Sen no Rikyu -The Greatest Tea Master

February 1, 2014

 Airi Kinoshita

What do you associate with the Japanese tea ceremony? Many people may come up with quietness or emphasized simplicity, but how many of them know that these ideas were actually introduced by Sen no Rikyu.  In fact, in the Muromachi period (1337~1573), the upper classes, including samurai and relations of the royal family, enjoyed tea ceremonies where expensive china for the tea cups was used and lots of guests were invited.  However, thanks to the revolutionary thinking of Sen no Rikyu, the Japanese tea ceremony became more refined in style.

 Who was Sen no Rikyu?

He was born in 1522, in what is today’s Osaka prefecture, as the son of a warehouse owner.  He started learning the way of tea at a young age, and by the time he was just nineteen, he had already met the great tea master Takeno Jo-o whose teachings would influence him tremendously throughout his life.  Late in his life, Sen no Rikyu was called to serve Oda Nobunaga, the most powerful general of that time.  After the death of the general, he was employed as a tea master by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who succeeded Nobunaga and controlled Japan.  Unfortunately, however, there was sometimes friction between Rikyu and Toyotomi, and this eventually led to Toyotomi forcing Rikyu to commit ritual suicide in 1591.     

 What did Rikyu search for to improve the style of the tea ceremony?

Sen no Rikyu and his teacher Takeno Jo-o set about trying to introduce the spirit of wabi-sabi into the tea ceremony.  Wabi–sabi is a traditional Japanese view of beauty, in which something simple, imperfect and transient is valued.  The new style of tea ceremony invented by Rikyu was known as wabi-cha, and became widespread and very popular.  The central idea of Rikyu’s new style of tea ceremony was to let guests feel as comfortable as possible, avoiding the use of strict rules and over-elaboration.

The room the wabi-cha style was held in was tiny compared with those used in other ceremony styles, and designed to allow natural light into the interior.  Furthermore, the garden that could be viewed from the room was also considered to be a part of the tea room, and therefore should be beautiful, well- maintained but quite natural.    

Hospitality in the tea ceremony

One word to explain the spirit of the wabi-cha style is “ich-go-ich-e”, meaning “this occasion and this meeting may come only once in a lifetime, therefore it should be highly valued”.  It is taken for granted that the host make the tea there and then, and prepare different sweets to enjoy with the tea for every ceremony, according to who is invited, what the guest would like, or the season, date and time the ceremony is held.  However, it is not only the food or drink that the host takes care over, but also the furniture, artworks and tea cups.  These are carefully selected to best suit each  invited guest.

Recently people may have become too busy to enjoy the tea ceremony, but the spirit of wabi- cha must not be forgotten.  If you are interested in Sen no Rikyu’ s beliefs, please try to highly value at least one occasion and one meeting in your life more than you might have done before reading this article.  

                             

A Visit to Hiei

by Airi Kinoshita

About 1200 years ago, when Emperor Kammu established Heian-kyō (the former name of Kyoto city) as the capital of Japan, Mt.Hiei in the northeast of the city was regarded as the only defect in the city‘s wealth of natural advantages. No one would come near to the wild mountain as it was rumored that demons and evil spirits were hanging out there, so Emperor Kammu ordered the building of Enryakuji temple to appease or expel these demons and strengthen Kyoto’s defenses. Northeast is believed to be an unlucky direction in the Shinto religion, which accounts for why people often built temples or shrines in the northeast to create barriers against anything evil.

Now, Mt.Hiei is no longer the horrible place that troubled Emperor Kammu so much, rather, it has become a popular tourist spot. Many hotels and restaurants have been built in neighboring areas, and there is a cable car and a ropeway service also available. You will find many options open to you on your visit, but I would like to introduce two that I think are quite special.

The Garden Museum


The first spot is The Garden Museum on Hiei. The museum grounds are designed using the artworks of French and Dutch impressionists like Monet, Renoir and Van Gogh for inspiration. Visitors will be welcomed by about 100,000 flowers of 1400 varieties including roses, lilacs, water lilies, daffodils and so on. One of the most popular gardens is the Water Lilies Garden, which was inspired by the artwork of Monet. Monet admired Japanese sense of beauty so much that he made a great Japanese style garden, including a lake with floating water lilies, around his residence, and drew several pictures of it. I am sure you will understand why this type of garden fascinated Monet so much when you visit here. Afterwards, when you got tired of walking, you can always stop in at Café de Paris and enjoy a drink from their selection of herb teas. Moreover, Maison de Fleur, a souvenir shop in the museum, not only sells French general goods or aroma oils but also provides workshops on how to make original herb soaps.

The Cafe de Paris


The second spot I feel is most worthy is Hiei-zan Enryakuji. I have already introduced the origins of the temple, but now it has become a far more visitor-friendly place. The temple welcomes visitors who lead busy lives and are in need of some peace and quiet, and allows them to experience zazen or shakyo. Zazen is a style of meditation done in a cross-legged position, and shakyo is the transcribing of sutras. Both require you to put all other thoughts out of your mind and concentrate on self-identification. In the clean, fresh air and nature of Mt.Hiei, you will be able to forget all that troubles you in daily life and feel as if you are reborn.

Enryakuji Temple

Hiei autumn colours