Handing Down Traditional Culture in Kyoto

January 21, 2016

by Hikari Isaka and Maya Ito

The tea ceremony (chanoyu) is one of many traditional Japanese arts and is often praised for its profound meaning. This art was spread throughout Japan by Sen-no-Rikyu in the middle of the 15th century and continues to be practiced by the Japanese to this day. Kyoto has many of the headquarters of the main schools of the tea ceremony. Today, we can learn how to do tea ceremony by taking lessons or by taking part in tea ceremonies that are held in many places. Kyoto has many places to experience tea and many of them are at famous tourist sites. They are not only held in temples, but also in shops around these complexes. It is easy for tourists to experience here.

The tea ceremony often takes place in a formal structure known as the teahouse. Its peculiar structure and atmosphere was developed centuries ago. Most teahouses are four-and-a-half mats in size — rather small and not so spacious. What is more, this size is standard for teahouses. There are no lights or furnishings. Therefore, we can hear the characteristic sounds of the tea ceremony naturally in this special space—the boiling of water and the whistle of the tea kettle. That is why the teahouse can heighten our feelings and we can enjoy the tea ceremony by appreciating its aural and visual effects.

The tea ceremony

The tea ceremony

Candies which served in the usucha ceremony

Candies served in the usucha ceremony

The tea ceremony is based on the brewing of powdered green (koicha) and a lighter tea (usucha) in a tea-ceremony room. Koicha and usucha are different not only in taste but also in the manner of preparation. At tea ceremonies in a traditional teahouse, visitors always enter the tea-ceremony room through a small door. There are three different points between koicha and usucha. At first, at the powdered green tea ceremony, guests eat a confection before drinking the thick and slightly bitter koicha. However, when drinking usucha, guests eat dry confections in the middle of the tea ceremony. Sweet confections are eaten to balance out the bitter flavor of the teas. At the tea ceremony, the confections used are based on the seasons. This makes the visitor happier. Secondly, koicha is usually made for three or four people at a time, therefore guests share the tea from the same teacup. Moreover, the powdered green tea is muddy and dark green in color. For a guest who drinks koicha for the first time, it may taste so bitter, but the more one drinks the more one learns to appreciate the taste of this thick tea. On the other hand, in the usucha ceremony, guests can drink tea by themselves. Thirdly, the implements used in the tea ceremony for these two teas are different. For koicha, people use a tea caddy. On the other hand, for usucha people use a jujube. When people make usucha they do not measure exactly but for koicha, people make exact measurements.

The yea ceremony

The tea ceremony

A Japanese cake in the  koicha ceremony

A Japanese cake in the koicha ceremony

On the 28th day of every month in Kyoto, many tea ceremonies are held throughout Kyoto as it is the memorial day for Sen-no-Rikyu. You can attend many tea ceremonies at subtemples on this day at Daitokuji Temple where Sen-no-Rikyu was a priest. Everybody should try the tea ceremony and enjoy it!

Sen no Rikyu -The Greatest Tea Master

 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.  


Japanese Aromatherapy: Kodo

by Rieko Tsubata

The birth of Japanese incense culture

There are three traditional artistic accomplishments in Japan: flower arrangement, tea ceremony and, least well-known in the West, the incense ceremony called kodo. Although the exquisite aromas of incense have wafted through our land for well over 1,400 years, kodo was first established as a refined Japanese art during the Muromachi period (1336-1573 AD). Born as a pastime of the upper class, kodo spread widely and then declined in the 19th century when Japan’s feudal system drew to an end, but recently it has enjoyed a popular revival and is spreading overseas. Let me, then, introduce you to the world of Japanese incense culture.

What is Kodo?

Concentrating intently, we enjoy the gently drifting scent of incense in a world of stillness. We appreciate its lovely perfume while observing certain formalized manners.
Generally, we do not light kodo incense directly. We place ash and solid fuel such as charcoal into a small censer bowl, and then rest a little mica plate upon them. Tiny chips of wood from aromatic trees are then heated atop the mica plate, so that when their scent settles over us it is smoke-free. The materials used for this incense can also include plants, shells, spices, and so on, which are usually imported from Asian and African countries.

In kodo there are games called kumikou. In one such game we compete with others to guess what kinds of incenses are included in a blended scent. While this can be challenging, it is more important to enjoy the aroma than to win or lose. Through these games we can also sense the elegance, the customs of other times, and the Japanese flavors redolent of the four seasons. We speak in kodo of “listening” to the incense, not “smelling” it, because we are not just perceiving it with our nose; we should feel the fragrance move our souls as if we were listening to the teachings of Buddhism.




538                                Incense was introduced in Japan from China with Buddhism.   

Aromatic trees happened to drift ashore in Japan.
Japanese people noticed pleasing scents when they burnt wood from these trees in their ovens, but did not know what they were. They offered the mysterious trees to the Imperial Court.


(Nara period)         Incense gradually came to be known among Japanese people. It was used for Buddhist rituals to drive out evil thoughts, or for purification.


(Heian period)  Many kinds of incenses were imported, so Japanese were able to make incenses which blended various species. However the incense culture was only for noblemen at this time. They would impregnate a kimono or their hair with perfume by burning incense. This was to signify their existence by its perfume, or to deaden bad odors when they could not bathe. In addition to these, there are many descriptions related to scents in dynastic literature, words and phrases which represent through scents the things of nature and scenes of the four seasons. Thus graceful   customs were formed.


(Kamakura period)    Incense culture also become popular among samurai. They used aromas before fighting in battles to calm themselves down, and to concentrate.


(Muromachi period) Japan’s own incense culture was established as a refined art. The desire for scents grew more and more strong. Japan succeeded in trading  with China, so high-quality varieties of incense were imported.


(Edo period)             Incense culture was spread among the commonalty. Games known as kumikou came into fashion.

How to enjoy incense

A wide selection of incenses is offered in shops these days. There are cones, coils, sticks, and powdery incense, as well as small sachet-like bags which are stuffed with aromatic ingredients. Moreover, the varieties of fragrances are abundant. Kyara, a kind of aromatic tree, is premium quality. There are also incenses which are created as images of the four seasons.
Kodo is a classic way to literally inspire scents, but you can also enjoy the natural perfumes of incense in your daily life. Use incense in your home or car to create an atmosphere in which to relax. Infuse your clothes with incense aromas when you store them in a closet. Impregnate writing paper with fragrance when you send a letter to a friend, and add a scent to your calling cards.

10 Virtues of Incense

1. Provides a transcendent sense of the exquisite
2. Purges your heart and body
3. Cleanses the unclean
4. Removes sleepiness
5. Mitigates loneliness
6. Comforts you in a busy time
7. Is never obstructive, even in abundance
8. Ample aroma from tiny quantites
9. Will not decay for a long time
10. Harmless even if used every day

The ancient Japanese used incense in their lives, and greatly enjoying it, they created a unique style that comes down to us as today’s kodo. Translating literally as “the way of incense” it is a path that leads us to a mysterious and pleasant world where we listen to scents. Although incense culture came to Japan from China, we established our own way, which differs from other Asian or European countries. It is elegant, artistic, and aesthetically refined, and now kodo is spreading to the West.

Today, the digitization of sights and sounds is surging ahead all over the world, but fragrances cannot be conveyed by media. I highly recommend that you feel the aromas of incense with your heart here in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan — or wherever you happen to be.