Japanese tea services create a ritual that renews

Japanese tea ceremony utensils usually feature the Five Elements in Taoism – water, earth, wood, fire and metal – as does this nine-piece metal set from the 19th-century Meiji period. The set achieved $13,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2020. Image courtesy of Mosaic Art & Antique and LiveAuctioneers

Our day-to-day world demands so much attention. Family, friends, work and community take all the time and energy we can give, and beyond. Focusing on ourselves and appreciating the natural world is less of a priority – at least that’s what we sometimes think. But what if taking time for ourselves involves nothing more than a ritual revolving around a cup of green tea? Can a simple brewing ceremony provide a revitalizing respite? A 400-year-old Japanese tea ceremony might be exactly what we need.

A Japanese reflow iron kettle earned $2,400 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2022. Image courtesy of Eastern Art Auction House and LiveAuctioneers

Japan was a warring nation through most of its early history. Emperors, shoguns and samurai kept the politics of war as state policy for centuries. Then in the 12th century, matcha tea arrived in Japan via China along trade routes. At first, the powdered green tea was used by Buddhist monks in training; its relatively high caffeine content kept them invigorated and alert through long days of meditation and reflection. Once the powerful and the influential embraced the beverage, they mounted increasingly elaborate and costly tea ceremonies to demonstrate their wealth and status. A gift of handmade tea utensils became the prize of choice for elites to bestow on favored retainers, and these pieces were cherished, collected and proudly displayed.

A handmade pottery Japanese tea ceremony set by Rokkaku Ayako, decorated with simple designs and colors, realized NT$250,000 (about $7,800) in August 2020. Image courtesy of Mu Chun Tang Auction Co, Ltd. and LiveAuctioneers

By the 15th century, the elaborate ceremonies were draining both economically and spiritually, and the Japanese were ready for an alternative. Sen no Rikyu, a Buddhist adherent well-versed in ancient tea rituals, created a simpler, more inward-looking tea ceremony called wabi-cha, which he thought could help lead almost anyone to the Zen state of enlightenment. It shouldn’t be just for the elite anymore, he reasoned. As time passed, the spare, sedate tea ceremony Sen no Rikyu developed became the center of Japanese culture, politics and religion.

To achieve a more complete Zen vision, however, the wabi-cha ceremony can be replaced by a fuller, highly-ritualized tea ceremony known as chado. This ceremony, performed by tea masters, takes about four hours, can accommodate up to 1,000 guests and involves no less than 19 separate tea utensils made from bamboo, clay, metal and ceramics. Each step of the tea ceremony can require decades for a master to learn, and every movement is anchored in the Four Philosophies of the tea ceremony: Harmony, Respect, Purity and Tranquility, with the most important being Harmony.

A circa-1960 travel poster from Northwest Orient Airlines showing the simplicity of the tea room sold in August 2020 for £130 (about $144) plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of Antikbar Original Vintage Posters and LiveAuctioneers

The smaller wabi-cha tea ceremony is centered on achieving a sense of balance, beginning with the overall setting. Walking to the teahouse past flowered gardens, koi ponds and streams emphasizes the harmony of the natural world that each visitor should contemplate and absorb.

A calligraphy scroll by Master Hongyi, painted in vermilion ink on paper damask, achieved $1,800 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2022. Image courtesy of Japan-Miyako-Collection-Art Auction Co. and LiveAuctioneers

Entering the tearoom without speaking, a guest first notices a kakejiku, a hand-painted hanging scroll, which sets the reverent tone for the ceremony to come. The scroll usually features calligraphy of a poem written specifically for the season, time of day or theme by a Buddhist monk or a tea master. Scenes of Japanese life or a nature scene are also featured and are always hung vertically on cloth or heavy paper that can be rolled and easily transported. Relevant decorative painted scrolls appearing at auction are typically works by prominent Japanese artists such as the 19th-century painter Kinsen Kishi or the early 20th-century artist Tomoyo Jinbo. Within the same foyer a small ceramic vase is set with a branch of flowers posed in its natural state, not formally arranged, to acknowledge the spiritual simplicity of nature each guest is encouraged to recognize.

‘Rain, Beauty and Hydrangea,’ a 1938 Tomoyo Jinbo woodblock print, sold for $600 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2021. Image courtesy of Ukiyoe Gallery Japanese Woodblock Prints and LiveAuctioneers

Once the scroll and the vase are admired, the guests enter the tearoom, which is just as minimalist and stark as the alcove entrance, with only a tatami mat of rice straw for each guest and the utensils for the tea ceremony arrayed in the middle of the room. During the ceremony, the host sits in the center of the room, surrounded by the tea utensils, and performs the ritual without assistance.

This traveling tea ceremony set from the middle of the 18th century, aka the Edo period, attained $600 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2019. Image courtesy of Thomaston Place Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

Once each guest has greeted the host with a bow, they in turn greet the other guests in the same way, without conversation, to demonstrate Respect, the second philosophy of the tea ceremony. Throughout the proceedings, the guests only converse about the beauty and craftsmanship of the tea, the utensils used in the ceremony and the scroll and flowers in the alcove. No other topics are considered in the interest of maintaining the respect of each guest. Everyone samples tea from the same vessel to show communion with each other and the host.

Purity is the third element of the tea ceremony, which is exemplified by the preparation of the beverage and the tools used for the purpose. The charcoal that heats the brazier and by extension the iron kettle for brewing the matcha tea is of a certain grade and is arranged in a very precise manner. Each cup is ritualistically cleansed with separate woven cloths – one to wash and one to dry – to reflect the purity of nature itself.

The main feature of a chado tea ceremony is the iron tea kettle known as a chagama. This example sold for €200 (about $213) plus the buyer’s premium in September 2019. Image courtesy of Carlo Bonte Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

All tea ceremony utensils are made from organic materials to represent the Five Elements in Taoism — water, earth, wood, fire and metal. Most pieces feature little or no flourishes, but those that are decorated speak to the idea of adding a pleasant reinforcement rather than to impress. Auctions tend to feature vintage pieces such as iron and bronze kettles in calligraphed wooden boxes to be presented as gifts as they once were during the Shogun period. Sometimes, individual utensils appear at auction, as such pieces are still given as gifts.

An eight-piece Japanese silver tea service realized $5,500 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2020. Image courtesy of Bohemia Auction & Appraisal and LiveAuctioneers

The overall experience of the tea ceremony is intended to imbue the guests with Tranquility, the fourth philosophy. The modern world should seemingly disappear while the ritual plays out. During the ceremony, guests may briefly step outside the tea house to appreciate the color, vibrancy and solitude of the natural surroundings that should also be appreciated in everyday life. Once they return to the tea house, the proceedings begin again. 

An eight-piece Japanese silver tea service realized $5,500 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2020. Image courtesy of Bohemia Auction & Appraisal and LiveAuctioneers

The Four Philosophies of the Japanese tea ceremony are inherent in the deliberate simplicity of its utensils and the minimalist setting that guests enjoy. You can opt for a four-hour chado ceremony, but if you prefer a wabi-cha with fewer than five guests, or perhaps something just for yourself, that works, too. The Four Philosophies of the tea ceremony can be honored and expressed in many ways, delivering a fulfilling ritual that heightens and renews personal well-being.