History of the Japanese Tea Ceremony

Drinking of green tea was known in China from the fourth century. Tea plants didn’t grow in Japan until the first seeds were brought from China during the Tang dynasty (China 618-907), when relations and cultural exchanges between the two countries reached a peak.

In the eighth century the first mention of a formal ceremony involving the drinking of tea is found. However, at this time it probably didn’t look much like the tea ceremony we know these days. Also, during the eighth century a Chinese Buddhist priest wrote a book on the proper method of preparing tea. The book was called “Cha Ching” and taught the correct temperature of hot water and the use of tea vessels. It is said that today’s style of the tea ceremony evolved largely through the influence of this book.

During the Nara period (Japan 710-794) tea plants were grown in Japan and mainly consumed by priests and noblemen as medicine. Toward the end of the Tang dynasty in China, the drinking of tea was going through a transformation from medicine to beverage, but due to deteriorating relations between the two countries this transformation did not reach Japan till much later. The Japanese were forced to mold and cultivate their own traditions and culture around the tea. Tea was a rare and valuable commodity from the Nara period to the Heian period (794-1192) so rules and formalities were based on this concept. Had tea been native to Japan or more readily available, it is almost certain that the tea ceremony would not have been created.

Kamakura period in Japan.

In 1187 Myoan Eisai, a Japanese priest, traveled to China to study philosophy and religion. When he came back, he became the founder of Zen Buddhism and build the first temple of the Rinzai sect. It is said that he was the first one to cultivate tea for religious purposes, unlike others before him who grew tea for medicinal use only. He was also the first to suggest and teach the grinding of tea leaves before adding hot water. A Sung emperor named Hui Tsung, referred to a bamboo whisk used to whisk the tea after hot water was poured over it in his book Ta Kuan Cha Lun (A General View of Tea). These two methods formed the basis for the tea ceremony as we know it today.

Some hostility was created among monks who didn’t like Eisai’s newly introduced religious ideas which he had imported, but the Kamakura shogunate, who were among his first converts, helped him succeed in enlisting protection. In 1211, Eisai was the first to write a treatise on tea in Japan. In his treatise, Kissa Yojoki (Tea drinking is good for health) Eisai suggested that the drinking of tea had certain health benefits and cures for; loss of appetite, paralysis, beriberi, boils and sickness from tainted water. According to him it was a cure for all disorders, so this perhaps was the main reason that the Tea Ceremony gained such popularity.

Tea in the thirteenth century and the Samurai

Tea started to spread outside of the Uji district where it had mainly been grown since the beginning. But by now popularity and so demand was growing rapidly and called for plantations all around Japan. The samurai class, who loved everything about the Sung dynasty including the Tea ceremony, embraced it wholly and caused even greater popularity of the ritual preparation of green tea.

In 1333, the Kamakura shogunate fell which led to civil wars in the whole country. A new class of people came into existence, the Gekokujou (parvenus). These nobles whose extravagant lifestyles attracted much attention from the public, often held tea parties for their friends called Toucha. In this game the guests were tested on their abilities to distinguish between Honcha (genuine tea) and other tea. Soon betting accompanied these games and great valuable prices were presented to winners which added to the excitement of the game.

Originally the guests were given ten cups of tea, but this number increases to twenty, thirty and eventually one hundred cups per person. If there was a great number of people attending the party, it would have been impossible to provide every guest with one hundred cups. Although followed procedures are unknown, the guests probably passed cups from one the next. This technique of passing around tea bowl probably explains why only one tea bowl is used during today’s Tea Ceremony.

However strange this habit of sharing might seem to us now, it probably has its roots in the Samurai class. The Samurai had strong family ties, and when the family would gather on important occasions, it was custom for the lord to take the first sip of Sake from a large cup and then pass it among his retainers as a reaffirmation of their close bonds.

Tea ceremony during the Muromachi period

During the Muromachi period, Japanese architecture went trough a transformation from the formal palace style adopted in the Heian period, to a simplified style used by the Samurai. The next transformation was from Samurai style to the Shoin style which used elements of temple architecture. For the tea ceremony some of the Shoin design details were adopted, such as the alcove (Tokonoma), the pair of shelves (Chigaidana) in the side of the alcove, and the side-alcove desk (Tsuke-shoin). Of course Taami mats were used to cover the floor in the Shoin style.

The Samurai nobles made it their hobby to perfect the way of decorating the alcove, the shelves in the side alcove. The Shoin desk became fixed, with the aim of arranging a small number of utensils and articles in a way that was aesthetically and functionally.

After some time, the Shoin was used to serve tea ceremonially by the Douboushuu. All the utensils used by them came from China and were placed on a large utensil stand (Daisu).

Murata Shukou : The Founder of Chanoyu

When people of other classes became interested in the tea ceremony enjoyed by the Samurai class, they started having small tea gatherings in smaller and less lavish rooms which were appropriate to their status. From this the small room called Kakoi came into existence.

One of the best designers of smaller tearooms was a Zen priest called Murata Shukou. He later became known as the father of the tea ceremony because the etiquette and spirit of tea were originated by him. At the age of eleven he entered into priesthood at Shoumyou Temple until he was twenty. Ten years later he returned to priesthood at Daitoku-ji Temple under the monk and teacher Ikkyuu Soujun to practice Zen meditation. Later he was rewarded for his profound understanding of Zen and received a diploma signed by the Chinese monk Yuanwu. After this, he spend the rest of his days in his tea room in Nara to perfect the tea ceremony, and give lessons to anyone interested in learning the art. To all his students he tried very hard to instill the true spirit of simple, Zen-inspired tea.

Another important procedure initiated by Shukou, was that he himself would serve the tea to his guests. He preferred the intimate and personal atmosphere of a small room which could fit five to six people. The four-and-a-half-mat room that he had devised to create a more tranquil atmosphere during the tea ceremony had its origins in the Zen philosophy he had studied in Kyoto at Daitokuji Temple.

In a letter to his favorite pupil, Harima no Furuichi, Shukou outlined his own basic concept of the art of Chanoyu and his personal philosophy of aesthetics. He wrote about the idea of refined simplicity, or Kakeru, and about the importance of understanding the aesthetic qualities of sober-colored pottery from Bizen and Shigaraki. From his letters it can also be learned that he took great pains to study the best method of combining Chinese and Japanese tea utensils.

Toward the end of the Muromachi period, the tea culture reached its peak, and tea devotees were given different titles to distinguish their relation to the art. Chanoyusha was the name given to a professional teacher of the tea ceremony like Shukou. A Wabi-suki was a teacher distinguished by three particular qualities: faith in the performance of tea, an ability to act with decorum befitting a proper master, and excellent practical skills. Finally, the Meijin not only met all the qualities of a wabi-suki, but was a collector of fine Chinese tea utensils as well.

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