tea ceremony is Sen Rikyū, who was born in Sakai (a city near Osaka, where I lived for the first few years I was in Japan.)  He lived from 1522 to 1591, the son of a warehouse owner.  What his father did may not seem important to you, but back in those days, Japanese society was organized into a feudal system.  It was ostensibly a "four-tier" system, but there were those who lived above and those who lived below.  The four main tiers of society were, in order of importance, samurai (warrior class), farmers (because they produced the food), artisans (because they made things that everybody needed) and merchants.  (I'll talk about the other levels of society in a later post, which I will bookmark here when that post gets published.  All I will say here is that if Americans thought they abolished the class system at the end of World War II, they are dreaming.  It still exists in a certain form.)  In any event, Sen Rikyū was a a member of the merchant class, the bottom rung of society.  This is important because the tea ceremony was transitioning from being a pastime of noblemen and samurai to being a pastime of the more common people.  And although the merchants were considered the lowest class, they were the only ones besides nobles and samurai with enough money for a pastime like this.

Sen Rikyū
Although he was not of the priest class, Sen Rikyū did undergo some training in Zen Buddhism, and this obviously affected his outlook.  As a young man, Sen Rikyū studied tea, and at the age of 58, he became tea master for Oda Nobunaga, who was a virtual dictator of Japan until the time of the Meiji Restoration.  (Nobunaga was a Daimyo (warlord), not a Shōgun (general), but he is nevertheless credited with ending feudal wars by unifying half of all the Japanese provinces under his rule.)  As you can see, Sen Rikyū moved in very powerful circles.  When Oda Nobunaga died, Sen Rikyū became tea master for Toyotomi Hideyoshi, another prominent Daimyo regarded as Japan's "second great unifier."   At one point, Toyotomi Hideyoshi wanted to give a tea ceremony for the Emperor, but in order to have his tea master (a member of the merchant class, remember) appear in the presence of the Emperor, Sen Rikyū had to be given an honorary title of Buddhist priest.

Sen Rikyū was the first to emphasize wabi-cha, which is a style of tea ceremony in which simplicity is paramount.  Simplicity comes in the form of using a bare minimum of space for a tearoom, and using tea bowls in which the only "design' is the pattern of the glaze, itself, or perhaps an imperfection on one side of the bowl.  He designed and made all his own tea implements, starting from wood that he cut by himself.  It seems a paradox that the simple, rustic tea implements that Sen Rikyū favored are now so expensive because they are considered works of art.

Tea being served to one guest, who bows to the host
One other development in the tea ceremony was that of the tea garden, which developed throughout the Muromachi Period (1333-1573) and the Momyama Period (1573-1600).  Some historians say that the Japanese tea garden was the inspiration for the small domestic courtyard gardens that you can find today in front of some Japanese homes.  :-)

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