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.  


Kodai-ji Temple

by Takashi Murachi; Yusuke Shimizu

Kodai-ji temple is located in Higashiyama, Kyoto City. It was built around 1605 for Nene, who held the high position of Kitano Mandokoro. She was the wife of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who as Kanpaku was a chief advisor to the Emperor of the time.

Following the death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Kodai-ji was established as a place where Nene might keep the soul of her former husband in repose, and live the rest of her life in peace and contemplation as a female monk.Financial support for the temple was forthcoming from Tokugawa Ieyasu, who had fought the Toyotomi clan for overall control of the country in the Sekigagara War. It is believed that Ieyasu must have had tremendous respect for the love and devotion Hideyoshi and Nene had for each other, to make such a beautiful place a reality for Nene and the rest of the population of Japan.

Each season at the temple offers a different effect, especially in the spring and autumn. In the evening time, a special illumination exhibition is presented that offers the visitor a fantastic visual treat that will stay in your memory forever. Kodai-ji has held this special show during both the cherry blossom and red maple leaves seasons since 1994. About one thousand lamps in total, including those in the adjacent Entokuin Temple, are specially arranged. These lamps light up the blossoms, maple leaves and stone steps under the trees. In addition, there is a 25-meter fluorescent blue river of optic fibers that runs through the 1000 square meter front courtyard, providing a truly magical sight.Around the river there are stained glass decorations adorned with Japanese washi paper and wood lacquer ware which are produced in Narakawa Village, Nagano Prefecture.

When you walk through the inner garden, you will feel the stress from your daily life slip from your shoulders, because the chilly fresh air invigorates you with a special energy.The garden has two ponds which are laid out in such a way as to make a fine balance like the relationship between a loving couple. Perhaps this is a representation of the legacy of Hideyoshi and Nene.Hideyoshi was born the first son in a lower class agricultural farming family. Nene, on the other hand, was born to a higher class family. However, she was adopted by another family and got married at a young age.

Hideyoshi rose through the ranks of society to eventually serve a prestigious master, Oda Nobunaga. Nene noticed his pure spirit and way of life and married him. Although Hideyoshi was a samurai, he never killed another by the sword during his life, and it was said that he never even killed a mosquito that was biting him. Therefore, anyone could surely understand why Nene loved him so much.After the unification of Japan, the capital of Kyoto was where many magnificent architectural treasures were built during the Momoyama period (1573-1615). Most of these were commissioned by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. At this time, Hideyoshi grew to appreciate the fine arts, such as decorative interiors, and commissioned large wall and screen paintings in bright colors on gold backgrounds. He also loved makie (sprinkle pictures), decorated architectural pillars, frames, and furnishings. Metallic and gold powders were used for sprinkling on the surface of these fine Japanese art forms. One of which, ‘Kodai-ji makie’, named after Kodai-ji, is the largest existing work from the Momoyama period to the present time.

Nene owned a large number of lacquer ware pieces, including the black lacquer masterworks, which are the doors of the miniature shrine of Kodai-ji’s inner sanctuary. If you interested in such sophisticated fine Japanese arts, Kyoto National Museum is the place to go to see them.

* Admission ¥600(Adult) ¥500(Junior and high school student)

Open: from 9:00am-5:00pm

* Kyoto National Museum is across the street from Sanjusangendo on Shichijo Street. The museum was built by the Imperial Household in 1897 as a safe repository for artifacts from Kyoto’s temples and shrines and now houses over 2,000 Japanese artifacts from prehistoric times up to the modern era. The museum now also stages regular special exhibitions. Keihan Shichijo Station is the nearest train station to the museum and about a 5-10 minute walk. Taking a Kyoto city bus (No, 207 and 100) from Kyoto Station to Higashiyama Yasui is the easiest way to get there by road.

Tel: 075-541-1151