Hut of this Day: The Japanese Tea Ceremony Today

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Photo Courtesy Japan Society Gallery
This eared water jar of the late sixteenth century is nearly one-foot high. Japan Society Gallery

A venerable, nuanced practice refined by sixteenth-century samurai warriors and merchants, chanoyu–the Japanese tea ceremony–lives on. Evidence of its continuing hold on both the public spirit and the creative imagination, even in the West, could be seen in New York City during the Japan Society and Asia Society’s exhibition The New Way of Tea last winter. The popular show featured seven tea houses, huge paintings, and 100 tea utensils spanning 400 hundred years of diverse arts and crafts.

A dewy path (roji), sprinkled with water that lends a marked freshness to the air, takes visitors through a quiet landscape to the tea house. Stepping stones are deliberately positioned for self-conscious walking; a water basin stands ready to wash away the outside world. Everything flows together, intermingling time and space, purifying the spirit.

Featured is the quintessential teahouse, the Konnichi-an (Hut of This Day), a full-scale replica of the 1646 original in Kyoto, a designated national treasure. Its wood and paper materials feature just the essentials: a sunken hearth and board for tea preparation, a cupboard for utensils, and a place for hanging scrolls. There is always a vase of seasonal flowers in keeping with the profound appreciation of nature so characteristic of the Japanese. The hut’s diminutive size is perfect for intimate encounters, and it is an excellent reference point for bouncing off the wild extravaganzas of the modern teahouse design also featured in the exhibition.

Upon entering the tea house, you immediately notice a painted scroll and bow to its wisdom and your host’s message, in this case a 200-year-old quote from Zen monk Sengai: “A parent dies, a child dies, then a grandchild dies.” Because living an ordinary life is a luxury of peacetime, the exhibition was dedicated to the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks, from whom the natural order of things had been taken away. Seated on tatami mats, guests pull out fans from their kimonos and place them on the floor, demarcating personal space and precluding intrusion.

Zen monks who studied Buddhism in China introduced the ritual drinking of powdered green tea to Japan in the twelfth century. For hundreds of years the near-godly perfection of Chinese decorative arts prevailed in the tea ceremony, until Sen no Rikyu introduced the wabi, or austere style, raising the ritual to its zenith during the Momoyama period (1573-1603). A blend of old and new, often idiosyncratic, the ceremony has often bent to new influences. The repeated wiping of the tea bowl’s rim, for example, comes from the Catholic Mass brought to Japan by Jesuit missionaries.

From the first, the tea ceremony has been pervaded by four principles–harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility–in all ceremonial actions, including utensil selection. There are bows all around as the utensils–tea bowl, water jar, bamboo dipper, tea caddy, tea scoop, bamboo whisk, water bowl for cleansing–are gently passed around for intense inspection, actually contemplation. With soothing gestures and caressing deliberation, the utensils are washed, wiped, positioned, and used.

Wagashi (sweets made with green tea) counter the faint bitterness of the tea to follow–their color and shape, like the flowers, in consonance with the season. As the tea is briskly whisked, its aroma joins the incense in the air. The tea bowl is twisted a few times to discover the most beautiful spot, which must face the guest. Presented and received with deep bows, it is placed in the left hand, twisted again so the beauty spot continues to face outward, then the richly green brew is relished to the last drop.

Now everything in turn is cleaned with water and returned to its proper place. The host bows farewell, and each guest takes a last, lingering look at the utensils, the flowers, the scroll–and departs, one by one. Always, the tea ceremony creates a great moment–and the recognition that it will never occur again.

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