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.  


Sanjo Street

by Mirai Ikei

An Introduction to Sanjo Street

Sanjo Street is located in the centre of Kyoto City and stretches from Shinomiya in Yamashina-ku to Togetsukyo Bridge in the Arashiyama area. (Some people say that it runs from Shinomiya to Saga-Tenryuji.) The distance is about 20 km. There are lively roads and an arcade with lots of people as well as historic buildings and important cultural properties. All of these sites in Sanjo Street are very attractive and people have long been fascinated by them. We will introduce our special selection from the great spots.

The History

Sanjo Street is a very historic and interesting area of Kyoto.Let’s see what happened along this street.

Honnoji (relocated)

Honnoji Temple was the place where the famous general Nobunaga Oda [1534-82] was forced to take his own life. Do you know about the major historical event which is known as the ‘Honno-ji Incident’? Honnno-ji was known as the place where one of Nobunaga’s followers, Mitsuhide Akechi, betrayed his master. Originally, the temple was at a different place from today but Hideyoshi Toyotomi [1537-98] relocated it during the rebuilding of war-devastated Kyoto.

The Ikedaya Affair (Edo to Meiji period)

The Ikedaya Affair is one of the most famous incidents that occurred at the end of the Edo period. It was a stormy epoch. On 5th June 1864 (in the old calendar), ten members of a special group, called Shinsengumi (whose leader, Isamu Kondo, worked for the Tokugawa Shogunate), battled with twenty four warriors who were against the Shogunate. It resulted in the deaths of fifteen warriors.

The site of the Ikedaya Affair is located on the west side of Sanjo Kobashi Bridge, about 30 meters west from Sanjo Ohashi. The Ikedaya has been turned into a restaurant now but still we can clearly see the sword cut on one of the handrail’s decoration of Sanjo Ohashi Bridge.

Introducing popular spots along Sanjo Street.

It is not only an historically important place but also a very lively area today. We have some recommendations.

Benkei-ishi Stone

This is a hidden popular spot. There are a few famous episodes related to this stone. One is that it was thrown from Gojo Ohashi Bridge by a monk and warrior called Benkei. Another episode is that the stone was relocated to Oshu (today’s Iwate prefecture) after Benkei’s death. However, the stone had a voice and said that it wanted to return to Sanjo in Kyoto. At the same time, there was an epidemic of fever and a number of people died in the Sanjo area. At that time, the stone was returned to its original place, Sanjo-Teramachi, and the area was named ‘Benkei-Ishimachi’ town.

Benkei-ishi Stone


The Museum of Kyoto  (Kyoto Bunka Hakubutsukan)

The Museum of Kyoto

These are typical western-style buildings which were built in the Meiji period in Kyoto. In particular, Sanjo Street has many of these important buildings. The Museum of Kyoto is comprised of two buildings: one is a modern style building and the other was built with red brick. The red bricks were once used in the Bank of Japan’s Kyoto Branch. Popular and unique exhibitions take place every year on various themes. People enjoy the high quality of art in this traditional retro-looking building.


Nice arcade for bicycle riders

‘Sanjo Meiten Shotengai’ Arcade is an approximately 800-meter long arcade. It stretches from Horikawa-dori Street to Senbon-dori Street. There are a variety of shops such as sweet shops, fruit and vegetable shops, bars, restaurants and so on. There are seasonal events in the arcades; for example, a concert of Japanese traditional music in which people perform with shamisen, kokyu, and shakuhachi. It is a great experience to join one of these events.



Will you visit Sanjo Street?

We have introduced the faces of Sanjo Street, both fascinating and mysterious. All generations and all kinds of people can enjoy the street. And Sanjo Street has been an important street for people in Kyoto from past times. This is because the street has a special charm for us.