History of Japanese Tea Ceremony

The documented evidence of tea in Japan can be traced back to the 9th century, found in an entry in the Nihon Kōki. The entry revolves around the Buddhist monk Eichū, who brought tea back to Japan from China. It recounts that Eichū personally prepared and served sencha, a tea beverage made by steeping tea leaves in hot water, to Emperor Saga during his excursion in Karasaki in 815. This event led to the imperial order in 816 to cultivate tea plantations in the Kinki region of Japan. However, the initial interest in tea faded soon after this.

Tea in China and its Influences

In China, tea had already been known for over a thousand years, according to legends. During Eichū’s time, the popular form of tea in China was dancha, where tea was compressed into nuggets, similar to pu-er tea. These nuggets would be ground in a mortar and mixed with various herbs and flavorings. The Chinese had a long-standing tradition of drinking tea, primarily for medicinal purposes, which gradually became a pleasurable practice. In the early 9th century, the Chinese author Lu Yu wrote The Classic of Tea, a treatise focusing on tea cultivation and preparation. Lu Yu’s life was deeply influenced by Buddhism, particularly the Zen-Chán Buddhist school, and his ideas would significantly impact the development of tea culture in Japan.

The Arrival of Matcha and its Rise in Status

Around the end of the 12th century, Buddhist monk Eisai introduced the style of tea preparation called tencha to Japan upon his return from China. Tencha involved placing powdered matcha into a bowl, adding hot water, and whisking them together. Eisai also brought tea seeds with him, which eventually produced tea of exceptional quality in Japan. Initially used in religious rituals within Buddhist monasteries, powdered green tea gained popularity. By the 13th century, during the rule of the Kamakura shogunate, tea and its associated luxuries became a status symbol among the warrior class. Tōcha parties, tea-tasting events, emerged, where participants could win extravagant prizes for identifying the highest quality tea. These teas were grown in Kyoto from the seeds Eisai had brought from China.

The Muromachi Period and Cultural Transformations

The Muromachi period marked a significant era in Japanese history. It witnessed the rise of Kitayama Culture, centered around Ashikaga Yoshimitsu’s cultural world and his villa in the northern hills of Kyoto (Kinkaku-ji). Later in the period, the emergence of Higashiyama culture occurred, focused on Ashikaga Yoshimasa’s elegant cultural world and his retirement villa in the eastern hills of Kyoto (Ginkaku-ji). This period, spanning from approximately 1336 to 1573, saw the blossoming of what is now recognized as Japanese traditional culture, influencing the country’s cultural identity to this day.

The Aesthetic of Wabi-Sabi

Japanese tea culture developed as a transformative practice, incorporating its own unique aesthetic, particularly influenced by the principles of wabi-sabi. Wabi represents the inner, spiritual experiences of human life. Originally, it denoted quiet refinement and subdued taste characterized by humility, simplicity, naturalism, and imperfection. It celebrated the unadorned and mellow beauty that time and care imparted to materials. On the other hand, sabi symbolized the outer, material aspects of life. It conveyed the notions of wear, weathering, and decay. Embracing imperfection was considered an honorable way to appreciate one’s unpolished and unfinished nature, leading to spiritual awakening and enlightenment. The concept of omotenashi, centered around hospitality, played a central role in this philosophy.

Murata Jukō and the Spiritual Practice of Tea

Murata Jukō is renowned in the history of chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony) as an early proponent of tea as a spiritual practice. He studied Zen Buddhism under the monk Ikkyū, a key figure in the revitalization of Zen during the 15th century, and this experience influenced Jukō’s understanding of chanoyu. By the 16th century, tea drinking had become prevalent across all social strata in Japan. Sen no Rikyū, the most celebrated figure in tea history, followed the teachings of his master Takeno Jōō and embraced the philosophy of ichi-go ichi-e, which emphasized treasuring each meeting as a unique and irreplaceable experience. Rikyū’s contributions perfected various forms in architecture, gardens, and art, establishing the comprehensive “way of tea.” The core principles he espoused—harmony (wa), respect (kei), purity (sei), and tranquility (jaku)—continue to be central in tea ceremonies to this day.

The Interplay of Tea and Politics

Sen no Rikyū served as the leading teamaster for the regent Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who strongly supported him in codifying and spreading the way of tea as a means to solidify his own political power. While Hideyoshi’s tastes were influenced by his teamaster, he also sought to establish his own authority, as demonstrated by his construction of the Golden Tea Room and hosting of the Grand Kitano Tea Ceremony in 1587. The relationship between politics and tea reached its peak during this period. However, tensions emerged as Hideyoshi’s opulent and elaborate tastes clashed with the rustic and simple aesthetics advocated by Rikyū, which the regent perceived as a threat to his power and position, straining their once-close association.

Tragic Consequences and Legacy

In 1590, Yamanoue Sōji, one of Rikyū’s leading disciples, was brutally executed on the regent’s orders. A year later, the regent commanded Rikyū to commit ritual suicide. This marked an unprecedented intertwining of the way of tea with politics. Following Rikyū’s death, three schools emerged to carry on the tea tradition. The practice of tea continued to spread throughout Japan, extending beyond the court and samurai class and reaching the townspeople. Numerous schools of Japanese tea ceremony have developed over the course of chadō’s long history and remain active in modern times.

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