During the Muromachi period (1338–1573), the vogue for Chinese art, especially among the Ashikaga shoguns, who ruled as the military leaders of Japan during this period, led to the development of new architectural environments in which to display collections of tea-related objects. Art, architecture, tea, and temple etiquette melded, to produce a style of tea known as shoin,named after the rooms in which it was served that were modeled on a Chinese scholar’s study. The Ashikaga collection became so vast that a staff of curators was necessary to maintain it (Soami, the painter of image above, was one such curator). The curators were responsible for the care of the objects, the creation of a setting that allowed the beauty ofthe objects to show forth, and the preparation and presentation of tea. At early shoin gatherings, the host did not make tea himself, but sat with the guests and was served tea by the curators. Reflecting the wealth and power of the early Ashikaga shoguns, shoin-style tea emphasized collection, evaluation, and display of Chinese art in its characteristic perfection of form, superlative technique, and flawless surface beauty.
Muromachi Period Tea (1338–1573)
The rule of Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1436–1490) corresponds with the beginning of the century of civil strife known as the Sengoku “Country at War” era (1467–1568). Under these turbulent circumstances, Yoshimasa retired to a villa popularly known as Ginkakuji, Temple of the Silver Pavilion, located in the eastern hills of Kyoto. Through Yoshimasa’s patronage of the arts of poetry, calligraphy, painting, Noh drama and formal tea parties, his villa became the center of an aesthetic known as “Eastern Hills culture” (Higashiyama bunka). Higashiyama culture, while still based on Chinese objects, tended toward the spareand understated, reflecting the aesthetic concept of yugen, a subtle, mysterious elegance.
Murata Shuko (1423–1502)
Toward the end of the Muromachi period aesthetic trends led away from the formal, Chinese influenced shoin-style tea. This change is personified in the figure of tea master Murata Shuko (1423–1502) who conceived of tea as a form of aesthetic discipline based on the literary ideals of chill and withered (hie karu). Shuko’s tea is best expressed in the say-ing: “The moon not glimpsed through rifts in clouds holds no interest.” Shuko championed the pairing of rustic Japanese ceramics with simple Chinese tea bowls and tea containers whose imperfections would have barred them from the Ashikaga collection.
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Skillful inventiveness and interesting juxtapositions of utensils became the focus of tea gatherings hosted by towns folk, as the role of host came to include the act of personally preparing tea in front of the guests. At the same time, there developed a growing preference for small retreat like environments, constructed in the style of native farmhouses, in which to hold tea gatherings. The deliberate meagerness of the structure was intended to convey it as a shelter conducive to an investigation into truth by minds that cared nothing for worldly matters. The phrase “grasshut” (soan) is used to describe this new countrified aesthetic.
The transition from formal room (shoin) to grass hut (soan) aesthetics continued in the hands of increasingly powerful merchants from Kyoto, Nara, and Sakai. They eagerly sought out pieces dispersed from the collection of the now virtually powerless Ashikaga, but they used the objects in new contexts. The merchants saw tea traditions as a medium for their own social, philosophical, and aesthetic concerns. In this tumultuous era the spirit of communion fostered by the atmosphere of the tearoom assumed central importance. A realization of the unrepeatable uniqueness of each encounter (ich-igo ichi-e) completed the conceptual framework of grass hut-style tea.
Such developments of tea as a philosophy for life from the time of Shuko led to the idea of calling these practices and this attitude the “Way of Tea.” Those who wished to emphasize the integration of these intellectual-spiritual endeavors with everyday life preferred the simple term Chanoyu, “hot water for tea”. Simultaneously recognizing the mundane andthe extraordinary, the term echoes ninth-century Chinese tea scholar Lu Yu’s exclamation“How remarkable! I gather firewood, draw water, and make tea!”
Takeno Jo-o (1502–1555)
The merchant Takeno Jo-o (1502–1555) established the concept of wabi as central to grass hut–style tea. Wabi is often translated as “rustic,” but in a broader sense it indicates a deep and abiding appreciation of the sufficient. Jo-o trained in a variety of artistic disci-plines. However, it was his appreciation of classical literature that deepened his rustic aes-thetic. For Jo-o, connoisseurship and the exercise of taste entailed more than simply following the established canon. Jo-o actively sought out new utensils and incorporated found objects that reflected classical court culture of the 800s–1200s (Heian period). He valued the ability to perceive and savor both Chinese and Japanese modes of beauty and to combine them in novel ways. The following poem by the court poet Fujiwara Teika (1162–1241) is often used to describe Jo-o’s ideal of unadorned, melancholy beauty:
casting wide my gaze,
nor scarlet leaves:
a bayside hut of reeds
in the autumn dusk.
Sen Rikyu (1522–1591)
Another merchant, Sen Rikyu (1522–1591) was the most highly regarded of Jo-o’s many students. He began his studies at age nineteen while Jo-o was at the peak of his creative powers. Previously, Rikyu had studied the older formal (shoin)-style tea with another master. Throughout his life, Rikyu combined his practice of tea with the practice of Zen at Daitokuji temple. Rikyu served as tea master/cultural advisor to both Oda Nobunaga andToyotomi Hideyoshi, two of the “three unifiers” of modern Japan. Rikyu is characterized as a man of wabi, but his duties as tea master/cultural advisor required he be adept at both formal shoin and informal soan styles of tea.
The time of Nobunaga and Hideyoshi (1573–1615) is characterized as being a time of social dynamism, called gekokujo (those below overcoming those above). In the last decadeof Rikyu’s life, amid this political and cultural upheaval, he developed wabi tea to its most extreme limits. When asked to define wabi, Rikyu would quote a poem by Fujiwara Ietaka (1158–1237) suggesting spring’s emerging vigor:
to those who wait
only for flowers
show them spring
grass amid the snow
in a mountain village
In Rikyu’s minimalist wabi objects were stripped to their essential function, there by placing more importance on human interaction than the appreciation of art objects. Rikyu designed tearooms in which both space and light were severely reduced. Within these dim and narrow confines, Rikyu favored using contemporary calligraphy, a few modest flowers placed in a newly fashioned bamboo vase, and utensils of his own design. More radically, Rikyu brought common utilitarian objects into the tearoom for his guests’ appreciation, such as wooden well buckets (see image: Fresh water jar in the form of a wooden bucket, a work inspired by Rikyu’s taste). In the wider culture of tea, Chinese objects and especially those from the Ashikaga collection still held the most prestige. Rikyu sought to break with the backward-looking aesthetic of the ruling class by introducing familiar, locally madeobjects into the tearoom.
Over the years the rustic aesthetic has become mainstream, so that now it is difficult to appreciate the subversive qualities of Rikyu’s taste. Rikyu’s wabi is perhaps best expressed inthe tea bowls produced through his collaboration with the potter Chojiro. Known today as Raku (“pleasure” or “comfort”) ware, the bowls created by Chojiro then were called simply “wares of today” (ima yaki) or Rikyu-shaped tea bowls. Objects in the Raku style are hand sculpted, revealing the individual expression of the potter. The ware is covered with multiple coats of glaze, which results in a thick soft surface that after firing appears either red or black, depending on the minerals used in the glaze. Rikyu and Chojiro allowed form to follow function by designing the bowls specifically for the physical acts of making and drinking tea.
The simple unadorned surfaces of Raku tea bowls appear created by natural processes, like a stone worn smooth and hollow from the workings of water. The appeal of Raku lies in the immediacy of its low technology: hand built, formed of locally dug clay, quickly fired in small kilns. Moreover for Rikyu the appeal was its non-attachment to illustrious history or monetary value, at least initially. As ceramic scholar Richard Wilson has said, “These art-less wares seemed an inversion of the values invested in precious celedons [green glazedwares] and porcelains from China. For that reason alone Raku ware spoke.”
As Rikyu’s master Hideyoshi moved closer to unifying the country, he grew less tolerant of the spirit of social mobility (gekokujo). For reasons we may never fully know, Rikyu wasforced to commit ritual suicide under Hideyoshi’s order. The death of Rikyu ended the unique relationship of tea master/cultural advisor with government authorities. The later Tokugawa shoguns would not tolerate the appearance of anyone other than they as therightful rulers of Japan, even in the field of culture.