Japanese Tea Ceremony

Chanoyu ('hot water for tea'), called 'tea ceremony' in English, has been central to the Japanese aesthetic since the sixteenth century. It is essentially a social occasion based on the highly formalized preparation and serving of powdered green tea to a small number of guests.

Chinese Zen Buddhist monks drank tea as an aid to meditation and the practice was introduced to Japan with Buddhism in the sixth century. In Japan, tea drinking became a secular pastime popular with courtiers in the Heian period (794-1185). In the thirteenth century powdered green tea was introduced by the Zen monk, Eizon. From this time the military classes, devotees of Zen, became the most important patrons of a formal tea ceremony. The Ashikaga shogun Yoshimitsu (1358-1408) appointed Murata Shukō (1422-1502) as his teamaster and built a teahouse at Ginkakuji temple in Kyoto. Leading teamasters, such as Takeno Jōō (1502-55), became arbiters of 'tea taste'. Jōō taught Sen no Rikyū (1522-91), the greatest teamaster of all. He served the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) and formalized chanoyu into its final and present form. Furuta Oribe (1545-1615), who was also a potter, and Kobori Enshū (1579-1647) who designed gardens, were influential teamasters in the early Tokugawa period (1600-1868).

Chanoyu, like calligraphy and flower arrangement, is closely associated with Zen. It expresses the Japanese concept of wabi which finds beauty in the stark loneliness of nature and the simplicity of poverty. The host creates the harmonious mood, preparing the teahouse, garden, path, flower arrangement, scroll and utensils. Then he boils water, makes tea and serves his guests.

Rikyū's three great-grandsons each founded schools which still flourish today. The Urasenke school sponsored The British Museum's teahouse and regularly performs public tea ceremonies there.

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