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Edo Period Tea (1615–1868)

Atea gathering at the Asian Art Museum

Atea gathering at the Asian Art Museum. (Photo: Deborah Clearwaters)

Tea played an important role in the shaping of culture in the Edo period. The various types of tea that flourished in the Muromachi Period (1392–1573), described as monastic, refined and formal shoin, and rustic soan, enjoyed unabated popularity. These three styles acted as historical foundations to be combined and compounded in complex modifications of concept that evolved into Edo practices of tea. Below a contemporary comic verse describes four major tea masters of early Edo—Furuta Oribe (1543/4–1615), Kobori Enshu (1579–1647), Kanamori Sowa (1584–1656), and Gempaku Sotan(1578–1658)—and the different aesthetic trends associated with them:

Oribe is disputatious
Enshu has refined beauty
and a cutting blade
Sowa is princess-like
and Sotan is squalid

The world of tea in the early Edo period was similar in some respects to the salon culture of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe. Within the culture of tea, aristocrats, feudal lords (daimyo), and towns folk participated in a lively exchange of ideas and aesthetic developments that belies the prevalent view of the Edo period as being oppressively class-bound and rigid. 

Although centered in the cities of Kyoto, Osaka, and Edo, the aesthetic trends these salons forged spread throughout Japan and Edo society. Edo tea taste began with strong, highly individual aesthetics. Mid-Edo tea taste, as with society as a whole, moved toward the decorative, and came to be suffused with vitality and humor that could border on parody, much like the spirit of the poem on this page. 

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