Tea culture is one of the outstanding achievements of Japan. The large number of women who study tea ceremony is one of the reasons for the continued vitality of Kyoto's kimono culture, something I mentioned in an earlier post. But it also supports innumerable other arts, including calligraphy, architecture, garden design, flower arranging and ceramics, to name just a few. Indeed, because so many arts intersect with the world of tea, it can rightly be considered the heart of Japanese traditional culture.
Starting today I will post a series celebrating this world of tea in Japan. I hope the explanations will enrich the photos, but that the photos may stand on their own, too. Just a note to keep in mind: photography is not allowed during a formal tea ceremony; it is too distracting. But the careful observer will find many expressions of tea culture outside the teahouse as well, and we will focus our attention there.
The tradition of taking tea in a ritual setting has a long history in Japan. Tea was first brought from China in the 9th century and initially was used by Buddhist monks to help them stay awake through long periods of meditation. It is generally conceded that the modern version of the tea ceremony now so famous throughout the world emerged in the 16th century under the guiding hand of the great tea master Sen no Rikyū. From him descend the three great schools of tea (called the sansenke; 三千家) that are now practiced: Urasenke, Omotosenke and Mushakōjisenke. We will encounter Rikyū again later in the week.
We start at the teahouse of a Kyoto temple named Shōren-in (青蓮院), with a woman in traditional fall kimono as she kneels to open the shōji paper-and-wood screen, enter the teahouse and join the guests. Let's follow her into the world of Japanese tea...